Under the Underground Oyster Bar

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

If some larcenous oenophile concocted a plan to sneak into the wine cellar of Grand Central Terminal’s Oyster Bar and make off with a $700 bottle of 1981 Krug, he would certainly fail. This is not because only three people have keys to the cellar, one of them manager and beverage director Michael Garvey; or because the cellar rooms boast prehistoric-looking thick metal doors. No, it’s a matter of geography. The wine holdings are ferreted away in a unlikely collection of chilly cubby holes and metal cages so far flung that no one possessing less than Mr. Garvey’s knowledge of the terrain could possibly hope to locate a single specific bottle. It is the wine cellar of a squirrel preparing for winter.

Mr. Garvey, 40, doesn’t know if the cubicles were always used for wine, or how old they are: Most of the Oyster Bar’s records were destroyed in a 1997 fire, just a year after he started work at the well-known subterranean restaurant. But they sure look ancient. “The new doors break before these old ones do,” he joked as he heaved open the first of seven cavities reserved for wine storage.

There’s a “4” above this particular door, but no one refers to it by that number. It’s known as the Big Room, even though a quick glance inside reveals only two rather small rooms. “This is where the orders first comes in for whites,” Mr. Garvey said, stepping into the 52-degree cool inside. “Basically, this is where we dump things. Some of them are active and on the list.”

Something else is apparently active under the floor: Suddenly, there is a low, rumbling noise, as if a giant centipede is boring its way beneath the cellar. Mr. Garvey appears not to hear it. “Oh,” he said, once it was brought to his attention. “Those are the turnaround tracks for MetroNorth. It happens twice a day. The trains loop around under Grand Central.” He said the motion doesn’t disturb the wine. To ensure this, the feet of the racks are cushioned with cardboard.

The Big Room’s second space sits to the left through a low entrance. It used to contain more crates of white, but Mr. Garvey has moved many of his reds in, later converting the old red lair into what is now called the Reserve Room. The latter contains the pricier selections found on the Oyster Bar’s separate “Pearls of the Vine” list — one of Mr. Garvey’s innovations.

Reds have a place on the Oyster Bar’s wine list, but it is whites that rule the roost. This is a seafood palace, after all. Chardonnays outnumber Cabernet Sauvignons and Sauvignon Blancs best Merlots. “My sales go even father in that direction,” Mr. Garvey said. “I actually sell about six to one, white to red.” So why not pare down the red list even further? “In the interest of symmetry.”

In Mr. Garvey’s opinion, Loire whites, Chablis, and Sauvignon Blancs marry best with oysters. But, born and raised in rough and tumble East New York and populist by nature — his list refers to rosé as “pink wine” — he is not the sort to impose his tastes on others. “About seven, eight years ago, this gentleman came in,” he said. “He had a platter full of oysters. I saw an ’82 Bordeaux, the Margaux-Margaux, sitting next to him and I did a double take. I said, ‘How is everything?’ He said,‘Everything is wonderful. All I need is a cigarette.’ How am I going to tell him he’s not enjoying it? My mother puts ice cubes in wine. I cringe, but if that’s what she likes, fine.”

But back to the wine warren. Around the corner from the Big Room is the House Room. “Stuff we’re going through a lot of I like to keep in here,” Mr. Garvey said. Champagnes and sparkling wines are also in the House. Right next to the Big Room is the Beer Room, which is, of course, filled with beer. It is not to be confused with the Beer Cage, which is down a nearby corridor and looks like a holding pen in a city jail. It, too, contains beer but also — nothing’s simple here — holds some of restaurant’s house Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheek by jowl with the Beer Cage is the Liquor Cage, home to spirits as well many of the red wines the Oyster Bar serves by the glass.

As for whites by the glass, they are nearby in the Bin Room, another nippy, meat locker-like affair. “And to make it even more confusing,” Mr. Garvey said, “we’ve got some reserve selections in there, too.”

Wines by the glass are big business at the Oyster Bar. When Mr. Garvey assumed the posts of general manager and beverage director in 1998, the eatery already offered a hefty 50 selections by the glass. Encouraged by increased sales, he upped that amount. In many varietal categories, single-glass drinkers can choose among several bottles. There are a dozen dessert wines by the glass alone. (“I’m a liquid dessert man,” the director confided.)

The result of such variety is shown in the sales. The restaurant can serve up to 900 glasses of wine a day, much of it at lunch. “Is someone going to spring for a $50 grüner veltiner or are they going to try a glass?” Mr. Garvey said. “We try to give people what they’re familiar with, and then draw them in from there. When they’re learning, they’ll be back to try other stuff.”

Though his duties as general manager keep him busy, Mr. Garvey clearly relishes working with the wine. He consults with diners every day. “I love it. I miss waiting tables. I miss bartending. I miss the interaction with people.” To increase that contact, he’s recently developed some new events, like the “Oyster Frenzy,” which will be held this year on September 28 and 29, and will feature 15 varieties of bivalve and more than 60 simpatico fruits of the vine. “We want to develop some food and wine pairing classes. The big counters here seat 20 people. They’re U-shaped; it’s almost communal.”

Mr. Garvey’s personal cellar puts on no more airs than does the man. It is an open crawl space under his Long Beach home. “I keep my bottles in the sand under the house. Once in a while it will flood, but there is a little raised section where I tuck my bottles.They’re just lying in the sand.”

And what sort of wines are nestled in that dune? Chenin Blanc? Muscadet? It’s confession time: “I’m actually a red wine drinker that’s trapped in a seafood restaurant,” he said with a smile. “I love red. I think a lot of it is, I taste so many whites. It’s almost like a respite from all the whites I taste.”

In the Cellar appears on the third Wednesday of every month.

The New York Sun

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