Our Grand Central Terminal Guide
Where to eat, shop, marvel, have a cocktail, play a round of tennis, and shoot a film—all while rushing to make the 6:12.
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Grand Central Terminal may be in New York City, but it really is our domain. City residents never pay much mind to the beautiful Beaux-Arts building unless they have to take a trip to the northern suburbs. We Westchester commuters scuff our shoes daily on the terminal’s Tennessee marble floors.
Still, we don’t always take the time to appreciate the smart design, the impressive engineering, the meticulous planning that goes into keeping the transportation hub humming. Often, because we’re running for a train. But, before we pop our earbuds in and sit on a comfy Metro-North seat, we should take a moment to soak it all in. After all, it’s one of the greatest buildings in New York—at least according to New York magazine, which gathered a panel of experts in early 2011 to name the best New York City buildings of all time. “Grand Central creates a new type,” Barry Bergdoll, chief curator in the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, told the magazine. “It’s really an indoor urban room that’s absolutely stunning.”
If that wasn’t enough, within its walls there are retail stores brimming with worthy last-minute gifts, gourmet goodies at every turn, a cocktail lounge that looks like it was transported from the piazzas of Florence, and even a tennis court. Here, we present our commuter’s guide to getting the most out of Grand Central. At the very least, it’ll give you another reason to feel superior to those Long Islanders, who have to come into the City via the hellish subterranean maze that is the current Penn Station.
Stop for a Drink Before You Go
Taking in the hustle and bustle from above the crowds is recommended every now and then—ideally, with a cool cocktail. At the following spots, the drinks are inviting, the bar menus tempting, and the location just right.
Cipriani Dolci, home to one of the best Bellinis in New York
(212) 973-0999; cipriani.com
Thanks to its location, overlooking the Main Concourse and within steps of the street, Cipriani wins the award for constantly packing the house. To its credit, the restaurant, which looks particularly attractive in the early-evening light, is unpretentious and welcoming with gracious bartenders (Hello Miguel!) quick to pour you the signature Bellini, a light cocktail of white peach purée and Italian Prosecco ($13.95). Bonus points for the thin, salty, house-made crackers, which will no doubt inspire another round.
Photo by Jerry Milani
Marcelo has mixed drinks at the Oyster Bar for more than four decades
(212) 490-6650; oysterbarny.com
Tourists rule the roost in the Oyster Bar’s main dining room, which is why, instead, you need to saddle up to the bar, where off-duty Metro-North conductors and regular Joes sit at the unassuming counter under gorgeous Gustavino tiles. It’s in this traditional setting that bartender Marcelo, who’s been shaking and serving for 47 years, can make any kind of drink you want—though he prefers the straight-up, old-fashioned kind. In other words, go for the classic martini made with three parts gin, one part dry vermouth, and an olive (starting at $9).
The Campbell Apartment
(212) 953-0409; hospitalityholdings.com
Despite the many entrances and exits the average commuter makes in and out of Grand Central, The Campbell Apartment remains a secluded treasure few know about. Tucked away on the balcony level (the elevators are near the Oyster Bar on the southwest ramp), the wood-heavy, high-ceilinged room—once the posh private office of early-20th-century railroad tycoon John W. Campbell—is a sophisticated portal to another world, complete with Florentine touches and a bar that screams “Olde New York.” Sampling the Prohibition Punch (Appleton Estate V/X rum, Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, passion fruit juice, cranberry juice, fresh lemon juice, Möet & Chandon Champagne, $19) is all you need to call it a night.
Photo by Benjamin Hill Photography
Though semi-hidden, the grandeur of the Campbell Apartment is worth seeking out
Photo courtesy of Battman Photography
The vibe at Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. is surprisingly relaxed.
Michael Jordan’s The Steak house N.Y.C.
(212) 655-2300; michaeljordansnyc.com
Michael Jordan’s is more of a beer and wine kind of place. There are no specialty cocktails, though brown drinks such as Scotch on the rocks and bourbon tend to be popular. But you can get the good stuff: everything from Johnnie Walker Black ($11) to 25-year-old Macallan ($75 per glass) is offered at the bar.
Beer Table Pantry
(212) 922-0008; btpantry.com
Prefer to take your spirits to go? There’s a rotating selection of microbrews at Beer Table Pantry, where growlers are sold (and refilled) alongside a myriad of interesting bottles. Unfortunately, you can’t taste the brews—no liquor license—but you will get solid suggestions from the well-versed staff on everything from Brooklyn Brewery to our own hometown fave, Captain Lawrence.
NOTE: If you’d rather have a drink of the caffeinated kind, find your way to the Graybar Passage for Joe the Art of Coffee (212-661-8580; joetheartofcoffee.com), which is often touted as brewing one of the best cups in
New York City and often has lines snaking out the door.
— Jeanne Muchnick
Tip: DON’T Meet at the Clock
The gleaming clock that tops the Main Concourse’s central information booth was designed to be the perfect meet-up spot. You can see it from wherever you are. Yet hang around long enough, and you’ll see people making endless laps around the booth, looking for their loved ones. Why? The booth is so big, you can’t see around to the other side. No matter how early you are, you’ll have the nagging feeling that whomever you’re meeting is waiting around the curve of the booth just out of sight, and you’ll start doing your own laps. Our tip: either choose a different meeting spot (the Station Master’s Office is a good one), or be more specific when you make your plans. As for us, we’ll be on the north side of the information booth, facing the escalators to the MetLife Building.
Grand Central has an abundance of food porn: the ginormous sandwiches; the array of comforting soups; the ready-for-their-close-up, meticulously decorated baked goods—and that’s just on the bottom level. The Grand Central Market, on the main floor, also teases with crusty loaves of doughy wonder and golden array of cheese rounds. There are a lot of choices, which is why—tough job, we know—we nibbled and tasted and evaluated and edited it all down for you. After all, you have a train to catch. Here, the five items you must try when you’re looking for a quick bite.
Photo courtesy of Murray’s Cheese
Murray’s Cheese is not just for Greenwich Villagers.
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar
Grand Central Market
(212) 922-1540; murrayscheese.com
It’s a tough call at Murray’s, where gorgeously shaped rounds beckon from the shelves and sampling is encouraged. For a crowd-pleaser that’s great on its own or alongside almonds and dried fruit, try the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar ($22.99 a pound) in all its nutty, caramelized glory. Add a crusty Tom Cat baguette—referred to as “the little black dress” of breads—and some fancy olive oil from Oliviers & Co (Graybar Passage 212-973-1472; oliviersandco.com) for dipping, and you’ve got the makings for dinner. Now, for the real test: Can you make it to Westchester without breaking them open?
Pumpkin Corn Bisque Soup
Lower Dining Concourse
(212) 687-5511; dishestogo.com
Sure, we love the oversized combo sandwiches on Jerusalem bagels that, at $11.50 each, are pressed hot and easily shareable. But, when you don’t feel like spending a lot, yet want a nice-sized nosh, this vegetarian soup, in small ($4.75), medium ($5.75), or large ($6.75) sizes, hits the spot. The pumpkin has a definite kick. The corn adds meaty consistency. And the French bread that comes on the side is perfect for sopping every last drop.
Dulce de Leche Crêpe
Lower Dining Concourse
Though the indulgent collection of colorful gelatos at Ciao Bella is tempting, nothing beats the sweet perfume of syrupy South American caramel sauce paired with rich vanilla gelato and topped with cinnamon ($6.75). It’s the ultimate sugar rush—and a sure-fire way to ensure you stay awake on the ride home.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Bakery
Magnolia Bakery piles whipped vanilla frosting on its red velvet cupcakes.
Red Velvet Cupcake
Lower Dining Concourse
There’s no way you can walk past the richly frosted cakes that line Magnolia’s shelves without stopping to take a quick look-see. While most everything here is classic Americana with roots that scream Rockwell, we love the red velvet cupcake for its sheer beauty and deliciously festive flavor—like yellow cake with a kiss of chocolate. (Its banana pudding comes in a close second.) Yes, we all agree the bakery is not as good as the original downtown, but it’s pretty darn close, pretty darn good, and something your family will thank you for.
Bayou Beast Pizza
Lower Dining Concourse
(212) 557-7992; twoboots.com
This masterful ode to New Orleans features a crackly crust topped with barbeque shrimp, crawfish, andouille, jalapeños, mozzarella, and a tangy tomato sauce—enough to make one slice ($4) into a meal. Just be prepared for a train debate over the pizzeria’s eccentric combinations. Sure, we like the Larry Tate (spinach, plum tomatoes, and fresh garlic on a white pie) as well as The Dude (Cajun bacon cheeseburger pie with tasso, andouille, ground beef, cheddar, and mozzarella). But it’s the originality of the Bayou—plus the feeling that we’re sitting in the French Quarter as opposed to the lower level of Grand Central—that gives this homage to Louisiana its spicy edge.
Eli Zabar’s Bread and Pastry
Grand Central Market
(866) 354-3547; elizabar.com
Macarons are the new cupcakes, though close behind are thick, square, homemade marshmallows. Eli Zabar’s Bread & Pastry, which opened in the space formerly leased by Corrado Bread and Pastry (in the Market on the main floor) takes the cake (pardon the pun) when it comes to these two sweet treats. The French macarons are huge—the size of a small child’s fist (three inches across!)—and come in flavors like vanilla, chocolate, coffee, raspberry, caramel, blueberry, and pistachio ($3.50 each). You can also get them in a box of seven or 12 ($6.95; $12.95). House-made marshmallows are $4.95/4 oz.
Use this map to get around the terminal.
Browse, Buy, and Brag
Most people don’t consider Grand Central a shopping mall, but it is; there are more than 100 retail establishments operating in the terminal. That doesn’t include the annual holiday fair, which brings in another 70-plus vendors in November and December. Here are four stores that are not to be missed—and one that almost can’t be.
Pylones’s candy-colored offerings
(212) 867-0969; pylones-usa.com
This outpost of a French retail chain will have you chuckling at everyday objects. Cheese graters are given heads and arms and become ladies wearing A-line dresses ($24 to $32), staplers come in the shape of funny-looking chickens ($8), and kitchen whisks are turned upside-down and into “giant” squids ($20).
Photo by M.K. Wong
Sweet-smelling soaps at Cursive New York
Cursive New York
(212) 867-5550; cursivenewyork.com
Letter-writing may be a dying art, but it’s still an art. At least it is at this tiny boutique filled with fine papers, letterpressed cards, and handmade stamps that’ll make you want to trade your iPad for an ink pad. Here’s where you can find things you won’t see in any Westchester mall, like a free-standing, sustainably harvested birch recipe book with letterpressed recipe cards ($34). But the shop is not just for ink-stained wretches: you’ll also find great-smelling soaps (love the vegetable-oil-derived Savon de Marseille liquid soap for $28), ceramic vases, candles imported from Italy, and other gifty items.
New York Transit Museum Gallery and Store
To get to the Transit Museum, you have to go all the way to Brooklyn. To get to the gift shop, though, you only need to head to Grand Central. There, you’ll find the New York City subway map and its unmistakable icons emblazoned on everything from magnets ($3) to mugs ($12) to T-shirts ($20) and even rain boots ($38). Also for sale: mosaic artwork inspired by the tiles in subway stations ($44 and up). For kids, there are plenty of model trains.
The gleaming new Apple store
Kidding Around Toys
42nd Street Passage
(212) 972-8697; kiddingaround.us
Forget video games and toys that make obnoxious noise. The playthings at Kidding Around try to engage kids’ low-tech imaginations. Toys have an international bent, such as the Haba Lotta and Friends dolls ($40), which come with names like Lotta and Fay Finja. But you can also find Schleich’s popular animal figurines ($3 to $20), Zibits robots ($15 and up), and towering Citiblocs block sets ($18).
And you may have heard about a certain genius-staffed retail chain setting up shop in the Main Concourse this past December. Yes, Virginia, there is an Apple in Grand Central (212-284-1800; apple.com/retail/grandcentral). Sure, the products offered are no different than those you can find all over the place, including The Westchester—but this one is a sight to behold. It takes up 23,000 square feet on the concourse’s northern and eastern balconies. Thankfully, Apple didn’t try to set up a translucent cube in the beautiful Beaux Arts space, like the company did outside FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue. But it is slightly odd to see the glowing Apple logo mingling among Grand Central’s marble walls.
Grand Central: By the Numbers
You think dividing the amount of time you have to run to your train by your average running velocity is the only calculation happening at Grand Central? Here are some other numbers to be aware of.
Run These Errands Before You Run for the Train
Grand Central can be a godsend for multitaskers who want to commute and tackle their to-do lists at the same time—or for procrastinators who leave everything to the last minute.
Commuters can now ask: “Tennis, anyone?”
Play a Round of Tennis
Vanderbilt Tennis Club
(212) 599-6500; vanderbilttennisclub.com
Sure, you have time for a quick set or two of tennis before you get home. Didn’t know there was a court inside the Terminal? Actually, there have been courts in the property since the ’60s, but the last one—operated by Bedford neighbor Donald Trump—closed in 2009. Tennis fans and commuters had nothing to do but sit tight until last year, when the Vanderbilt Tennis Club opened in the same spot. But the cool location—light comes in from the top of those beautiful arched windows—comes at a premium: court time costs $90 to $210 per hour (and good times book fast). Racket busted? Fix it or get a new one downstairs at Grand Central Racquet (45th Street Passage 212-292-8851; grandcentralracquet.com).
Shine Your Shoes
Eddie’s Shoe Repair
You can get your shoes shined in most every corner of the Terminal, but we recommend Eddie’s, because, if you feel a bit sheepish about sitting up in those big chairs for everyone to see (and we do), Eddie’s is tucked in an out-of-the-way section of the Biltmore Passage. Shines are just $4 ($5 to $6 for boots), and the shop also specializes in repairs and dyeing.
Buy Flowers for Your Sweetie
Biltmore Passage & Lower Level
(212) 697-5090; dahlia-nyc.com
This charming flower stand started selling blooms at some upscale food markets—Dean & DeLuca, Fairway, and Gourmet Garage—before branching out on its own with locations in Grand Central and Rockefeller Center. Better yet, the bouquets aren’t going to bankrupt you: Zagat named Dahlia one of the “Top 50 Bangs for the Buck” in New York City.
Dahlia: the best blooms for the buck.
Upgrade Your Glasses
Grand Central Optical
(212) 599-1221; grandcentraloptical.com
Waiting for a train? Kill two birds with one stone by getting new frames before you depart. Grand Central Optical keeps lots of lenses onsite, and new glasses can be made in as little as a half-hour (and contact lenses even faster). Then you’ll be able to actually see where you’re going on your drive home from the station.
Get a Quick Haircut
You may not have noticed this salon, tucked between counters selling bagels and beverages in the Shuttle Passage. But ascend the flight of stairs between the two and you can get a quick blowout before the big meeting. Services include haircuts, color, waxing, straightening, and even manicures, pedicures, and facials. And, lucky for you, walk-ins are accepted.
Pick Up Your Favorite Magazine
42nd Street Passage, Shuttle Passage, and Lower Level
Left your subscription copy at home? Look for a copy of Westchester Magazine on Hudson News’s shelves.
Errand tip: The ornate, antique-looking letterboxes aren’t just for show. Though they’re not the bulky, blue boxes we’re used to, the USPS does collect mail from these locations, so feel free to bring your bills and birthday cards to the terminal.
Q&A: The Informant
Audrey Johnson’s photo by Patrick Cashin
We’re giving you most of the information you’ll need to get through Grand Central. For the rest, there’s Audrey Johnson-Gordon, who’s been a customer service representative there for nearly 23 years. We asked her about life in the information booth.
What’s the number one question you’re most often asked? How to get out of the building. Since the place is so big, and there are so many different exits, visitors come in one way and get turned around. A lot of times, people ask me where the ticket booth is—it’s right in front of the information booth. Or they’ll ask me how to get downstairs. They just don’t see where the stairs are.
What do you need to be a good customer service rep? A sense of humor. We have the Apple store here now, and, when people come looking for it, we say, ‘Oh, do they sell apples?’ And when they say, ‘No, the Mac store,’ we say, ‘McIntosh apples?’ Some people are too serious for that, but you can pick them out.
What’s your favorite thing to eat in Grand Central? Oh, I do like Mendy’s downstairs. I like their tuna.
Have you seen any celebrities walk by the booth? I have seen Charles Oakley from the New York Knicks. We’ve seen Tom Hanks, Diana Ross, and Beyoncé. The Kardashian sisters were here—I didn’t see them myself, but other people did.
What’s one of the most memorable things you’ve gotten to witness? There was a young lady who worked in the MetLife building, and her boyfriend wanted to propose. Quite a few of us knew about it. We took a banner that said, ‘Will You Marry Me?’ and draped it over the Northeast Balcony. We also had people post, ‘’Will You Marry Me?’ on one of the information boards, where we usually announce train delays. The message flashed as she was coming down the stairs—and she was so angry! She said no! I guess it was because everybody knew but her. But she did eventually say yes. They were married in 2010.
We’ve heard that there’s a staircase inside the information booth. Is that true? Yes. It goes down to the lower level, to the information booth down there.
What’s the best thing about working in Grand Central? There’s always something going on. There’s a squash tournament going on right now; they’ve had boxing matches. There are always giveaways and promotions—we’ve gotten cookies, pies, breakfasts. And you’re always meeting new people. Most people are pleasant.
Is there a downside? The marble floors. They’re hard on your feet and knees.