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by John Freeman Gill
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
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As railway depots go, Grand Central Terminal has long been friendly to foodies. With only three interruptions since the terminal opened in 1913, hungry travelers have been plied with mollusks in the venerable Oyster Bar, a lively subterranean grotto distinguished by its vaulted, Guastavino-tiled ceiling. Dining options in Grand Central multiplied after a sweeping renovation in 1998, and this spring the Danish restaurateur Claus Meyer opened Agern, a Nordic-inspired seasonal restaurant, in the former men’s smoking lounge. Mr. Meyer also planned to inaugurate an adjacent Nordic food court soon after.


Such a smorgasbord of appealing eateries would have been inconceivable to the New Yorkers who passed through the city’s early railway depots in the 19th century. By 1857, the city’s first railroad, the New York & Harlem, shared a station complex at Madison Square with the New York & New Haven Railroad. The complex, occupying the block from 26th to 27th Street between Fourth Avenue and Madison Avenue, had low-rise buildings along the crosstown streets with a shared rail yard in between. At the southeast corner of the joint station stood a whimsical three-story structure with crenellated parapets that gave it the look of a toy castle.


“The large three-story building on the north side was very likely a combined barn and office block,” according to Carl Condit’s 1980 book, The Port of New York. The barn was for horses, which alternated with steam locomotives in powering the rail cars.


But if the horses housed in that barn were well fed, it is unlikely that this utilitarian station offered much in the way of dining facilities for human travelers. In 1859, however, well-shod bipeds were given a high-class stable of their own with the opening of the white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel across Madison Square at 23rd Street (the site today of 200 Fifth Avenue, home of Eataly). The 500-room hostelry had a spacious dining room, which in 1865 overflowed with admirers eager to shake hands with the Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant. Other grand hotels with fine dining rooms followed, marching one by one up Broadway.


In the immediate vicinity of the Fourth Avenue depot, however, high-quality culinary pickings were slim. In 1877, six years after the station had been replaced by the first Grand Central Depot at 42nd Street, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide groused that Fourth Avenue above 23rd Street had suffered from “the malign influence of what was once the greatest railroad depot of the city.” The publication lamented “the strange infatuation which leads men to expect great results . . . from proximity to a large depot,” noting that “inferior hotels, cheap restaurants and low drinking saloons are the principal characteristics of this location, and have stamped an indelible stigma upon the neighborhood.”


The first Grand Central, a mansard-roofed, Second Empire extravaganza with three towers facing 42nd Street at Park Avenue, was built by the imperious railway magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt to combine facilities for three railroads. Although the ground floor contained restaurants, none captured the public’s imagination. One ardent defender of the depot even acknowledged in The New York Times that the lowly Pennsylvania Station in Jersey City had better food.


Still, a new business quarter gradually developed around the depot, replete with restaurants, saloons and hotels. By around 1880, the Park Avenue Oyster House, a raffish forebear of the Grand Central Oyster Bar, had popped up opposite the depot’s 42nd Street entrance, alongside a shop selling liquor and “segars.”


Travelers seeking a more refined dining experience could find it across 42nd Street at the Grand Union Hotel, an architectural echo of the aforementioned depot defined by its three towers and curving mansard roofs. An 1882 item in the Times noted that an “elegant restaurant, 75 feet square” had just been completed inside the hotel and that the “restaurant, café, lunch and wine rooms are supplied with the best at moderate prices.”


One block south, also on Park Avenue, stood the more distinguished Murray Hill Hotel. Built of granite, brick and brownstone, the hotel had two grand main-floor dining rooms, each about 110 by 55 feet. “They are most elegantly furnished,” the Times observed, “with carved oak chairs, upholstered in stamped leather, with Wilton carpets, silk velvet hangings . . . and the most exquisite frescoings.”


In 1902, the accidental explosion of dynamite in a subway tunnel under Park Avenue devastated both the Murray Hill and Grand Union Hotels, along with the 42nd Street façade of Grand Central. The Murray Hill “appeared as if it had been bombarded by big guns all night,” reported the Times, while the main dining room of the Grand Union was “a scene of wreck.”


During calmer times, the finest meal to be found within Grand Central Depot itself was probably the annual Christmas feast at the Railroad Branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association, located in the depot’s basement. “The fare is the best that the market affords,” the Times declared, “every kind of meat being provided, from mutton to venison.”


It wasn’t until the opening in 1910 of the city’s first Pennsylvania Station, the civic masterwork of architects McKim, Mead & White, that New York was given a railroad restaurant of genuine grandeur. After entering from Seventh Avenue, visitors passed through a loggia at the end of a commercial arcade. Hurried travelers could then continue down a great staircase into the colossal main waiting room. But those with time to enjoy a good meal had two immediate options. To the left was the Corinthian Room, a formal, 500-seat restaurant with grand arched windows, where tea was poured from fine silver beneath chandeliers and a coffered ceiling. To the right was a lunchroom with counter seating. Both rooms were lined with fluted pilasters and lit by windows overlooking interior courtyards.


The night the station opened, “the Corinthian Room and the café were mobbed and noisy as New Yorkers sampled the Pennsylvania Railroad’s famous cuisine,” according to Jill Jonnes’ 2007 book, Conquering Gotham.


In 1925, the restaurants were taken over by Savarins, Inc. The new menu in the formal dining room, featuring filet of sole, Long Island duckling and deep-dish peach pie, was not your ordinary eat-and-run railroad fare.


After closing during the Depression, the Savarin restaurant was remodeled in 1934 and reopened, in retro style, as the Corinthian Room, this time with a ladies’ lounge and a built-in bar. A cocktail hour with music was revived.


The Savarin had a good run, engendering memorable experiences across the decades. In 1938, a correspondent from The Austin Statesman discovered that if you ate breakfast in the restaurant at church-going time, you could hear “the grandest clangor of bells in America.” With traffic almost quiet outside and “few customers in the great, high-vaulted dining room,” he observed, “the waiters move about silently.” Then the bells began their calling: “Close, right under the tall windows. Far away toward Greenwich Village; far up in the direction of Central Park . . . . No planned and scored symphony is more musical.”


Years later, a Baltimore Sun writer recalled the Savarin restaurant as “a room staffed by imperious waiters in imperial surroundings that rivaled the Colony or Le Pavillon for panache.”


Fittingly, it was a restaurant worker who had the last word when Penn Station served what was more or less its Last Supper. As the first demolition crews took jackhammers to the granite slabs of the station’s exterior in October 1963, a Savarin counterman ruefully told a reporter, “This city’s got the right name—New York. Nothing ever gets old around here.”


John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf in Spring 2017

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