« November 2009 Table of Contents
One on One: Sandy Ingber
By James Wright
November 01, 2009
Few seafood restaurants can boast the foot traffic of Grand
Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant in the heart of New York -
about half a million commuters, tourists and locals pass
through the historic depot known as Grand Central Terminal
daily. The venerable restaurant with the vaulted Guastavino
tile ceilings, arched doorways and dimly lit chandeliers is a
Big Apple institution, having served half shells and other
seafood favorites to guests in its vast dining room for nearly
At the hub of all the bustling activity is Executive Chef
Sandy Ingber, who's manned the helm of the restaurant since
1996. Ingber came to the Oyster Bar in 1990 as its chief fish
purchaser, but the chef was eventually lured back into kitchen
duties despite having carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands.
He's more of a general than a soldier now, but still finds his
way behind the line on a regular basis.
Ingber was born in Baltimore and raised in North Carolina,
but he's all New York now. He graduated from the Culinary
Institute of America in 1977 and has been working in the big
city ever since. Inbger's days always begin early: At 4 a.m.,
he is already at Fulton Fish Market in the Bronx, picking out
"the freshest fish at the best value." He does this by
cultivating relationships with the seafood vendors, a task he
lists as his most important.
Ingber, 54, seems to thrive at a fever-pitched pace. During
our phone interview in mid-September, he remained in control of
the kitchen, which was preparing for a Tuesday lunch rush. "Get
me a bouillabaisse bucket please! Why did you take this out of
here? Get me two oval platters!" he could be heard in between
questions. "This is a hard business," he says toward the end of
the conversation. "It's not for everybody."
It's easy to see his point: Grand Central Oyster Bar &
Restaurant has 500 seats and serves 1,200 to 1,500 people on an
average weeknight and up to 1,000 tables on a Saturday - and
these are days with no special promotions, of which there are
many throughout the year. Ingber says that the restaurant is
truly a family gathering place, as generations upon generations
keep coming back for more.
WRIGHT: What's the New York
dining scene like these
INGBER: Only the strong survive and I can only speak for
myself, but we have targeted lower-priced items. That seems to
be one of the big changes. People are spending similar amounts
of money, but they are not buying high-end items. Those types
of sales have gone down, like expensive wines, but people are
spending similar amounts of money. They are just spending it on
lower-end items and more quantity so they feel like they're
getting a deal.
Will dining out return
to previous levels?
I think it will eventually, not right away. Since the
beginning of our winter season, things have already
dramatically picked up in volume and the higher-end stuff is
selling. It's just not an overnight change.
Do people come to the
restaurant for sightseeing
as for the food?
Absolutely, this is a destination spot. It's wonderful.
It seems everyone has a strong opinion of the place. How do
you handle the criticism, good and bad?
Any criticism we get, we do our best to rectify it. This is
really a factory. It is what it is. We do our best to try to
keep everything fresh and wholesome - that's what we're known
for. We like to think of ourselves as the freshest. We take
criticism in stride and make changes if they're necessary.
I've seen the restaurant described as a "cafeteria." How do
you feel about that description?
We do have some Woolworth tablecloths here. But a buffet
line we are not. We move a lot of people in and out. It's quick
service. I take it as a compliment. We let the fish speak for
How many oyster varieties do you have on hand at any given
Approximately 25 to 35 varieties on a daily basis and
between 20 and 30 kinds of fish.
What types of oysters do you prefer?
The East Coasts are the better sellers. I prefer Kumamotos
and Belon oysters. There's also a unique Totten Inlet Virginica
- it's an East Coast oyster grown on the West Coast. It's got a
mystique to it - I love the flavor. It's a huge mover
What is your
Fresh, seasonal, local. We do quite a bit of international
[product], as long as it's fresh. We don't focus much on farmed
versus wild. It's whatever's in season.
You include the origins of seafood on the menu or in the
title of the dish. Why is this important?
People like to know where their food is from. We've always
done that. I don't think that through the '90s people were as
aware as they are now. Seafood has become more popular and
people are naturally origin-driven. They want to know that
they're not getting something they don't want to support. When
we get unique items, we want to advertise it that way. We're
very much into truth-in-advertising. When people see an oyster
comes from a special place, they know they're going to get just
Is it better if the seafood has its
own story? Does that
help to sell it?
It's not the only thing, but we try to, on our specials,
focus on the seasonal items and rotate the variety of the fish
and the specials themselves. There's not really a pattern to
it, besides the seasonality.
How many vendors do you use and what do you look for in a
More than a dozen, I'd say. The most important thing is
honesty and reliability. I will always stick by a vendor if
they screw up, but too many times and I'll dump them. If
someone can save me a dime, I'll give my guy a chance to match
the price. I'm a loyal buyer. I believe in relationships and
how important they are. I don't want to switch for short gains,
because in the long run you're not saving anything.
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at