During New York’s bad old days, Vanderbilt Hall, the waiting room at Grand Central Terminal, was a vast public space populated by homeless people napping on heavy wooden benches alongside some hardy souls actually waiting for trains. The benches were banished in the 1970s and the space has been at loose ends ever since, used occasionally for holiday gift fairs and random exhibitions.
The space has recently found new life as home to a family of Danish-themed food stands that have transformed it into a great place to grab a meal. The stands are part of a venture dubbed the Great Northern Food Hall, which aims to shine a light on the healthy Scandinavian lifestyle as it fills your stomach.
Don’t dismiss this setup as just a new way to market fast food to people rushing to catch trains. Great Northern offers the Midtown East neighborhood an appealing source of fresh, tasty and creatively crafted meals in welcoming surroundings. On offer are attractively presented sandwiches, salads, soups, flatbread pizzas, pastries, breads and even hot oatmeal, along with drinks running from coffee and tea to craft beer, wine and fancy cocktails.
Though Great Northern is Nordic in style, most of the ingredients are locally sourced and much of the food is prepared to order. There’s seating for maybe 60 people, at small tables for two and counter barstools with backs arranged along raised tables, so the focus is on takeaway. The vibe is airy and informal, with open kitchen areas and food items packaged in recyclable materials. Service is warm and friendly, if not slow for those who gamble on snatching a sandwich minutes before train time.
There’s a lot of variety among the half-dozen stands, so you could drop by every day for a week without repeating a meal. Do you commute to Midtown before heading over to UN headquarters? Grab a hot cereal, yogurt or fruit compote at the Grain Bar and then zip over to Brownsville Roasters for a cappuccino and a Nordic version of a cinnamon bun or a flaky Danish with traditional icing and house-made fruit filling. En route home, catch a Scandinavian-inspired cocktail or craft beer at The Bar or pick up a loaf of freshly cooked sourdough bread.
At 11 a.m., the Grain Bar turns from sweet to savory, dishing out hearty Danish-style “porridges” ($7 to $12) and soups ($8) that team ingredients like lobster and beef brisket with long-simmered vegetables, whole grains (like rye) and snippets of fresh herbs. At the bakery stand, known as Meyers Bageri, check out the hot sandwiches, which range from simple to complex and come on freshly baked sandwich rolls with crispy crusts. The particularly well constructed No. 2 ($9) features layers of crunchy split-pea falafel, red-onion slivers, tomato, sunflower sprouts, split-pea hummus and parsley-walnut pesto. Other similarly sophisticated models ($11 to $12) focus on pastrami, roast lamb and roast pork.
The open-faced sandwiches at the Open Rye stand are irresistible, posing carefully composed works of food art on single slices of delicious rye bread. They look so light they could take to the air. Pause a moment to gaze at the variety and composition of the toppings and admire the creative touch that went into them. But be careful: if you decide to sample a trio, the bottom line will be $18.
At the Almanak stand, you can choose among seven salads (($11 to $16) and six different smoothies ($8 each). The chicken cabbage salad I sampled was a surprising pleasure, balancing a generous serving of shredded chicken breast on a bed of cabbage, kale and other shredded greens, the whole amped up by pickled kohlrabi and crisp chicken skin.
Still hungry? Check out the carefully composed French-style tarts, which feature such unusual ingredients as sea buckthorn, available at several stands ($6.50 to $7).
Despite its size, the food court is kept immaculate. But Grand Central is, after all, a railroad station with extraordinarily heavy foot traffic at all times, so it is not exactly a quiet space. There’s a steady dull thrumming background noise at all times. On one visit, a yoga class occupied the eastern half of Vanderbilt Hall, adding a meditative soundtrack to my lunch. Through Dec. 24, that half of the hall is devoted to a gift fair.
Great Northern Food Hall is open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. It is located in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall, which can be entered from the terminal’s Grand Concourse or from doors at 89 E. 42nd Street between Park and Madison Avenues. (646) 568-4020