“The best lobster rolls”
In 1997 when Rebecca Charles opened her restaurant, Pearl Oyster Bar, there was not a lobster roll to be found in Manhattan ; their availability limited to New England vacation destinations and the odd Long Island fish shack. Then along came Rebecca who, with nearly 30 years of cooking experience, reinvented that Maine icon, the lobster roll, as well as other seaside staples from fried oyster rolls and pan roasts to chowders and blueberry pie. Eight years later the New England clam shack craze has raced across America , to say nothing of New York where the lobster roll, or some version of it, has become a near-mandatory menu item. Phrases like “top loading” and “side loading”, which Rebecca first used to distinguish between the two types of hot dog rolls, have become part of the culinary lexicon. Everyone from classically trained French and American chefs to New England seafood experts and even former employees have taken Rebecca's version of New England seafood for a spin, turning it into a trend. But for Rebecca, who has been spending summers on Gooch's Beach in Kennebunkport since she was an infant, New England seafood is not a “trend” it is a treasured part of her family history. In August 1917 great uncle, Sam Goldsmith stopped in Kennebunkport on a road trip back to Brooklyn , New York from Nova Scotia . That next summer the whole family went up including Rebecca's grandparents Rebecca "Pearle" and Sol "Goldie" Goldsmith. An opera singer with the Metropolitan and New York City Operas for more than half a century, Pearle fell in love with Maine and Rebecca, the namesake who had inherited this passion from her grandmother, named Pearl after Pearle. Those summer vacations were the inspiration for Pearl Oyster Bar's menu but in opening the restaurant Rebecca felt she had an opportunity to lovingly rewrite history a bit. As Rebecca saw it, beach food often “remembered” better than it actually tasted. “I felt that if I treated it as seriously as any other cuisine, I could change that. I wanted to elevate the food but still maintain its simple elegance.”-Chef CharlesRebecca, who had originally wanted to open a traditional 50-seat white tablecloth restaurant, came upon the idea for Pearl after two years spent trying to get this original plan off the ground. But after a vacation to San Francisco where she visited tiny Swan Oyster Depot, she realized that she didn't need lots of space or lots of money to open a restaurant. Using Swan's small counter as a model she decided to serve a mixture of the New England beach food of her summers in a small, open-kitchen setting. But unlike Swan, which fittingly served a more Barbary Coast style seafood and did not have any real cooking going on, she would also offer substantially more elegant fare, like whole grilled fish with herbs, oyster pan roast and seared scallops with sautéed Brussels sprouts, smoked bacon and parsnips. Pearl Oyster Bar opened on July 2, 1997 on a shoestring with a bar, a counter and one four-top table. With all of her savings, a $60,000 SBA loan Rebecca's 25 years of experience secured, and investments from her mom, a long-time friend and a former line cook who had worked for her and would now be a sous chef and junior partner, Pearl opened for just over $120,000. In 2003 “the little restaurant that could”, as Rebecca has nicknamed it, expanded into the space next door, adding plenty of tables and a small private dining room.Visually, Pearl was meant to be an oasis of Yankee charm; a sliver of Maine 's Southern Coast in the middle of Greenwich Village . For years Rebecca looked for the perfect space where she says, “You'd carry the feeling of Pearl outside with you when you left.” When she found 18 Cornelia Street , she knew she had found it. Rebecca did not hire designers and architects to create a New England ideal; instead she drew on her memories, exactly as she had with the food. Inside a collection of antique oil lamps from the flea markets on Rt. 1 in Wells, Maine line Pearl 's walls. Fish signs like those at Portland 's Harbor Fish Company, hang on the walls. Even the color scheme she chose-gray, silver, pale blue and sand-is meant to reflect colors you find at the beach. Pearl is New York City , too, though. Chef Charles wanted an open kitchen so that curious New Yorkers could watch their food being prepared and they are just as likely to see her bringing their plates out as a waiter. "Everyone does everything here and when I get out of the kitchen I get the chance to really talk with customers,” says Charles. “New Yorkers have become savvy about food and on most nights, we end up with a pretty lively discussion up and down the bar ‘what's good where,' recipes, that kind of thing." Because Pearl 's menu relies largely on what is available each day, all eyes are on the blackboards during lunch and dinner. The restaurant serves beer, wine and soft drinks. Rebecca recently agreed to offer Diet Coke and a “artificial sweetener” breaking her no diet policy for the good of customers and waiters who had been forced to hide stashes of Equal and Splenda under the counter. These recent accommodations aside, Rebecca says she will not be putting in an espresso machine despite the numerous requests. “This is after all,” she laughs, “quintessentially American food—fried oysters and espresso? I don't think so.” Pearl is open for lunch Monday through Friday, from noon until 2:30PM. Dinner is served Monday through Saturday, from 6:00PM until 11:00PM. Take out is available. Pearl accepts neither reservations nor American Express.
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Pearl Oyster Bar
- Mon - Fri: 12:00 pm - 11:00 pm
- Sat: 6:00 pm - 11:00 pm
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