Travelogue: Part 3 — Adventures (and oysters) in New York City

The New Yorker cover featuring the Grand Central Oyster Bar.

Publisher’s note: After a pandemic hiatus, Nathaniel Brown of Edmonds is on another train trip adventure, and will share reports about his travels. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

An old man with long gray whiskers came through the cars selling popcorn, chewing gum and candy. “Hey!” said one of his customers. “I thought young boys were supposed to do your job.”  “I was a boy when this train started.” — On A Slow Train Through Arkansas, Thomas W. Jackson, 1903. 

[In New York] There is something about this ceaseless buzz, and hurry, and bustle, that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy, and saps from him all capacity to enjoy anything or take a strong interest in any matter whatever–a something which impels him to try to do everything, and yet permits him to do nothing. He is a boy in a candy-shop–could choose quickly if there were but one kind of candy, but is hopelessly undetermined in the midst of a hundred kinds. A stranger feels unsatisfied, here, a good part of the time.  – Mark Twain

What can possibly be said about New York that has not been said a million times before? That it boggles the mind, that it is noise and rush, that no one sees you or cares about you (until you stop and ask for help and they turn very friendly), that the streets are bustling at all times of day…? I confess to finding it crushing and overwhelming. Chicago, Boston, London – these feel so much more human and livable to me. I never get lost in London, I can’t get lost in the woods. In New York, I  get lost a hundred steps from the hotel door.

Amtrak once again decided that glimpses of the Promised Land were all that we deserved, and provided us a long stop just short of the city in order that we could meditate thoroughly on what the word “eternity” implies. At breakfast, we were eight minutes early — but close to three hours late by arrival. By the time we arrived and I made my way to the Algonquin despite a taxi driver who had never heard of it and spoke no known language, all the restaurants up and down the street were closed, and the Algonquin’s bar and restaurant were closed anyway, for renovations. And the Hotel Cat had retired for the night (see my earlier Travelogue recap here.)

The Algonquin lobby. The dining room is at the far back, the Round Table is against the far wall. (Nathaniel Brown photo)

But it was good to see the Algonquin again, a New York City-designated landmark, coming to life after the lockdowns. I must come back after renovations are finished for the magnificent French Onion Soup, the best I have ever had, enjoyed a few feet from the famous Round Table where for many years a group of authors, publicists and actors met almost every day – George S Kaufman, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, and Alexander Woollcott were all regulars.

Walls around the hotel are decorated with a wealth of Hirschfeld theatrical cartoons; if the name Hirschfeld rings only a distant bell, perhaps his cartoon on the album cover of the Columbia LP of the My Fair Lady original cast album will be familiar:

(Album cover, Columbia Records)

Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003) a New York Institution, is worth a diversion. Born  in St Louis, Missouri, Hirschfeld studied art in London and Paris. On returning to the U.S., his caricatures became almost as much a New York institution as the Empire State building. His cartoons depicting the personalities of various Broadway plays appeared in the New York Times theater pages as a sort of preview of semi-official recognition of any show worth seeing. Famously, after the birth of his daughter Nina, all of his cartoons contained her name hidden within drapes, fringes or cross-hatching of his drawings. When Hirschfeld omitted the name, the New York Times was deluged with letters expressing frustration, anger, dismay – until Hirschfeld admitted it was easier to go on hiding his Ninas than it was to answer all the letters.

But back to taxis – in Men in Black, Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) reveals that there are about 1,500 aliens on Earth, and most of them are hiding out  in Manhattan just trying to make a living. J asks “Cab drivers?” “No, not as many as you’d think!” But somehow fate dictates that they’re the ones I almost always manage to get.

But I get ahead of myself. Exiting the train in NYC onto what must surely be a long-enough platform to demand its own train into the station, I  found that all the elevators had been hidden, or removed, with nothing left but narrow escalators designed to make managing baggage as inconvenient and difficult as possible.  Trying to avoid hotel laundry prices, I  have lugged along two cases: one is full of my laptop and Walkman and things I need overnight; the other is my reserve supply of clean underwear, shirts, trousers, etc.

At any rate, trying to get up to street level on the escalator with bad legs and two suitcases, I got pulled backwards by one case, and fell, head downhill, on the escalator.  Note; those interested in trying the experiment should take care to fall feet downward, which would make getting up far less challenging and exciting. I  fell head downward, and in struggling to get up onto my feet, learned what laundry in a tumble dryer knows – you’re helpless! I advise against doing this.

Happily, someone stopped the escalator before the spin cycle started, and two very nice young policemen helped me to my feet, collected my bags, and were in every way helpful and solicitous. Nothing damaged but my dignity, I thanked them and made my way up yet another escalator with the help of two kind people who each took one of my bags, and finally emerged onto 8th Avenue – in pouring rain, feeling like George Smiley in John le Carré’s, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “Smiley was soaked to the skin and God as a punishment had removed all taxis from the face of London.” Thus assaulted by escalators and weather, my arrival at the dear old Algonquin Hotel was not quite what one might wish, even before going to bed with no dinner. But travel is travel, and the only thing is to laugh at your own sorry state (and at Amtrak) and roll with it. Worse things happen at sea.

The next day I  woke feeling that I had been a bit worked over by my do-it-yourself mugging, so I kept to my room except for walking out for a late lunch, then had a nice nap, followed by a taxi to Grand Central with a driver who spoke English and knew where Grand Central was (!), to dine at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant.

The restaurant’s website informs us that in 1913, Cornelius Vanderbilt selected the site for a restaurant he named the Oyster Bar. The restaurant’s business declined as rail travel declined in the ‘60s. But a new owner “preserved the famous name in a landmark space while creating a new seafood emporium that is now celebrated as the premier seafood restaurant in the United States and perhaps the world.” (Of this, more below.)  The original vaulted and tiled room was designed by Raphael Gustavino, and despite the vicissitudes of time, the room remains essentially what it was 109 years ago.

Now for essential matters, and time to reveal the Hidden Agenda of this trip, and every really good trip needs a theme: The Search for the Perfect Oyster Rockefeller.

Grand Central Oyster Bar (Nathaniel Brown photo)

I ordered Oysters Rockefeller and fried Ipswich clams. The latter were a salute to my late partner, Chris, whose family in Haverhill, Massachusetts considered it little short of treason and blasphemy to eat a clam from any other, lesser place. Sadly, the clams tasted like exactly like any other breaded and deep fried anything, and needed globs of tartar sauce to achieve any flavor at all, and that flavor unrelated to any self-respecting clam, let alone an Ipswich Clam. Disappointment!

And the oysters, you ask? The least worthy of the trip. No texture whatever, almost a thick fish smoothie poured over the oyster shells if such a thing can be imagined, and the whole production having about as much taste as it did texture. This aristocrat among seafood dishes deserves much better, and if recent examples are an indication, you’d be justified and wondering what the fuss is all about.  To find out, try the Oysters Rockefeller at our very own Charcoal, on Main. Let me stress that I am not in any way affiliated with that estimable eatery, and have not been bribed or promised free oysters, but am just very happy that we have such a place in Edmonds. Also Salt & Iron, and the two complement each other.

Final Oysters Rockefeller Score: Charcoal 3 – Others 0.

— By Nathaniel Brown

Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the US Cross-Country team in 1989.  He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden.  He coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2.  He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation.  He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service until retirement. 

  1. I loved reading this Nathaniel. This is the first time I have read one of your adventures. I enjoyed it so much that I went back and read many of your older postings. I especially enjoyed Chicago and London. You must have an enormous amount of patience to explore the country on Amtrak.

    Something tells me I need to go to Edmond’s Charcoal to try the Oyster Rockefeller!
    Thank-you for sharing your explorations…..

  2. Wish we were traveling in the “Big Apple” hummm, maybe in July/August. You have wetted my travel thirst!

  3. As I was reading your account of Oysters Rockefeller in N.Y., I thought why don’t you just eat them in Edmonds at Charcoal. Then the next sentence was yes go to Charcoal. They are good, and much easier trip.
    Thanks for letting us travel with you.

    1. Great write-up, Nathaniel. I have found that Scotty’s food truck (at 5 Corners) serves the best fried oysters and clams in town. It’s not a regular item on the their menu, but when they have them it’s always game on for me.

  4. Suzanne and Rob Corkran, Ozzie and I went to Charcoal’s last night just to try the Oysters Rockefeller on your recommendation. They were delicious! So was the rest of the meal. Nat, thank you for sharing your adventures with us here in Edmonds!

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