I thought, by finally dining at The Famous Oyster Bar, I might crack this mystery of a restaurant, which has dumbfounded me for 25 years. Who owns it? How have they managed to hang on to this prime piece of real estate (54th Street and Seventh Avenue) for more than 50 years? Do they own the building? What's their secret? I have been able to uncover little on my own, because it seems that no one has ever written the story of the longstanding restaurant, in either newspaper or guidebook form.
But I left discovering only that the place has been owned by the same Greek family since 1959 and has always been in the same location. There are no framed reviews or stories on the walls that would have told me more. And the waitresses are not forthcoming.
After digging through newspaper archives and finding nothing about the Famous Oyster Bar prior to the 1980s (the results of health inspections, mainly), I begin to doubt the joint's story. Maybe it didn't open in 1959. Since the idea of it's being a "famous" restaurant is obviously a fantasy, maybe the owners also made up the founding date. The only think dissuading me from this theory are the neon signs, the only thing about the Oyster Bar that does look like it's been there since 1959.
I'll get to the bottom of this one if it's the last thing I do. In the meantime, here's my Eater column:
Who Goes There? The Famous Oyster Bar
This year, the Grand Central Oyster Bar has collected pallets of publicity in connection to its 100th anniversary. Meanwhile, the restaurant that calls itselfThe Famous Oyster Bar, which has been sitting on the same Midtown corner for more than half a century, continues its habit of attracting near zero notice decade after decade.
Having lived in New York for some time, I usually enter long-standing restaurants with some basic knowledge of their history and reputation. But The Famous Oyster Bar has stumped me for 20 years. I've often paused outside it to admire the classic postwar neon signs screaming "Oyster Bar" and "Sea Food." But I've never known anyone who ate there; never read a review of the place; never found it written up in any New York food guides, past or present. I've often wondered where they got the chutzpah to call themselves The Famous Oyster Bar (certainly, that wasn't the joint's original name), when the Grand Central is, by any measure, galactically more celebrated.
I have no doubt that many a tourist wanders into the strategically placed restaurant under the misapprehension that they are in the Grand Central Oyster Bar. And you do get mainly tourists here, most of them seemingly happening upon the place by chance. Judging by their unfamiliarity with the surroundings and the menu, there were few second-timers in attendance the night I recently dined there. The joint does get some local traffic, however; a couple of theatre professional were talking business at one table. And one guy at the bar didn't look like he was going anywhere.
With the South Street Seaport institution Carmine's having shuttered in 2010, The Famous Oyster Bar can safely lay claim to the most kitschy nautical decor in the city. A life preserver reading "Oyster Bar" hangs on the wall. There's a Titanic model under glass. Sea shells adorn the ceiling and there's a maritime mural along one wall. The menu is replete with seafood. It's the kind of place that still does Oysters Rockefeller and Lobster Newberg. Prices are typically Times Square: that is, expensive. Seafood is pricey, of course. But this isn't good seafood. The oysters were passable, but the clams were rubbery. And the soft shells crabs only acceptable. On the plus side, the service was unflaggingly friendly and attentive.
I couldn't find out much more about the history of the joint, except this: it has been run by the same Greek family since opening in 1959, and has always been at the same location. According to Internet records, the owner is one Angelo Agnonostopoulo. Finally, I have to point out that, for a place that goes by the name The Famous Oyster Bar, it's odd that they had only two selections: Blue Point and Wellfleet. The restaurant also has no raw bar. So, technically speaking, it's not only not famous, it's also not an oyster bar.
Nice neon, though.
—Brooks of Sheffield