The Best Restaurant in New York Is: Grand Central's Campbell Apartment
Rich: I always recall Grand Central Terminal fondly because it's old and feels that way, like an elderly neighbor who's going to give you a butterscotch candy without any threat of poison or violation. But the reality of it is that it's a diarrhea explosion of people and sounds and diarrhea smells.
Caity: Grand Central Terminal is one of the first places I would visit in the event of Life After People. A monument to man's former greatness. That beautiful celestial ceiling. And I could manage the day-to-day bureaucratic affairs of the New Colony from my bunker office, which I would establish in an abandoned subway tunnel.
Rich: You can't walk a foot on the main concourse without photo-bombing someone. Hundreds of people taking pictures of themselves and others. Don't these people have somewhere to be? We did and WE WEREN'T EVEN GOING ANYWHERE. We were there to be there!
The best restaurant in New York is
The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal.
À la carte.
Cost, before tip
Caity: The first thing I thought when we tiptoed up a set of carpeted stairs into The Campbell Apartment was "Where are we going to have lunch instead?" because The Campbell Apartment was clearly not open.
Rich: The first thing I thought in response to your thought was, "Thank God, because I'm violating the dress code left and right."
Caity: Men were unpacking boxes of bottles and laying their contents on every available surface. No one seemed to be in charge.
Rich: We were definitely interrupting. Our waiter didn't like us. I wondered if it was because of my sneakers and sweatshirt, but my mom would say if he didn't like me for those reasons, he wasn't worth being liked by. So fuck that guy.
Caity: For those who have never been to The Campbell Apartment, probably because you assumed it was closed or didn't know it was there, tucked behind Cipriani Dolci (which you are NOT allowed pass through as a shortcut! OK, OK! Calm down Cipriani Dolci!), it is the grand former office of a long dead railroad executive named John W. Campbell.
Rich: It certainly feels like one of those places where you would invest your life in being affluent and miserable simultaneously.
Caity: According to Wikipedia, after Campbell's death, the office—which is much longer than and about three times the height of my apartment—functioned as a closet and, briefly, a small jail.
Rich: Well, it's never been less exciting, I guess, than it is now as a cocktail bar, but it's still a lovely place. It's FREEZING, but lovely.
Caity: One of the most striking features of the room is a huge fireplace, the hearth of which is filled completely by Campbell's eenormous old steel safe. If I could make one suggestion to the current proprietors of the bar: Consider replacing that safe with fire.
Rich: The room felt a little like an old church.
It was old-timey in a very imprecise way. Overhead, we heard music like Frank Sinatra, a big band version of Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" and "Beyond the Sea." I learned that Caity LOVES "Beyond the Sea." I felt like I was at your third wedding.
Caity: '40s on 4 is probably my favorite Sirius station.
Caity: My only complaint is that there are no '30s on 3 and '20s on 2.
Rich: That's because everyone who'd want that is dead, except for you. That's so adorkable.
Caity: I'm dead SIRIUS about wanting these options.
While I did like almost every song they played (excepting the big band "All I Want" and a rendition of "There's No Business Like Show Business" that I would describe as somber), I was put off by the temporal discrepancy. In 2014, Frank Sinatra is shorthand for "old timey class," but in 1923 (the year Campbell moved into his new office), he was about 8 years old. JC wasn't kicking back with his phonograph, blasting Frank and Dino. Maybe that kind of thing went on in New York City's other Campbell apartment.
This mishmash of time and space was carried over to the menu which featured self-described "cocktails from another era," but also: turkey quesadillas?
Rich: Vegetable pizza.
Caity: Imagine Henry Ford and Thomas Edison sitting down to a dignified lunch of turkey quesadillas. Giving a nickel to an 11-year-old kitchen maid. "Keep those turkey quesadillas coming!"
Rich: It wasn't an immersive experience. You did order the turkey quesadillas, though, so the joke's on you, Caity. They seemed gross.
Caity: They were gross but I felt like a MILLIONAIRE eating them in my drafty private office.
We asked the waiter if we could get the quesadillas without the traditional turkey, and he said "No," which is always a bad sign.
Rich: Right, they were frozen.
Caity: Maybe Mr. Campbell left behind a giant frozen safe of turkey quesadillas and Grand Central employees have been reheating their way through the stash for 90 years.
Rich: My vegetable pizza was just ok. Somewhere between Singas and American Girl. It was all very B-level room service. Stuff you'd be impressed by if it showed up at your Radisson suite's door.
Caity: And, much like a hotel room doesn't quite feel like a real bedroom, this grand former office did not quite feel like a real restaurant.
Rich: Well, to be fair, it was a cocktail bar with, like, five items that you COULD eat if you were DESPERATE or writing a COLUMN.
Caity: The star of our meal was a delightful cheese plate.
Rich: Besides ideas, it was the best thing I've had while staring into your eyes so far. Baguette slices buttered and toasted to a crouton crisp (or as the Italians say, crostini). There were five cheeses total: muenster, brie, bleu, and two we couldn't identify. I was so cold that when I bit into the muenster, my initial reaction was: "This tastes like air conditioning." It turned out to be a lovely cheese, though, let me assure you!
Caity: Also on the plate: very chilly purple grapes. Water crackers with cursive writing on them.
Rich: And some garnish that you wanted to eat. There was so much food, and you wanted the not-food to be food, too. Greedy.
Caity: I love cilantro, and I'm always on the lookout for it. If something gives even the faintest hint that it MIGHT be cilantro, I'm going to investigate further.
Caity: The food took a very long time to arrive. From the moment we ordered the cheese plate to the moment it was placed in front of us, I would estimate that 1000 minutes elapsed.
Rich: We paid what you would—and waited for as long as you would—if you ordered Fresh Direct. At one point, you asked me: "Do you think they're getting the food from another restaurant?"
Caity: In 1923, our cheese plate would have cost about $2.06. Unfortunately, in 2014, this is equivalent to NEARLY THIRTY DOLLARS.
Rich: Eh, worth it.
Caity: For dessert, we split a cheesecake. It arrived on a plate with raspberry sauce swirls, which is is a played-out old trick that always looks and tastes fantastic, so who cares?
One time I had lunch in a dive bar in Philly. When I asked if they had dessert, the waiter told me they did not, but then very sweetly gave me a Tastykake he had brought as a snack for himself, I guess? He brought it out on a plate with raspberry sauce swirls all around it. Fantastic. (Though I did think it was weird that he had the sauce on hand and no dessert items?)
Rich: I'm sure it was great. Nothing tastes as good as Philly products...taste.
We should point out that the giant, frozen tomb that we were eating in was virtually empty the entire time we were there. At one point, a guy who looked like Mystery came in with his mousey girlfriend that I'm sure he insults all the time in the name of keeping a healthy relationship. They left without ordering anything.
Caity: It is an odd feeling to be completely alone in a restaurant. No other patrons, which is understandable for a bar at 2 pm on a Tuesday, but also: No employees. 100% alone.
Rich: I could have taken off my offending pants and offended no one besides you.
Caity: It felt like, if we ever tried to go back, all we'd find would be a burnt out, boarded-up elegant office/jail. "That place? Burned down 50 years ago this week." This would also explain our initial ghostly interaction with the silent, nodding waiter.
Rich: You know, he seemed to signal doom, but I had a fine time. I got a little drunk. (My drink was the Jasmine Blossom—jasmine tea-infused Plymouth gin and fresh lime juice. Very limey, but good. I was in it for the tea.)
By the end of our meal, women in little black wrap dresses and pearls started to come around. One placed "Reserved" cards on EVERY table but ours. (That's shade.)
Caity: I could tell that if you came by at the right time—say around 5:30 p.m. on a Friday—it would be hopping.
Rich: This is an aside, but I have to say: My favorite moment happened after they cleared our plates away, right before you wandered off to take more pictures. You said, "I bet they would do a real good mac & cheese here," and then you were gone. I don't know where your faith came from, but I guess such things happen in church.
Caity: I bet if they had a dynamite recipe, all the necessary ingredients, the wherewithal to prepare such a dish, and the willingness to put it on the menu, they would do a real good mac and cheese there. I bet if they had excellent mac and cheese there, they would have it.
Rich: I bet if I had an infinite supply of money, I'd consider buying the Campbell Apartment for my very own.
Is Everything Okay?
Questions about the Dining Experience
Would you go back?
Caity: I would go back between 9 p.m. and midnight on a Saturday for "live jazz," between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on a Tuesday to train myself for Life After People, or during Life After People.
Rich: I would, but just for drinks and NOT on a Saturday between 9 pm and midnight because you know the "live jazz" is just jazz-hands "jazz" and that the place is teeming with bridge and tunnel people (the bridge and tunnels both lead to Ghost World).
Is it a good first date spot?
Caity: Yes. It's a big financial commitment for a first date ($30 CRACKERS), but if you or your date commutes from Westchester or Connecticut (as surely you must, because why else would you be having your first date in this train station?), you can certainly afford it.
Rich: Yes. The cold temperature gives the more chivalrous party the opportunity to remove clothing for the sake of his or her date, so you get to show that you believe that sharing is caring VERY early on and also be closer to naked than you were when you walked in.
Is it a good place to have an affair?
Caity: It is a GREAT place to not only have an affair, but to engage in public coitus without fear of discovery.
Rich: Yeah, no one's there. At least if you go in the early-to-mid afternoon. As well you should. Plan your affair carefully.
Is it a good place to bring a doll?
Caity: Yes. It has the sort of otherworldly, eerie, self-consciously old-timey feel of a dollhouse. "Welcome to MY house," you might imagine your doll saying, as you carry her in.
Rich: Because of that self-conscious old-timey-ness, it's a good place to bring an Adelaide or Sister Sarah, but probably not a doll-doll. There are so many rules, I'd assume that dolls violate at least one of them.
There are a bunch of restaurants in the world, including some in New York City. But in a city of over 24,000 restaurants, how do you find the best? You begin your search in places that are already popular: New York's hottest tourist destinations. In The Best Restaurant in New York Is, writers Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak attempt to determine the best restaurant in New York.
Previously: The Best Restaurant in New York Is The U.N. Delegates Dining Room; Play at the Museum of Sex; Le Train Bleu inside Bloomingdales; LOX at The Jewish Museum; The American Girl Café
Photos by Caity Weaver and Rich Juzwiak