29 June 2013

Lost City Asks "Who Goes to The Famous Oyster Bar?"

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


Unknown said...

I remember it from the mid 1960s so the 1959 founding rings true.

But for unsurpassed kitschy nautical decor you need to head to Lenny's Clam Bar in Howard Beach. That is unless they've changed decorators.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous. Can't wait for the mystery to unfold.

Are there other older businesses on the street? Maybe the people there are a source.....

Any local neighborhood groups like we have downtown through GVSHP?

How about the local Community Board? Or is that cheating?

Isn't there a Greek Orthodox Church nearby? Just sayin'.....

Anonymous said...

Three out of five stars on Yelp. There seem to be quite a few bad and good reviews, which all balance out in the middle. The impression I got is that the restaurant is inconsistent, good some days and not so good other days.


James and Karla Murray said...

We interviewed the long-time manager (21 years) of the Famous Oyster Bar for our book "New York Nights" and it has indeed been open since 1959. It has been operated by the same family since it opened (passed down from father to daughter) as the manager is an old family friend. The neon sign is original as well as much of the interior of the restaurant. They do not own the building but are tenants and told us that they rely mainly on tourism for their customer base. Hope this helps. James & Karla Murray

Anonymous said...

Jim and Karla--Saw your presentation at the library when your new book came out. Great information and photos.

Love it: "New York Nights".

Anonymous said...

i always wondered the same thing. ii worked across the street from it for 6 years and that place was always empty.

Unknown said...

Were you able to find more information about the place? It seemed clean enough when I tried it before. But the health reports, mainly the lack of it, makes me have second thoughts if I should go back there to give it another try.


scoutabout said...

Heard it's been sold. Anyone know anything else?

Wini Dini said...

Heard it was sold. As well as they are trying to acquire the building next to it or at least it's air rights.

Mitch said...

I learned from JVNY today that this has closed. Evidently it wasn't sold, but the owner's daughter took over the building.

Mitch said...

Link: http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/2014/01/famous-oyster-bar.html