Pulsing and frenetic, New York wouldn’t feel nearly as crowded without its millions of daily commuters who fill the streets and buildings with their hopes, dreams, and empty stomachs. A good meal isn’t hard to come by in this town, but what does our metropolis provide for hungry travelers as they stagger to and from their destinations? As is so often the case in this city, it depends on location. It would be unfair to pit the dining options at New York’s largest train stations against each other. The transients buzzing about Grand Central Station simply have it better than their Penn Station counterparts. Explore a block or two farther, however, and the fast-food shadow that haunts Penn Station shrinks just a bit.
Since day one, Grand Central has had a voice in the city’s culinary conversation thanks to the hallowed Grand Central Oyster Bar and Restaurant, and over the course of its 100 years, the monumental building has mutated to reflect various trends and tastes, metastasizing into the gastronomic Magic Kingdom we now know and love (looking at you, forthcoming Shake Shack). Set to undergo renovations next year, the Oyster Bar remains an iconic dining experience. The sheer volume of business reflects the ebb and flow of the terminal’s lifeblood; watching the pan-roast cooks work their steam-powered cauldrons is as entrancing a show as any modern chef’s counter. The resulting oyster pan roast is remarkable: Rich with cream and tinged with a briny funk, it’s a dish with staying power. Raw-bar options are top-notch, and while you can get an array of sea creatures with ocean-size price tags, the Maatjes herring and smoked Idaho brook trout with horseradish cream come in appetizer portions under $10. Paired with a nip of barrel-aged Bols Genever gin, the herring sings. Missed your train? Kill some time in the private saloon room, tucked away in the back of the restaurant.
If you’re looking for the formality of fine dining in a train station but refuse to go below the earth’s crust thanks to too many viewings of The Descent, Michael Jordan’s The Steak House N.Y.C. serves up perfectly acceptable cuts of beef near the Vanderbilt Avenue entrance, and for a quick bite, the architectural stack of warm garlic bread planks rising from a pool of Gorgonzola fondue is a sure bet. The bulk of the building’s dining options are in the subterranean food court, however, where you’ll find tubs of gelato at Ciao Bella and warming trays of Indian and Chinese food. The offerings at Masa’s sushi may not match the exalted status of that other restaurant with the same name (no relation), but their inarizushi are exemplary nonetheless. The fried tofu skin that forms a pouch around seasoned rice retains a pleasant sponginess from soaking in a mirin-sweetened soy sauce. Luckily, you’ll encounter no cronut-size lines at Grand Central’s outpost of Magnolia Bakery, allowing for quick pickup of the chain’s stellar banana pudding. Although it’s nothing fancy (Nilla Wafers and all), the balance of airy pudding, softened wafer, and fudgy banana is worth the trip.
Across town, times might seem overbearingly grim for the discerning traveler, but poke around the two main levels and the tastier side of Penn Station eventually reveals itself. A lone health-conscious outpost in the corporate wilderness on the LIRR level, Chickpea dishes out baked falafel, shawarma, and the mash-up “shawafel” with zippy pickles and flavored hummus. For those less concerned with organic produce or their cardiovascular health, it’s hard to beat the guilty pleasure of an Auntie Anne’s pretzel dog (available on both levels), though curried goat and jerk chicken from Island Dine, a lesser-known chain from the company that owns Taco Bell and Pizza Hut (all represented on the LIRR level), taste like they were made in Flatbush, not some industrial kitchen. A fridge full of Caribbean soft drinks completes the experience. If you have the time to spare, a slice from NY Pizza Suprema—southwest from the entrance on 31st Street and Eighth Avenue—is a standard-bearer for the area and possibly the city (as far as New York–style slices are concerned), with a sturdy crust that barely cracks when folded and a light sheen of oil slicked across the surface. Farther down on 30th Street, Mooncake Foods brings downtown charm to a neighborhood in desperate need of it, with dishes such as miso-glazed salmon and hanger steak covered in addictive ginger-cilantro chimichurri for under $10. That same steak provides ample heft in a sandwich with roasted red peppers and garlic dill mayonnaise.
Flowing through these massive infrastructural arteries, it’s easy to be devoured by the rat race we all participate in as full- and part-time residents of this city. But two of our busiest transportation hubs even the score, giving us a chance to do the devouring while making it a pleasure to do so.