New York, New York
Date Visited: 5/28/16
Meal Length: 1 hour
Why should you be interested?
It’s an oyster bar on an historic sailing ship. A wild-caught, sustainable oyster bar manned by former Eleven Madison Park honcho Kerry Heffernan featuring drinks from Lauren Schnell of Little Branch. The ship doesn’t actually go out on the water, but you’ll want to drop a second anchor after just your first visit.
How easy is it to locate?
Grand Banks is docked at the end of Tribeca’s Pier 25, but, especially if you’re making an afternoon of it, there’s plenty to do nearby. Beach volleyball courts and a mini golf course bustle just paces away for those facing a long wait for a table. Others will likely enjoy the mere energy and spirit of the quickly approaching summer as savored from benches dotted down the stretch out into the river.
How do you feel when you enter?
I guess that should say “come aboard” instead of “enter,” but you feel positively charmed. It’s certainly a popular spot—and they’ve certainly squeezed as much space out of the ship as possible—but damn if the subtle rock of the ship and mélange of wood, rope, and clean, crisp linen doesn’t make you feel at ease. We’ve all seen or perhaps experienced the novelty of a meal on the water, but Grand Banks avoids Disneyfication. The old ship seduces you with its squeaks and thuds, the nimble movement of a staff that’s “all hands on deck” to keep up with demand for the bivalve. And, depending on where you’re seated, you’ll be elbowed anywhere from two to five times during your meal. But it’s that and only that that can make the moments looking out at Lady Liberty so serene.
How does the service make you feel?
The hostesses, who I admit keep quite busy, seemed to forget we had checked in (and were waiting for our reserved table) until following up 15 minutes later. It was a strange lapse given the small number of reservations taken, or that they “could only” seat us at the oyster bar after yielding several tables to walk-ins. That being said, since we were only two, I found the oyster bar offered shade and a sublime view of the water. Our actual server, and all the other staff on board, were appropriately peppy and eager to please. Just keep after those hostesses until you’re secured in your seat, because any nice weather will rightfully have many, many people ready to snap up your spot.
How should you order?
Grand Banks’s all-day menu is appropriately short, centered on a half dozen different daily oysters and not many more small plates focused on local seafood and produce. Brunch adds a couple egg preparations alongside French toast and grits for those who try to keep their mercury levels low before noon, but you don’t need me to tell you you’re coming here to stick something that came out of the water into your mouth (preferably raw). Beer and wines by the glass are thoughtfully selected to match the food, mood, and price point, but I implore all guests to at least take a look at the summery but sincere cocktail selection.
What are the notable dishes?
Hemingway Daquiri: Rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit juice, and lime doesn’t need much help as far as I’m concerned. Grand Banks’s smacked the palate with fresh, tart precision.
Fracas: This drink combined tequila and mezcal with fresh pineapple juice, lime, bitters, and a dusting of nutmeg. Yet despite the added weight the two spirits brought, I found this cocktail ultimately even more refreshing and enjoyable.
Oysters: The oyster selection for the day encompassed $3 per shell for two NY varieties, $3.50 for two from the larger east coast, and $4 for the jewel-like Royal Miyagi from British Columbia. Everyone has their preferred balance of sweet and brine, but I can say that each of the five were enjoyable, even to my new-to-eating-oysters cohort. Of the 60 bivalves we shared, I noted only feeling the tiniest—to me, negligible—bit of grit in two of them. Overall, the oysters were nicely, speedily shucked and delicious on their own. The presence of two thoughtful, housemade hot sauces and the peace of mind sustainability offers raises the experience from good to great for half-shell devotees.
French Fries: Technically “Galley” french fries, which come with seaweed salt, sage aioli, Sriracha ketchup, and a $9 price tag. Neither of the condiments truly enhanced the aggressively salted spuds. Yet it was in warmth and texture that they impressed, coming confoundingly close to America’s favorite golden-arched variety.
Lobster Roll: At $27, Grand Banks’s lobster roll stands among NYC’s more expensive. And the roll–small but sweet and fresh with lemon, fennel, and dulse–is certainly good. The accompanying New Bay spiced chips were a nice idea, but their tame seasoning won’t help convince anyone who was on the fence about their order. Don’t come here for the lobster roll. Fill yourself up on oysters and fries. If you’re all set on ordering something more, then, yes, it will make you happy.
Was the meal satisfying?
As a destination for brunch, lunch, or some other form of a proper sit-down meal, Grand Banks’s small plates don’t offer ample enjoyment for the price. And I must admit that the sturdy ship is perhaps best judged not as a restaurant but solely and simply as an oyster bar. In that case: come hungry (but not starving), and enjoy drinks, guilt-free bivalves, and the view of the jostling crowd and waves in the distance.
Would I go back?
I’ll be back this coming Saturday. The game plan this time? Put the cost of the lobster rolls towards two dozen more oysters and make plans for a proper meal after.
How hard are reservations to get?
The ship saves most of its seating for walk-in, but it’s worth looking on OpenTable (if you’re flexible on times) to see what’s out there and avoid any particularly egregious wait. Those looking to walk in are best directed to the FAQ on the Grand Banks site: “We tend to have smaller crowds before 5pm on weekdays and 3pm on weekends. We’re also a bit slower after 8pm, which also happens to be one of the most magical times on the water.”
Grand Banks’s operating season for 2016 runs from May 3 to October 15. Reservations, menus, and other information can be found at http://www.grandbanks.org/