Not so long ago in the sixties and seventies New York City in its collective dementia nearly destroyed its own soul. An urge toward self-destruction, both willful and negligent, wracked the city. The muggers ruled Brooklyn, the Bronx burned and Manhattan became little to write home about let alone make a home except for the unimaginably rich. Otherwise the wealthy and philistine favored Westchester: An apartment overlooking Central Park in the East Nineties would sell for a song.
And yet, when unchecked development combined with fiscal collapse to destroy Penn Station and allow Grand Central to descend into squalor and near desuetude, the Oyster Bar beneath somehow endured. The big complex of counters, bars and tables got a little dank and very shabby but nothing too dire. The list of oysters, if not then long, remained the most comprehensive in the city, the woody barroom poured strong drinks and the storied Guastavino tiles reflected subterranean electric light over the vaulted dining room. It was, and is, a magical space below a magical railroad station.
The food there once was grand, at least compared to what you might find at the majority of restaurants in most American cities. Deals were done and fortunes made. The moguls long ago moved on but boisterous crowds still fill the vaults, especially at lunchtime and right after work.
The Oyster Bar is expensive, even by the exalted standard of New York, and if most of the food is lousy, the overpriced oysters are good. Even the fabled pan roasts (pick oyster or clam) can come saturated by salt to the point of causing actual pain. The fish from the long menu seldom appears cooked with care; while the wine list is endless and impressive, the better bottles require a second loan. Service, particularly in that beautiful bar off the counter zone, is brusque at best but usually inhabits a scale running from irritated to insulting or hostile.
Not that all is bad, and not that you should not go. They stock a lot of craft beers on tap and still serve free snacks in the bar, the drinks remain generous and the place is pristine. It is, however, an institution of weird juxtapositions. The serpenting countertops let the place down; its overarching elegance deserves better than formica; no marble nor zinc for your dishes here, and the oyster bar itself looks cheap.
You go, of course, for the oysters, a selection of dozens each day from all over the world. They always are fresh, and if, for example, the ones from Rhode Island are not (quite) as pristine as when pulled from the pond and shucked overhead at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, they remain quite good. Do not expect to banter with your shucker or earn a baker’s dozen at the bar and try not to consider the price, but suspend disbelief and go, down under the soaring lobby and into the past, of power brokers, extravagant space and a time when New York was the world.