When Manhattan's Borough President, Scott Stringer, organized a milestone public policy conference about New York's food politics, he put a spotlight on New York's food "deserts." These are neighborhoods that have essentially no access to groceries beyond the occasional bodega or deli. Unfortunately there are many food deserts across our cities, making it difficult for people at all income levels to have reasonable access to affordable and good quality groceries.
Food deserts have huge health and public policy implications. It's certainly not a problem unique to New York and in fact, food deserts are a major factor contributing to the nation's obesity problem because all too often, fast food is the only choice. But in New York it's particularly stinging considering the city's wealth and our reputation as a place where we can find the best ingredients in the world. Still, the fact is that most of the sources for these ingredients are in just a few locations, not spread evenly across the city. I've previously written about some of New York's great food neighborhoods, areas like Hell's Kitchen, Park Slope and the Lower East Side. Other parts of town, most notably Manhattan's Upper West Side, have a bounty of food merchants selling at all prices.
You'd be hard-pressed to make the case for Midtown Manhattan. This is a neighborhood where many New Yorkers work and it's a transit point for commuters and out-of-town visitors, whether they're coming for business or as tourists. But it's also home to thousands of New Yorkers who live in this area that cuts a wide band, from river to river, across Manhattan Island. In recent years most of Midtown's supermarkets have closed, as storefronts instead became bank branches or another Victoria's Secret.
The past decade of real estate development trends in my city has created a complicated mess of quality of life problems and there isn't space in this newsletter for the rant I can do on this topic. Returning to buying food in Midtown -- fortunately this neighborhood is not a complete food desert. Tucked into an arcade that is adjacent to the great hall in Grand Central Terminal is the Grand Central Market.
First, a little city history: After developers demolished Pennsylvania Station, the McKim, Mead and White Beaux Arts masterpiece, the New York Landmarks Commission designated the 1913 treasure known as Grand Central Terminal as a landmark. It was 1967 and the Landmarks Commission was still a relatively new agency, but it acted with hope, protectionism, and a body of law to protect Grand Central from the same wrecking ball that took down Penn Station. But within a year a development group wanted to challenge the Commission's right to protect the terminal by taking all but Grand Central's façade and build a 55-story tower on top of the site. A ten-year legal battle was fought, culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision that saved Grand Central.
The building stood but years of neglect followed. Finally after changes in ownership, a new master plan, and years of repairs and restorations, Grand Central was re-opened and rededicated in 1998.
Included in the "new" Grand Central was the Grand Central Market, a hall of food merchants who bring top quality fresh ingredients to the three million visitors who pass through Grand Central every week. It also is the best local food source for the thousands of New Yorkers who live in the Midtown Manhattan neighborhood.
Located on the east side of Grand Central, the Market itself is a huge food indoor food court that can be entered either from inside Grand Central or from its sidewalk entrance at Lexington Avenue at East 43rd Street. The space is lined completely on either side with individual merchants whose areas are designated by signage and glass cases, some of which almost seem to spill their goods into the wide walkway that runs from one end of the Market to the other.
The Market is open seven days a week. Monday through Friday it's open from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. It's particularly busy at lunchtime as office workers come either to pick up groceries to take home that night or find something for lunch that's an alternative to a deli or other take-out restaurant. On weekends the Market is open from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, and from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.
The selection of merchants is eclectic and diverse, with some well-chosen redundancy. For example, there are two fishmongers and two charcuteries. There are branches of two New York City bakeries and also the sole NYC outpost of a major national spice merchant. Apart from core grocery staples there is little you can't find at Grand Central Market to make almost any meal you may wish to cook.
Prices range from medium to high, due both to the quality of goods sold and also the high rent paid to have a food stall in the middle of Midtown. But if you live in this neighborhood, it is a very appealing alternative to traveling out of the neighborhood to shop or filling in a delivery from Fresh Direct. It's also a rewarding shopping destination if you live anywhere in the city.
- Ceriello Fine Foods: A full-service butcher with very good aged beef, meats and poultry, Italian deli items and Italian groceries including olive oil, pasta, and cheese. They sell some prepared foods plus items that are semi-prepared but cooked at home, like beef rollatini.
- Corrado Bread & Bakery: Excellent selection of breads, rolls, cookies and pastries. Breads come from some of the city's best bakeries, such as Balthazar and Kossar's Bialys.
- Greenwich Produce: With stands at both ends of the Market, this grocery sells fruits and vegetables, plus pre-packaged salads, peeled and cut fruit, dried nuts and candies. They also have a nice selection of fresh flowers at the Lexington Avenue outpost where most of the fruits and vegetables are located. A few provisos: this isn't a locavore or organic produce merchant and everything is probably from Hunts Point, the huge wholesale produce market in The Bronx. But they carefully handle and showcase their goods and if you're stuck for an ingredient, this is a good place to look. A warning: prices can be high.
- Koglin Royal Hams: A German charcuterie selling salamis (they claim the largest selection in the U.S. with almost 200), hams, sausage, wursts, cheese, mustards, candies, spatzle, sauerkraut, marzipan, prepared potato salads, and other imported foods -- and everything is either from Germany, made in the German style, or made at the shop. They pre-cut the salamis, hams and other cured meats and I wish they didn't since cut to order is always better.
- LiLac Chocolates: A small outpost of the splendid Greenwich Village shop that makes old-fashioned, hand-made chocolates of superb quality. They always have little bags of treats that commuters must love as they head to catch their Metro-North connection. LiLac always features the seasonal favorites that LiLac is known for, like Easter bunnies or Thanksgiving chocolate turkeys.
- Zaro's: I am not a fan of Zaro's (they are not included in our merchant database) but it is a New York bakery institution and many New Yorkers love their bagels and muffins. This branch not only has these breakfast items but also breads, birthday cakes and other sweets. Corrado is a much better choice for flavor and artisanal quality.
- Murray's Cheese: A large outpost of the popular Greenwich Village cheese shop. Excellent selection that is very representative of what's sold in their main store and the staff is very knowlegable. Samples are offered and in addition to the cheese, they sell crackers, preserves and a big variety of cheese serving pieces and accessories. A great New York merchant.
- Murray's Real Salami: This shop is not adjacent to Murray's Cheese but it's part of the same food company and under the same management and it shows. This smaller Murray's counter sells some of the best charcuterie available in the U.S. including guanciale from LaQuercia, the fabled salami and prosciutto maker in Iowa, finocchiona from Columbus Salame Co. in California, and Speck from Recla, an Italian producer. This may be the best charcuterie shop in all of New York City.
- Oren's Daily Roast: An excellent coffee merchant selling a wide selection of coffee beans (they'll grind for you right there), teas, coffee and tea equipment and materials like coffee filters, plus coffee-to-go. Very nice people work here.
- Penzeys Spices: This is the only New York outpost for this excellent spice merchant that is headquartered in Wisconsin. The staff is knowledgeable and while their Grand Central shop is not huge, their selection is impressive. They can also put wonderful gift selections together so if you're passing through Grand Central to catch a train to visit someone, Penzeys is an excellent place to pick up a small hostess/host gift.
- Pescatore Seafood: One of the Market's two fishmongers, Pescatore is located at the western end of the hall selling fish and shellfish including a daily selection of tilapia, salmon and flounder that's been prepared with seasoned panko crusts, ready for you to take home and bake or panfry; they also sell the seasoned panko separately in case you prefer to coat your own fish. They have regular specials where if you buy a pound of that day's fish or shellfish, you get a half-pound free (the package label will show the price for the full pound and a half but you'll only be charged for one pound at the register).
- Wild Edibles: Located at the other, eastern end of the market, this fishmonger is one of the best in New York. They always have seasonal fish, like fresh Maine shrimp or shad roe, and their affiliation with The Blue Ocean Institute is just one sign of their commitment to sustainability and safe seafood. Excellent selection of wild seafood and ingredients to go with your fish dinner.
So if Midtown Manhattan is a food desert, Grand Central Market is an oasis. Whether you live in this part of the city, work nearby or are just passing through our treasured and (thankfully now) protected Grand Central, take a moment to buy a little salami, a fresh tuna burger, or maybe some chocolate covered orange peels. It's another reason to love New York.
Become a Fan
of The City Cook