Pearl Oyster Bar
18 Cornelia St
New York, NY 10014, USA
The Michelin Guide is probably the most celebrated restaurant guide in the world. Chefs spend years training and perfecting their art in the hopes of achieving a single star, let alone the 3 stars that denote the pinnacle of culinary achievement. While Michelin-starred restaurants are recognized and revered the world over, there are many lesser ratings that they hand out – of which the most interesting to me is the Bib Gourmand. “Good food at moderate prices”, think of it as Michelin’s value, or QPR award. I’ll be honest – i’m not really all that interested in 2 and 3 star restaurants anymore. To quote Scott Bryan of Veritas fame, “they play with their food too much”. Plus, I don’t care much for atmosphere and service. Don’t get me wrong, secure me a reservation to the Fat Duck, or El Bulli, and i’ll try it based on curiosity alone. I can appreciate good atmosphere, and obviously service must fit the establishment, but in general, i’d rather put my money towards exceptional food. Bib Gourmand winners interest me. It tells me they are serving up great food at decent prices, and things like flatwear and lighting be damned. Sign me up.
In the middle of NYC’s Greenwich Village, lies a consistent Bib Gourmand winner, Pearl Oyster Bar. Just up the street from Murray’s Cheese Shop, this shop quietly opened in 1997, and based on exceptional demand, expanded in 2003. It is a slice of East Coast Americana – classic coastal ingredients treated simply and elegantly. While they carry a variety of dishes you’d expect from an East Coast eatery; chowder, oyster rolls, fish, to fried clams, they are most famous for their Lobster Roll. In fact, Pearl Oyster Bar is credited with making the Lobster Roll trendy again. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but anywhere that could get people to start eating rich, fatty foods in the diet crazed late 90’s is a great place in my opinion.
Not taking any reservations, the queue for Pearl Oyster Bar usually starts 20-30 minutes before they open. Having been turned away twice, I decided to lurk around the Village, shopping and dining, while waiting for them to reopen for dinner service. Showing up 20 minutes before they opened placed me 25th in line – something that concerned me but needed not to. With the expansion, there is plenty of room for everyone. Though the long queue outside tells me that not everyone was so lucky. I especially feel for the people first in line – so close, yet having to wait for a freshly seated diner to finish their meal before being seated themselves.
Having a similar layout to Swan’s Oyster Bar in San Francisco, an institution well worth visiting in itself, I sat at the counter with several friends to be at the centre of the action. Recognizing us from being rejected twice, the staff was kind, and sympathetic to our cause. A great selection of beers are available for us to toast our success at securing a seat.
Service was friendly, yet perfunctory throughout . No time for small talk. They were swamped, they always are, and the lineup outside says “order quick, eat efficiently, enjoy, and please leave”. I have no complaints about this – if i wanted a leisurely 2 hour meal, I’d go somewhere else.
The whole purpose of the visit is to eat the lobster roll. Our orders are quickly taken, and I get some time to sit back and watch the action in the kitchen – working fast and furious – they churn out endless orders of fish, chowder, and of course, lobster rolls.
The lobster roll is a massive endeavor, and served at “market price”. On this day, that was $28. It consisted of the tail, and meat from both claws, and is accompanied by a massive amount of shoestring fries, and some green for plating. The roll itself is a classic, buttery soft white roll. Stuffed inside is a fresh, tender, extremely flavourful lobster, mixed with a great mayo, and seasoned just right. Now, i know many people have argued that these lobster rolls are no different than what you can eat in Maine, or Massachusetts, but to me, the difference is we’re in NYC. Reputation or not, this is a great lobster roll. The fries are excellent as well, though on this day, a bit underseasoned. I typically prefer them to be full on salty. They had a great potato flavour though.
Honestly, the photo doesn’t do it justice, and the haste with which i took the photo should tell you how eager I was to chow down. Overall, the food was excellent. The service was satisfactory, and everyone had a great time. I really don’t have much more to say – as far as im concerned, they embody the essence of Michelin’s Bib Gourmand: good food at moderate prices. If Maine isnt high on your list of places to visit, try Pearl Oyster Bar for a lobster roll the next time you’re in NYC. If you close your eyes long enough, you just might believe you were there.