Written by Dave Gil de Rubio, firstname.lastname@example.org Thursday, 30 January 2014 00:00
Tucked into a corner of Penn Station right next to a McDonald’s is Tracks, a raw bar and grill with a railroad motif that is more than a mere Irish-American pub. This theme goes far beyond the name of the restaurant thanks to the surfeit of train memorabilia and decor that abounds once you walk through the front door. It’s the culmination of a dream come true for lifelong restaurateur Bruce Caulfield, who opened Tracks up back on Jan. 6, 2003, along with his father and partners Patrick and Michael O’Brien. Caulfield, who started out running a 24-hour newsstand back in the early 1980s, has worked in all manner of food service from catering to owning coffee shops and opening a pair of Penn Station eateries — Caribbean Kitchen and the now defunct Bruce’s Burgers. But the idea of having a place like Tracks is something that’s always been something Caulfield has wanted to pursue over the years.
“[I figured] if they could sell oysters at Grand Central, why can’t I do it at Penn. I had a coffee shop here for years called La Café. Many times I’d be there pouring coffee thinking ‘I wish I was pouring Guinness instead,’” the Manhattan native laughingly said. “When I had my coffee shop, I always said that if I ever get a bar in Penn Station I’d go with a railroad theme. Being all these years in Penn, I got to know so many people [associated] with the railroad plus I’m a buff. A lot of the memorabilia was given to me by guys who retired and gave me their uniforms, badges and such. So when this space opened up, I immediately moved on it.”
It’s easy to see how the combination of Caulfield’s passion for trains and all his connections paid off as you walk into Tracks and follow the 105-foot long bar, (the longest in Manhattan according to Caulfield), to the rear of the space. Not only is there a trophy case with bulging with tickets, patches, badges and all manner of railroad memorabilia, but vintage black and white photos dot the wall and model trains rest on ledges under the ceiling beams. Also noteworthy are commissioned murals depicting scenes you’d see from the vantage point of sitting in a passenger train including the Montauk Lighthouse, Shea Stadium and the old Penn Station terminal.
Erected on the site of what was formerly McCann’s Bar, Tracks was built in nine months, although Caulfield briefly lost his lease after 9/11 when his future landlord briefly considered having a police precinct go in that space. But once he regained the lease, the then 40-something entrepreneur clearly had everything well thought out, right down to the quality of the food.
“I decided rather than have a typical chicken finger joint, I’d have a serious menu. People said I didn’t have to and because it was Penn Station, no one was going to care. But I felt the opposite. If you have a raw bar, you have to produce a serious menu,” he pointed out. “So we hired a very good chef and maintained that quality for 10 or 11 years now.”
The raw bar features eight types of oysters to ensure freshness. Other specialties on the menu include a hearty New England clam chowder served with or without a sourdough bread bowl, fresh buttermilk-soaked calamari, fantastic shrimp cocktail and equally scrumptious crabcakes. Also on the menu is the same kind of burger that Caulfield used to serve at his well-loved 1 Penn Plaza hamburger joint.
Invariably, the comparisons to the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant are inevitable given the fact that both establishments traffic in serving raw bivalves. When asked what sets Tracks apart, Caulfield is clear that despite the fact that the former makes roughly $10 million a year more than Tracks, he takes pride in the quality of his food and the atmosphere he’s been able to generate ever since his eatery opened back in 2003.
“We have a tighter selection of oysters. We don’t have 45 types. People that eat oysters and clams tend to be a very picky group. So people tell me that they really like our oysters, even better than the Oyster Bar,” Caulfield explained. I “And because Penn Station is like the ugly stepsister to Grand Central, our clientele is more blue collar. Part of what I love about Tracks is that everybody gets along. And even though there is a more affluent crowd at Grand Central, people don’t want to tend to linger. Whereas at Tracks, we have people miss trains on purpose just to hang, have some food, relax and decompress. They’re not just rushing through one beer to catch a train.”
For more information about Tracks, please call 212-244-6350 or visit www.tracksbargrill.com