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The NYC Essentials: Pearl Oyster Bar

In the original scroll of On the Road, Kerouac wrote, “whenever Spring comes to NY I can’t stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I’ve got to go.” When I feel the ineffable change of seasons in the air, the swell of anticipation as we hang on the cusp of spring, my thoughts turn to Maine. I know that every Memorial Day, as others fire up their grills and crowd the beaches from Sandy Hook to LBI, I’ll be on my way to Bar Harbor with the windows down and hiking boots in the trunk.

Maybe that’s why last week I found myself inexorably pulled into Greenwich Village, my body moving of its own accord, not taking me home to New Jersey as planned but instead boarding a downtown F train to Pearl Oyster Bar.

pearl oyster bar, new york
Of the many spots I frequent time and again in New York City, Pearl Oyster Bar is one of my most beloved. It’s practically built for me, for one thing—I’m a bar-eater, preferring the intimacy of a barstool perch to even a small table, especially when eating alone. And no matter how many groups crowd the sidewalk on Cornelia Street on a July evening, when the two bay window seats are packed with couples waiting for their icy bowls of bivalves, there’s always a spot at the bar at Pearl.

The restaurant consists of two whitewashed rowhouse rooms: that cool and coveted marble-topped bar and lunch counter, lined up back to back as you walk through the door into the original restaurant; and off to the right, the expansion (almost a decade ago now!) into a traditional dining room packed with simple wooden tables. I’ve sat at those tables on a few occasions, demolishing a whole roasted dorade with Irene, splitting a caesar salad during a birthday lunch with Dan. But mostly I’m at the bar, ordering the lobster roll.

pearl oyster bar's lobster roll
The ritual washes away any emotional slights and bruises of the day: I step across the threshold, and the host offers a glass of wine—there’s always something white and crisp in the by-the-glass menu that pairs up well with crustaceans—while I wait for my barstool to open up. She already knows I’m ready for the lobster roll before I even sit down, so there’s barely even time to rip open the bag of oyster crackers before the plate arrives, a few shoestring fries tumbling from their haystack pile onto the marble.

There’s a whole lobster and then some stuffed into the bun—chewy tail meat, satiny claws, it’s all bound up in a light coating of mayo that heightens the lobster’s natural sweetness, with handfuls of celery and chives thrown in for crunch. Should the bun be a split-top New Englander? Quibble if you want, but I find the Pepperidge Farm rolls buttery enough not to care too much. Plus, I end up forking nearly half the lobster out before I even pick the roll up, lest a precious chunk spill out onto the floor. There’s no five-second rule at Pearl, especially when the barstools keep you so far off the ground.

pearl oyster bar lobster roll
That delicate mound of shoestring fries propped next to the roll, in my opinion, should always be doused with many healthy shakes of Heinz malt vinegar before they’re systematically brought down to crumbs. (A few fries pushed neatly together into your fingertips also make an efficient vehicle for mopping up any stray bits of lobster or mayo.) On the other hand, that jaunty lettuce leaf peeking from the roll always gets tossed aside and abandoned. Often it’s the only thing left on my plate, a green flag signaling another successful conquest.

The irony is that I’d never eaten a lobster roll before I came to New York, nor had I ever set foot in the great state of Maine. Now both are fully entrenched in the “essentials” category of my life—separate but equally necessary, I’ve got to get my fix of each at least once a year. Pearl’s lobster rolls are more citified than the ones I eat on a rocky outcropping at Two Lights or at a picnic table off the New Harbor wharf, but I treasure them all the more for their presence in the middle of Manhattan. They’re my first lobster love. And when I slide onto that barstool on a sticky August day, take a first sip of Grüner, and wait for that sweet and overstuffed plate to slide under my nose, it’s a moment that offers up the best of New York City and Maine.

Pearl Oyster Bar, 18 Cornelia St., New York, NY. 212-691-8211.

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12 Comments

  1. But have you tried the same (similar?), highly contested recipe from Mary’s Fish Camp? (As in the chef’s ex, who left to start her own NYC fish shack!) Lawsuits were involved…

    1. Yep, mos def have tried Mary’s, but Pearl is my #1 roll. It’s not that the scandal and lawsuits left a bad taste or anything, although I do think Mary’s has a bit too much mayo – I just love the atmosphere and the whole package at Pearl.

    1. Jamie, that’s great! Can I take you guys out for a lobster roll when you’re here?

    1. Sarah, you know, I’ve never had the fried oysters at Pearl – which is a shame, since they’re another signature dish. The raw ones are great, as you’d expect. But I usually go elsewhere for my oyster fix, like the John Dory or Maison Premiere in Williamsburg. I can’t resist a $1 oyster happy hour and Pearl doesn’t have one.

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