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2017 JBF Design Icon Award: Grand Central Oyster Bar

JBF Restaurant Design Committee

May 04, 2017

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The Oyster Bar has had many incarnations in its more than 100 years, but the restaurant we see today began in 1974 as the inspiration of Jerome Brody. Then at its nadir, and with New York City nearing bankruptcy, the Oyster Bar and Grand Central could only be described as seedy: colored and adhesive-backed plastic wrapped the columns, ceiling tiles lined walls, and the seafood theme was broadcast with fishing nets and plastic fish. Brody and his firm, Restaurant Associates, had engineered the most successful “theme” restaurants in New York, including the Four Seasons (with James Beard as consultant), La Fonda del Sol, and the Rainbow Room. After leaving the firm, Brody created Gallagher’s Steakhouse and was then approached by the MTA to develop the Oyster Bar.

Brody rethought the space, the menu, and the styles of service, replacing the uniform expanse of tables with distinct dining experiences drawn from a variety of New York City prototypes. The zig zag counters, modeled on high-density coffee shop dining, share a space with the actual 49-foot-long oyster bar. There is a take-out window facing the enormous Grand Central ramps (designed to accommodate baggage carts heading to the lower tracks), and a darkened, partitioned saloon. The central open bar area sports Saarinen chairs and tables, while the main dining area is a sea of red checkered tablecloths. One could assign decades to these innovations—’30s oyster bar, ’40s saloon, ’50s lunch counters, ’60s bar, ’70s dining room—to appreciate how Brody collaged a restaurant with a place for everyone.

This pastiche works because of the overarching (pun intended) design of the space: five bays of enormous tiled sail vaults and domes by the master architectural tiler Guastavino. The space, precisely the same size as the opulent waiting room above (now Vanderbilt Hall), acquires an intimacy and almost souk-like feel thanks to the defining presence of the Guastavino design. By saving, restoring, and adapting to these original structures, Brody not only successfully integrated his restaurant into the space as never before, but preserved the iconic image that everyone who has visited remembers.

In 1997 a fire badly damaged the restaurant and the tile vaulting, requiring the partial closing (and several weeks of complete shutdown) of the space. The result of the repair is preserved exactly as one sees it today, with the nautical light fixtures, lighted arches, wood panels, and counters intact. The ongoing upkeep and repair of the entire ceiling was completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the restaurant and Grand Central, with nearly every tile replaced with a matching new one.

Two years later, another change assured the restaurant’s continued life as a New York City fixture: its sale to 14 of the employees. Today three of those partners run the restaurant with an obvious sense of pride and acknowledgment of the responsibility they have to the public, to the design community, and to their own employees. Janet Poccia, Sandy Ingber, and Mohammed Lawal are the remarkable stewards of a remarkable icon in the New York—and national—dining scene. The Oyster Bar flourishes and remains a restaurant accommodating every stripe of diner and visitor.

—The JBF Restaurant Design Committee

Learn more about the 2017 James Beard Awards.