It is said that Diamond Jim Brady, the wealthy gastronome and frequent guest of New York’s greatest restaurants, began all of his meals with a helping of three to six dozen oysters. Legend has it that he was especially fond of the plump, flavorful Lynnhaven oyster, harvested from its namesake river in Virginia. Diamond Jim was not alone in his love for the majestic mollusk. His fellow New Yorkers gulped oysters like they were going out of style. Rockaways, Blue Points, Saddle Rocks and East Rivers were the most popular and readily available among the local New York species and the citizenry slurped them by the millions. Yes, oysters were truly plentiful in New York and New Jersey in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From the 1840’s until Prohibition the finest restaurants of New York such as Delmonico’s, Louis Sherry’s, Astor House, The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Maison Doree and Rector’s, catered to an elite clientele that could afford to pay great sums for the most extravagant multi-course meals, the likes of which had not been seen since the notorious orgies of Rome. Stalwarts of industry and finance like Astor, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Rockefeller, and Carnegie were among the privileged few who could partake of delicacies that were unknown to the masses, like the “Alligator Pear” (avocado). Most of these sublime repasts began with oysters and fine wine, often champagne, according to the menus that I have collected from the era. It is obvious when reviewing these menus that the “bodacious bivalve” was much appreciated by New York’s elite and was considered a delicacy to be served at the most exclusive affairs. This would not have been unusual, as millions of oysters came through New York Harbor during the glory days, which lasted from about 1820 until 1910. After that time period, oysters coming from New York bays, rivers and marshes found themselves in a death spiral, due to over-harvesting and pollution. It is true that the Grand Central Oyster Bar opened in 1913, but most of the oysters it sold came from outside of New York.
What makes the oyster different among delicacies is that its abundance in New York and other coastal areas rendered it accessible to the “teeming masses”. Oysters were so prolific that Ellis Island, the most famous site of immigration landings in the U.S., was known as Oyster Island until 1839.
Oysters were abundant and cheap in the 19th century and oyster stands and carts, along with “oyster cellars” were found throughout New York City. The man who founded the finest, most upscale of these establishments, was Thomas Downing, an African-American whose parents were slaves. If location is the key to success, Thomas Downing ensured his when he opened Downing’s Oyster House in 1825 on the corner of Wall and Broad Streets. His clientele comprised the most influential and wealthiest businessmen in all of New York City and his decor was plush and opulent, providing great comfort along with the most succulent of oysters. The average New Yorker had as much if not greater access to oysters than the wealthy, the more run-down oyster cellars and outdoor oyster stands (both of which the wealthy would have shunned), were far more prevalent than the upscale oyster houses. Oysters were cheap and available, making it a universal dish that crossed social and economic borders.
Another house of historical significance was owned by an immigrant, “Billy The Oysterman”. William T. Ockendorf opened an oyster stand on Wooster and West 3rd Streets around 1906. A sawdust covered “dive” followed, with oysters selling for a penny a piece, and customers discarding oyster shells on the floor. “Billy” became a very successful restaurateur opening several cellars in Manhattan and making his “Billy The Oysterman” a celebrity destination and a New York institution by the 1930’s. Having survived Prohibition, “Billy” could not get past other financial woes and closed its doors by 1953.
As the oyster declined steadily, so did the oyster house. Fortunately for all of us, Grand Central Oyster Bar survives and thrives, serving busy travelers and locals from all walks of life.