ask a waiter

May Harrington of the Grand Central Oyster Bar Remembers 35-Cent Bivalves and Andy Warhol

"A lot of the customers are like children — you have to fuss over them."Photo: Melissa Hom

Mary Harrington, known to regulars as May, was a server at legendary chain restaurant Schraft’s when she received an invitation to work at the Oyster Bar in 1978. “I was kind of terrified,” Harrington says. “Those days it was crazy busy.” Harrington didn’t emigrate from Ireland to be a server; she planned to become a nurse. “Now here I am,” she says, “nursing oysters.” We asked her what has kept her on the job all these years, and she shucked open a small trove of salty stories.

The guys behind the bar have a loyal following. What about the “counter girls”?
Patty and Stella have been here eighteen, twenty years; we each have our own customers. When you’re not there one day, the regulars get very upset. A lot of the customers are like children — you have to fuss over them.

The restaurant itself is known for its devoted customers.
After we had a fire [in 1997], they call me to go into work. I’m like, “Where am I going to work?” It was just one counter; the wall there was covered in plastic, and in the dining room, there were jackhammers. And yet the counter was full of people. These people are nuts!

Do customers ever reminisce about the place to you?
Last week this guy came in and told me how he had to take a train from Grand Central when he was 12 years old. Whatever money he had for the train at the time – 35 cents or something — he spent it on oysters. His parents had to pick him up.

Ever hear any good love stories?
This little lady sat over at the oyster bar; 50 years ago she had met her husband there. He had passed away three years ago. She said they had sat in those two seats. She came back and had her oyster stew, sitting in the same place.

Have you served any celebrities through the years?
When I was new, I served Andy Warhol. He had bluefish. He was very quiet. I’ve seen Paul Newman and Lucille Ball; she used to have lunch every day in the Saloon when she was making Bag Ladies.

Do you notice people aging?
It makes me very sad; I forget I’m getting old because I see my customers getting old. One customer who works upstairs, I was asking if he wanted more bread. He said, “No, no. I remember when I would come down and fill up on a bowl of soup and bread because that’s all I could afford.” Now he owns his own business.

What did the oysters cost when you started?
We only had six oysters in those days. It was 45 cents, 60 cents, or 85 cents for a Malpeque. Clam chowder was $1.25. It’s $5.75 now.

Are there dishes that have gone out of style?
Finnan Haddie was an old-timers' dish. It was very popular in the eighties. They smoke it, and sometimes they cook it in milk. They used to serve it with white sauce or chopped egg.

What are the most popular seasonal items that people flock to?
Every Dutch person that ever arrived in this country came for the herring festival. I used to dress up as the herring girl.

Do commuters ever lose their patience when they’re trying to catch a train?
We do takeout between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. They come in saying, “I have three minutes,” and you’re supposed to get a heart attack to get them their food.

Ever get completely overwhelmed?
In the old days we did our checks by hand. Then all the sudden we got this computer. One time I had a whole counter of people and I looked around and had no idea what anyone was having because it was all in the computer. I started to cry.

Does all the noise bouncing off those Guastavino ceilings ever get to you?
When you get busy, you just tune it out. You have so many things on your mind it’s not like you have time to stop and think, It’s noisy here.

How do you keep up with it all?
When I started, I met my partner at the coffee station, and I said, “I can’t do this.” She said, “Don’t even think about it; just keep going.” I often think about that.

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