New York City – thousands of bars and restaurants dot the island, catering to both hard working locals and tourists alike. Grand Central Terminal is one of the world’s busiest and most famous train stations. The terminal itself holds many secrets, from a hidden train car for presidents to a chamber where you can hear someone talk from 20 feet away! It also holds a secret saloon! One that you would never know is there, unless you walk right into it.
Hundreds of trains and thousands of passengers that pass through the terminal each day are served by dozens of shops and restaurants inside the long, winding passages. One of the most famous is the Oyster Bar restaurant. Known for fresh seafood, the restaurant is a popular place to dine in the city and can even been seen in the opening credits of Saturday Night Live.
The main entrance to the Oyster Bar Restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, New York City
The Oyster Bar opened along with the terminal, itself in 1913.
But, hidden off to the side is a little known New York secret… the Oyster Bar contains a separate bar/dining area known as the Oyster Bar Saloon.
Inside the dimly lit Oyster Bar Saloon
I had never heard of the place, but a co-worker who frequents Grand Central discovered it and invited me along for a trip.
The entrance is located along the back side wall of the Oyster Bar restaurant.
To find it, you must enter the main Oyster Bar, located atop the ramp to the dining concourse. Once inside, make an immediate right and walk all the way to the side wall. Then, make a left and the door will be located a few feet in front of you to the right. A simple sign marked “Saloon” behind a row of tables with a gold door, marks the way. Don’t be scared, you will be walking right through the main restaurant full of diners.
Upon arriving inside, a hostess will greet you and seat you. The place is very popular during their 4:30 – 7pm Happy Hour (Monday through Wednesday), where beers go for as low as $4 and oysters for $1.25. That’s when we arrived and the place was nearly packed. The Oyster Bar and the Oyster Bar Saloon were both closed for several months, recently for cleaning and renovation. Both reopened in March and judging by the crowd inside, people are finding it once again.
While the Oyster Bar features the same design curves and lights as Grand Central Terminal, the Oyster Bar Saloon features dark red wallpaper, wood paneling, and dim lights. It’s actually like stepping back into the 1970’s. I was almost expecting to see people smoking their Lucky Strikes. Fortunately, New York banned smoking almost a decade ago.
We were seated at a table in the middle of the busy restaurant. The place was nearly packed. The bar, which I guess could seat around three dozen, was full and there were only a couple of open tables. There wasn’t a line, but had we gotten there a few minutes later, we would have had to wait.
The massive menu.
As soon as you sit at the table, the waiter is right there, handing you a giant 8 ½ x 14 menu that’s quite overwhelming. There are well over a hundred items to order, with seafood making up most of the menu. For those who don’t care for seafood, there’s a small assortment of salads, burgers, and kids meals. The menu is the same as what you will find in the main Oyster Bar.
The server was back in mere minutes and we ordered drinks. Most draft beers run from $6-$8, which is about a dollar more than most New York bars, but on par with what you’ll find at one of the city’s train stations.
There is so much to choose from, we both needed a few more minutes, but was ready by the time the server returned.
I went with the Jumbo Lump Maryland Crab Cakes and even though the place was packed, they arrived in about 10 minutes. The plate featured two large crab cakes, fries, and a saucer of marinara type dipping sauce.
The Maryland Crab Cakes. Gordon Ramsay would approve!
These may have been the best crab cakes I’ve ever had! Absolutely succulent! The cakes themselves were full of Maryland crab with a hint of carrots and some other vegetable. This was no imitation crab – this was real and you could tell by the very fresh taste. I was nearly full after eating both, but still had my fries. I never thought marinara sauce would work with crab cakes, but it’s the perfect companion!
It was well worth $27!
The only bad part is the layout of the seating. Our table was really small and our two meals, took up most of the room. There was an assortment of condiments on the table including ketchup, hot sauce, and sea salt. There’s not a lot of room to move around though, let alone store your bag and coat. I was on the side nearest to the aisle by the bar, and was constantly getting bumped by both servers and other customers.
Being in New York City though, they turn tables around here, fast! As soon as group gets up, a server immediately goes over and removes the plates, while another sets up fresh plates, linen, and napkins. Tables do not stay empty for long during the afternoon rush.
The servers here are well trained and were right on it as soon as my water, beer, or plate was empty. And they were extremely knowledgeable about that giant menu!
By the time we finished our meals, it was around 8pm, and since Happy Hour was over the place started to quickly clear out. We decided to move to the long L shaped bar for a few more and to check the place out.
The other secret staircase entrance…
…leads to this plain gold door.
To the left of the bar is a white staircase that leads to a second little known entrance/exit. At the top, a non-discreet gold door leads to a side entrance to the subway and a couple of stores, one of which is a Rite-Aid. While the door is marked with a small sign, it blends in so well — I can say that I’ve walked down that corridor dozens of times, and never noticed it.
Another odd feature of the restaurant is the restrooms. They are definitely worth a look. Just past the secret stairway, a door leads to a waiting room with chairs, and two doors. One marked with a baseball glove for the men’s room and the other marked with a pair of leather lips for the ladies room. People were hanging out in a waiting area, just sitting there between the doors. Not sure if they were waiting for someone in the can, but it had the feeling of a 70’s doctor’s office.
Last call for the bar is at 9pm. We got one more drink as the place really started to shut down at 9:30. We paid and walked back through the main Oyster Bar to exit.
Interestingly, while the Oyster Bar serves alcohol, to get to an actual bar, you need to enter the Saloon. The main restaurant consists of long while community tables and has always been designed that way. So, while the famous Oyster Bar experience gives you the feelings of the early 20th century, the Oyster Bar Saloon fast forwards a few decades later to the 1970’s. Either way – you win with some of the freshest seafood in Manhattan!
Name: Oyster Bar Saloon
What: hidden bar/restaurant
Where: Grand Central Terminal, New York City
Cross streets: 42nd Street & Park Avenue
Subway connections: 4-5-6-7-S and Long Island Railroad
Hours: Monday – Saturday 11:30am – 9:30pm, closed Sunday
Price range: a little more than most NYC restaurants
All the way to the back and to the left in the main Oyster Bar restaurant, lies the Oyster Bar Saloon.
JERSEY JOE RECOMMENDS
What a neat place to discover! The food is great and the ambiance is fun. It kind of feels like you’re part of a secret club when visiting this place. It does feel a little odd walking right through the Oyster Bar restaurant, while people are dining to find that hidden door, but that makes it part of the fun!
I’ll definitely be back and would happily take both friends and out of town visitors. The prices are a little more than what you would pay at a normal NYC restaurant, but you’re paying for fresh seafood and the location. The beers are about one to two dollars more.
Just be forewarned, it can get a little packed during Happy Hour, and there could be a wait. Go around 7:30pm, after it’s over, for a better chance at a seat and less of a crowd. They will seat you until 9pm.
Image credit – Victoria Pickering