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. image

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.

BlackBook Staff Picks: Dining, Drinking, Shopping, & Staying

Here at BlackBook, we pay a lot of attention to where cool customers go out — bars, clubs, restaurants, shops, hotels, you name it. So why not flip the frame and let you see where we go out? Here’s a periodically updated, exhaustive list of hotspots currently favored by everyone at BlackBook, from the mighty bosses down to the humble interns, from the charming local lounges around the corner to the jet-setting temples of luxe living.

BLACKBOOK MEDIA CORP ● Chairman – Bob Hoff, Voyeur (LA) ● CEO – Ari Horowitz, W South Beach (Miami) ● Associate Publisher – Brett Wagner, Da Umberto (NYC) ● Director of Finance and Operations – Tim Umstead, Aquagrill (NYC) ● Corporate Counsel – Drew Patrick, El Ay Si (NYC) ● Executive Assistant – Bridgette Bek, Manhattan Inn (NYC)

EDITORIAL ● Creative Director – Jason Daniels, Morimoto (NYC) ● Vice President Content – Chris Mohney, This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef (NYC) ● Senior Editor – Nick Haramis, Freemans (NYC) ● Features Editor – Willa Paskin, The Sackett (NYC) ● Writer-at-Large – Alison Powell, Jean Philippe Patisserie (Las Vegas) ● Nightlife Correspondent – Steve Lewis, subMercer (NYC) ● Assistant Editors – Ben Barna, LeVack Block (Toronto), Cayte Grieve, Vince (NYC), Foster Ethan Kamer, Sel De Mer (NYC), Eiseley Tauginas, Maialino (NYC) ● Copy Editor – Michèle Filon, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink (Miami) ● Editorial Interns – Megan LaBruna, Crash Mansion (NYC), Averie Timm, Madiba (NYC), Hillary Weston, Les Halles (NYC), Annie Werner, DBGB (NYC), Ashley Simpson, Barcade (NYC), Michael Jordan, Destination Bar & Grill (NYC)

ART ● Art Director – Amy Steinhauser, Union Pool (NYC) ● Assistant Designer – Serra Semi, Five Points (NYC) ● Photography Assistant – Stephanie Swanicke, Provocateur (NYC) ● Freelance Designer – Krista Quick, Fornino (NYC)

FASHION & BEAUTY ● Fashion Editor – Christopher Campbell, Grand Sichuan International (NYC) ● Fashion Interns – Jillian K. Aurrichio, Greenhouse (NYC), Anabele Netter, Il Buco (NYC), Nicole Applewhite, Vanilla Bake Shop (NYC), Deanna Clevesy, Tao (NYC)

ADVERTISING ● Senior Account Executive – Dina Matar, Blue Duck Tavern (Washington, DC) ● Executive Director, BlackBook Access – Gregg Berger, Charles (NYC) ● Advertising Director – Michelle Koruda, Supper (NYC) ● Detroit Account Executives – Jeff Hannigan, The Lodge (Chicago), Kristen von Bernthal, Pukk (NYC) ● Midwest Account Executives – Susan Welter, Old Town Social (Chicago), Andrea Forrester, Tuman’s (Chicago) ● Southwest Account Executive – Molly Ballantine, The Tar Pit (LA) ● Northwest Account Executives – Catherine Hurley, Flora (Oakland), Shawn O’Meara, Nopalito (San Francisco)

MARKETING ● Marketing Manager – Julie Fabricant, Eponymy (NYC) ● Partnerships & Promotions Manager – Andrew Berman, Bozu (NYC) ● Interns – Adam Meshekow, Ronnybrook Milk Bar (NYC), Kayla Gambino, Grom (NYC), Marie Baginski, Stir (NYC)

DIGITAL ● Director of Development – Daniel Murphy, Standard (Miami) ● Developer – Bastian Kuberek, Greenhouse (NYC) ● Developer – Dan Simon, Hudson Terrace (NYC) ● Designer – Matt Strmiska, Uchi (Austin) ● Developer – Sam Withrow, Phone Booth (San Francisco) ● Quality Assurance Engineer – Sunde Johnson, Ginger’s Bar (NYC) ● Mobile Developer – Otto Toth, Alloro (NYC)

Industry Insiders: Alessandro Bandini, Scuderia’s Front Man

If you’ve ever visited New York Italian restaurant powerhouse Da Silvano, you’ve probably rubbed elbows and shared a laugh with manager Alessandro Bandini. The gregarious Florentine has put in his time in kitchens and dining rooms at Italian restos around the world, and he’s recently invested his wealth of knowledge in new project Scuderia. Situated across the street from Bar Pitti and Da Silvano on Sixth Avenue, the modern, fresh trattoria serves delectable Italian comfort food in an open, casual environment. We met with Bandini at the new spot and chatted about the menu’s influences, why women love Italian, and the legendary Da Silvano/Bar Pitti feud.

How did the idea for Scuderia come about? We started to think about the possibility of taking over this place because we thought that the location is great, and we have a beautiful sidewalk. The choice fell also because this is our turf. I’ve been working at Da Silvano for 11 years, and I know the people. So Leyla, Fabrizio, Silvano, and myself decided to make a young restaurant with moderate prices, Italian comfort food, to attract neighborhood people and young people in an economy like this. We wanted to compete with maybe Bar Pitti or Lupa, or Morandi, and do something more affordable and younger, that doesn’t have to compete with Silvano. The initial idea was always to do something for everybody. We planned to be open for breakfast from the beginning, but we haven’t done it yet because we want to first concentrate on lunch and then progressively add more and more. We’ve been averaging 200 people a day since we opened so we think it’s working.

Describe the clientele. Many, many ladies come here. Maybe 70%. The female customers love meatballs and pizza. They definitely love fish and the whole fishes like the branzino. We host a lot of large parties with many, many ladies. We love it.

Why do you think you get so many women? I don’t know. I think that the place is kind of — I don’t really like to use this adjective, but — sexy. Since it was designed partially by Leyla, it has a female touch. I also think it’s because of the pricing. On ladies night, the ladies may not want to spend too much. Maybe I’m wrong, but if you go to a nice restaurant, usually it’s the man that takes the tab.

The cuisine is Italian comfort food? We decided to concentrate on what we know about Italian food, which is based on simplicity, first with fresh ingredients, and using the staples like pizza, pasta, and sandwiches with a little twist. We’re using seasonal ingredients and concentrating on what people really like. I love the Ceviche au Scallops. We do some unusual pizza with bleu cheese, speck, and fig jam. In general, people come here and they eat richly.

What are the Florentine and Tuscan touches on the menu? The Tuscan touch is the use of olive oil and the use of game, rosemary, and fresh herbs. It’s also seen in the simplicity of the preparation. There is a fusion of Northern Italian bistro foods with an eye to the American palate. We have a burger made of brisket of beef, so it’s very fatty and juicy. We have staples, like pesto made like they do in Genoa with stringbeans and potatoes. We also have lasagna; a Bolognese dish.

Locally grown products as well? Yes. For instance, now ramps are in season; we use them. Fidela ferns are in season; we use them. Fava beans are in season; we use them. We’ve been serving, when it’s available, local Atlantic sardines, as opposed to sardines from Portugal. Whatever the market offers; we use it — especially in the daily specials.

What happened with your chef, Claudio Cristofoli? Claudio has been, like, a little disappointment because I thought he didn’t believe in the project as much as we tried to make him believe in the project because we have ideas of expansion. If this goes well we would like to replicate the brand. So he could have been part of something greater if he only was a little bit more patient. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

And do you have ideas for a replacement? We’re evaluating people now. I’m in charge of the back of the house. I try to work with the strong guys that I have, which are very good executors of our menu, which I almost completely designed with Silvano. So it’s not difficult. You don’t need really a metagalactic chef to execute our menu. We just need someone organized.

You have a long history with Silvano. How did you cross paths in the beginning? Silvano used to go to hotel school in Florence with my parents in the 60s. I came here for the first time in 1990 on vacation, and I met Silvano then. I worked for him for a week as a cashier, just to make a couple of extra bucks, and I really liked what he was doing as a host-chef. He inspired me. When I came back to the states in 1996, I started working as a waiter at Da Silvano to make some money. It’s an amazing place, with an amazing clientele — celebrities, beautiful people, beautiful customers — in a trattoria setting. That was the magic about Da Silvano. For 11 years, I worked as a manager there.

How are people in this neighborhood reacting to Scuderia? We have many, many people from the neighborhood. Many curious people wander over from Bar Pitti and Da Silvano. People really like the atmosphere. People also organize little private events in our mezzanine in the back. And now we have this beautiful sidewalk that is really wide and surrounded by trees. I think the place has all the cards. We have a full bar, and so, lots of potential. I think it’s going to be a promising, good summer

How does Scuderia change the neighborhood restaurant dynamic? Are you attracting clientele from Bar Pitti? I think that it would be pretentious to believe that we could steal customers from such an established place like Bar Pitti, but I have noticed Bar Pitti clients and customers coming here. I believe that this place is definitely more fun than Bar Pitti. The food is really good, and we are definitely improving. But Bar Pitti has an amazing amount of regulars that it has built over the years. I see people crossing the street when they have to wait too long. So, instead of having 50 people waiting at Bar Pitti, now they may have 25 because people come here. We are good enough, and we have a young, fun wait staff. The service has been defined as breezy, warm, and friendly. That’s the idea that we want to impose. The food is tasty, but the environment is really nice. The place is very airy with high ceilings.

Is it true that Giovanni Tognozzi from Bar Pitti chased you down 6th Avenue last year? Yeah, it’s true. And it’s funny, really. You should laugh at these things. And I did. I don’t hate Giovanni. I think that Giovanni is a great worker and, unfortunately, I got caught in between him and Silvano. They’ve had this feudal relationship, and it’s a little silly because they’re both making money off each other. You put two Italians — two Tuscans — ten feet away from each other, and it’s not an easy task to keep them calm and quiet. If you know Tuscan people, they’re very argumentative and opinionated, and that’s what created this feud. I got caught in between because I was Silvano’s manager and Giovanni first threw me out of the restaurant and told me I wasn’t welcome in 2004. Last year, I accidentally entered Bar Pitti. I saw an old friend I hadn’t seen in awhile, I went into the terrace, not even inside. I was talking to my friend for less than a minute. Then I left and I didn’t notice Giovanni, so he came after me, around the corner, chasing me. And he told me if I ever, ever tried that again he was gonna have someone shave my head. I wanted to see if you can really do that sort of thing in 2008, without having consequences. I called the police and I went in front of the restaurant and tried to stir the waters a little bit. I kept asking, “Can he do that?” Because I never ever hurt the guy in any way.

Any other stories of the feud? Giovanni threw Fabrizio [Sotti], our partner, out after he was spending tons of money at Bar Pitti. He used to go between Da Silvano and Bar Pitti all the time. Once he found out that Fabrizio would be a partner here with me and Silvano, he kicked him out. It was done ungracefully — he kicked him out in the middle of a meal. Giovanni is a little rough around the edges. He has a few problems. Every single employee at Bar Pitti is forbidden to go to Da Silvano, even in their private life. They will face consequences from Giovanni. They can’t wave or say hello to anyone at Da Silvano. On our side, this feud doesn’t exist. People who work here are free to do whatever they want. Giovanni really wants to keep the feud going. I know friends of Giovanni who are looking for jobs who found out that Silvano was involved at Scuderia, and cannot apply here because they would lose Giovanni’s friendship. I always ask, “Does he pay your rent?”

Who else does it right? I love Al di Là Trattoria in Park Slope. It’s a Venetian trattoria. The menu is small, but has exceptional staples. I like Blue Ribbon Sushi, Aquagrill, and almost anything in this neighborhood.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Favorite NYC Spots, Done Right

As if winning an Oscar and having an Apple wasn’t enough, Gwyneth Paltrow is trying to steal our thunder by listing her favorite New York restaurants in her latest GOOP newsletter. That’s what we do, Gwyneth! How would you like it if we started doing yoga? When she did it for L.A., we let it slide as a mid-life crisis/nervous breakdown, but now she strikes again. Problem is, she’s not very good at it. After the jump, a list of Gwyneth’s favorite NYC restaurants, followed by her vague reasons why. Luckily, you can click on each restaurant to find out what it’s really about.

Babbo – “One of the city’s best.” ● Cookshop – “It is abuzz with foodies who come to taste the ever-changing menu.” ● Balthazar – “I love this place.” ● Gramercy Tavern – “One of New York’s most popular restaurants for a reason.” ● HanGawi – “HanGawi is a vegetarian Korean place that I have been going to for years.” ● Kelley and Ping SoHo – “Another SoHo spot that has been there for ages.” ● Lupa – “I love to go for spaghetti aglio e olio.” ● Omen – “Omen has been there since long before SoHo was trendy.” ● Sushi Yasuda – “Best sushi in NYC, hands down.” ● Tartine – “A very quaint, tiny French café on a perfect West Village corner.” ● Market Table – “I just recently discovered Market Table and I adore it.” ● BLT Fish Shack – “This is one of my most frequented spots.” ● 15 East – “One of my faves.” ● Pearl Oyster Bar – “Oh, how I love Pearl Oyster Bar.” ● Angelica Kitchen – “East Village granola heaven.” ● Momofuku Ssam and Noodle Bar – “These places became two of NYC’s hottest spots in a very short time. ” ● Aquagrill – “One of my regular spots.” ● Otto – ” A great place to bring kids.”