In Search of New York’s Lost Oyster Houses
New York does not bury its past; New York erases its past daily. Gone is Dakota Stables; gone is the Paterson Silks store; gone is the Corn Exchange; gone is Astroland; gone is the original Yankee Stadium; gone is the Fulton St. Fish Market, at least as it was. This is a city that never sleeps because it is obsessed with the present, entranced by the future, and only intermittently, if ever, considerate of the past. The loss of each of these landmarks was fairly well publicized and, in every case, a great blow to New York’s character, its history, its je nais se quoi. But, I’d like to add another almost unheralded, almost forgotten, almost ignored icon to the list of New York’s great and gone institutions and edifices: the lowly oyster house.
Thanks to Mark Kurlansky’s 2006 book The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, the oyster houses of yore have recently resurged in the public consciousness. If you’re not familiar – and especially if you’re a New Yorker – you need to know how entwined the history of the city of New York is with its oysters. When the Dutch arrived at the island that would become Manhattan, the estuary of the lower Hudson River contained, according to Kurlansky, “fully half of the world’s oysters.” Native people ate the succulent bivalves by the bushel and left massive middens of oyster shells that still survive today. Dig deep enough into the substrata of the city and there’s a chance that you’ll strike one of these buried mementos of gluttony and shellfish.
As New York was founded and subsequently grew, its dependence on–not to mention lust for–oysters grew with it. The New York oystermen came to dominate the worldwide oyster market, shipping unfathomable tons of the crusty mollusks North, South, East, and West, not to mention onto Manhattan itself. By 1842, about $6 million worth of oysters was being sold to New Yorkers annually. That same year, the Earl of Carlisle, visiting New York, commented “everyone seems to eat oysters all day long.” It was in this economic environment that the classic New York oyster house was born. Dimly lit, dingy, smelly, reeking of beer and piss and foulness, often located in the crudest and most cramped of basements, the oyster houses of nineteenth century New York were base, bustling, and hedonistic.
More importantly, they were great equalizers. Men from all classes descended into these cellars to slurp down oysters until their stomachs quit. Commoners tucked into oyster pie, oyster stew, baked oysters, along side Charles Dickens and other notables of the day. These were humble, egalitarian, vibrant, gregarious places. But, they were not to last. By the late eighteen hundreds, rampant pollution had so damaged New York’s oyster beds that even the most optimistic lover of the shellfish had to concede that New York, as a producer of oysters, was on its way out. In 1927, the last bed closed and with its passing came, too, the passing of New York’s craze with the oyster. History has taken its course and, in the years since New York’s oyster obsession faded away, oysters have followed the trajectory of lobsters–once a common food for everyone, they are now a rarified luxury for the elite. Though once mostly slung in dingy dens of iniquity, today’s oysters are carefully peddled in upscale restaurants.
That the oyster has become an elite delicacy strikes me as a shame. Beside the sheer romanticism of the bawdy oyster houses of old, it seems to me that oysters, of all foods, deserve more mystery and excitement than a fine dining restaurant can elicit. Is there a more amorous food, a food more worthy of adventure, of risk, of a blessedly non-rarified dining environment, than an oyster? I yearned for the Dickensian oyster cellars and so I set out to find out if, after all these years, there were still any vestiges of the sodden oyster houses of old.
A whirlwind tour of some of New York’s most well known oyster bars–Docks, Pearl, Aquagrill, and The Mermaid–was first on my schedule. I did not expect to find the spirit I was looking for in these establishments, but wanted to see what the current scene had to offer. So, I stopped by the following restaurants one evening to assess their offerings, décor, and atmosphere. Docks Oyster Bar was the epitome of the upper-crust seafood establishment. A wide open dining room, polished bar, and gorgeous wood floor set the scene for middle-management gluttony. The art-deco ceiling overlooked the multi-tiered dining room and a sumptuous raw bar. Oysters were market price. It was lovely in a not-quite-top-tier sense, but an oyster house it was not. Pearl Oyster Bar, a West Village landmark, was bustling when I arrived in the evening, and packed to the gills. The décor was white on white and the seating was cramped. Oysters were market price and delicious. I spotted their famous lobster roll, but did not sample it.
Aquagrill simply stunned with the variety of oysters it sources. The restaurant offers 25-30 types daily and, on its website, it provides a running list of the 200 varieties of oysters that it has served in the past. Prices vary, but are generally between 2 and 3 dollars per oyster. The dining room was dimly lit and warm. The raw bar was massive. The crowd was polished and well-heeled. The Mermaid Oyster Bar glistened, with a pristinely polished bar, white paint and bright, bright lights. The oyster selection was excellent, with there being about fifteen selections, more or less evenly split from each coast. Pricing was in the 2-3 dollar range. There was no sign of Zach Braff, the restaurant’s famous investor, but high quality shellfish was certainly in abundance. All lovely restaurants, but none of them was an oyster house.
The next morning, I stopped by my local seafood store in Queens. Though not a restaurant, this, I felt, might actually be the closest approximation to the original houses: filthy, smelly, wet, and cramped. The proprietor nodded as I entered and strolled around the shop. Fish, squid, and octopus were on ice, cadaverous. I headed over to a platter of crabs. They had been stripped of their shells, laying the pink flesh and neon yellow roe open to the air. The crabs’ insides were alien, full of feelers and flanges and bizarre feathery bits. I grew a little queasy and crossed over to the oysters. There they were: a tray of delicious, craggy bivalves, bursting with the flavor of the open ocean, their hearts still beating, their livers still functioning, their primitive senses still pulsing away. There is something totally animalistic about eating an oyster, but in the best sense. You are subsuming the oyster into yourself, assimilating something that is, yes, still alive, but only just enough that it signifies something fresh and right and adventurous—the open ocean, the musk of the sea, the primal aqueous environment from which we emerged.
To eat an oyster is to enact a kind of symbolism so potent that it has manifested itself physically. There in your hand is a coarse, studded shell cupping a smooth, buttery and briny little sliver of pink flesh. You put it to your lips and suck. I bought one of the oysters and watched as the proprietor shucked it before handing it over. People edged past me, nearly elbowing it out of my hands, but I steadied myself and slurped it down while standing in the seafood-y muck coating the floor. Delicious, but not a New York oyster from a New York oyster house. I knew, however, where I might find one—the Grand Central Oyster Bar, the oldest (nearly) continually operating oyster bar in New York.
Walking into Grand Central Oyster Bar, echoes of the old New York oyster scene were evident despite all efforts to scrub them away. You are very conscious of being deep underground and the lights reflecting off the dramatically arched and tiled ceilings give what I imagine is the appropriate vibe. But this is very much an upscale eatery. The Grand Central Oyster Bar opened in 1913, along with the rest of Grand Central Terminal. It pumped out oysters until 1972, when famous restaurateur Jerome Brody bought Grand Central and transformed it into a world class seafood restaurant. Today, mindful viewers will spot Grand Central Oyster Bar in the opening credits for Saturday Night Live. I spoke to Sandy Ingber, executive chef, partner, and 20 year employee of the restaurant, to ascertain whether there was any trace of the days of yore remaining at the restaurant.
Mr. Ingber was polite, professional, and charming, reeling off stunning figures about how many oysters Grand Central sells in a day–5,000, for your information–and speaking freely about the restaurant’s history. Unfortunately, it was immediately evident that I would not find much of the old spirit left in Grand Central. The restaurant purchases 90% of its oysters directly from farms in the US or Canada. Occasionally, they ship from Mexico. In the summer, they even get oysters from New Zealand. When I asked Mr. Ingber if Grand Central made any effort to pay tribute to or maintain its history or the history of oysters in New York, his answer was a surprised and decided no. Grand Central is a fantastic establishment, to be sure, and a stunning little piece of history, but an oyster house it is not. I left with Sandy’s recommendation for his favorite oysters—wild belon from Maine—and I was off to an establishment I had been told might better fit my criteria for an old school oyster house.
I stepped into Salt Bar on the Lower East Side and instantly felt that I had finally hit upon what I was looking for—thick wood everything. Thick wood bar, thick wood chairs, thick wood tables, and an evocative (if very interior decorator-y) collection of pots and pans hanging on the wall. I could imagine Dickens scrabbling for oysters with the riff raff in there. I sat down and the woman behind the bar greeted me and cheerfully began discussing the establishment. Salt Bar, it seemed, sold $1 Blue Points to entice the neighborhood drinkers. I liked the sound of that, so I ordered an oyster. The shucker carefully prepared my bivalve and slid it across the bar to me on a round, creamy white plate. I took the shell in my hand, squirted lemon liberally over the feisty little creature, and sucked it into my mouth. Fresh. Briny. Tangy. Prepared as simply as possible, and not a white table cloth in sight. There was a very faux dinginess to the joint, but I felt that I had found my approximation. Here was a dark, rambunctious, unpretentious pub squeezed into a side street on lower Manhattan that shucked oysters by the boatload and sold them cheaply. I smiled. An oyster house in New York, or as close an approximation as I was going to find.
New York has always burned its historical bridges and the oyster houses of old are no exception. The past rolls over, the future goes on, and New York pulls itself a bit further from the sea that birthed it. Luckily, there are still facsimiles to be found and, sitting there in the dimly lit Salt Bar, still savoring an oyster that had cost me less than a subway ride, I felt that I had come close. One can eat great oysters in New York and one can eat them cheaply, with gusto and without pretension. I recommend that you do so.