The Pearl Lobster Roll, which quickly became her signature and inspired countless imitators.
Photo: Evan Sung/The New York Times/Redux
Cornelia Boulevard has long been an attraction in itself, a long football field lane that serves as Manhattan’s forgotten breather between the hustle and bustle of Bleecker and West Fourth Street, which bookends it. The stretch has become something of a reputable restaurant destination, such as chef Mario Batali’s debut venture and French rendezvous spot Le Gigot. 1997 saw the arrival of the Pearl Oyster Bar, a seafood corner inspired by its owner’s summers in New England. This destination cemented the entire small stretch of its entire existence and ushered in a golden age for lobster rolls and raw bars, the effects of which are still very much felt today, even after the restaurant closed late last month, which owner and chef Rebecca Charles calls “more than a perfect storm.” of disasters.
Among them, the all (staff attrition during COVID, the high cost of seafood) and the select (loans that need to be paid, the expansion in Maine that also closed during the pandemic). “I am devastated from the mental and physical toll this has taken,” Charles told me from her home in Kennebunk. She says she’s been able to see the end of Pearl — who originally named her after her grandmother Pearl — since 2019, but at the time, “I just couldn’t accept the idea of her closing.”
During the two opening windows each day (a leisurely lunch until 2:30 and a more popular dinner service), you can always see Charles—who opened the restaurant with then-partner Mary Reading—at the end of the bar, in the half. - Open plan kitchen, white starch chef jacket, multi-tasking utensils and utensils on stoves in kitchenette. If I waved to her, she might exclaim, averting eyes, “No Currently. Later, after closing time, you can often find her sipping Sea Breeze at the Cornelia Street Café bar down the block.
Almost immediately, the lobster pearl roll—a toasted Pepperidge Farm split-top bun that was sprinkled with chilled tail, knuckle, and claw meat dressed with Hellmann’s dressing and celery—became an instant hit. (She told Ruth Rachel down east In 2016: “When Rebecca Charles opened Pearl, no one was eating lobster rolls. Then suddenly, they were everywhere.”) Served with a nest of shoelaces, there were nightshades to be seen on every table. It was never meant to be a signature, says Charles, and his success hasn’t necessarily translated into financial freedom: “There’s no way to make money on lobster rolls,” the chef sighs. “It’s like running a charity - making a lot of people happy but not making a lot of money.”
Pearl has always been packed with happy people. Initially, before expanding into adjacent space, there was seating for less than 30 people. The bar, on one side, seats twelve. Only feet behind him were another ten seats for the ailing, facing a wall and giving perhaps a foot and a half of space for dining. In the middle there was standing, drinking and knocking on cutlery on the tables on either side. There was only one four-poster window table that was, Charles says, “wasted vigilantly.” It was loud and annoying and I loved it.
Apart from the lobster roll, the chowder was fantastic, floating with baby clams and smoked bacon. There were some salt-crusted shrimp, a classic Caesar salad, and blueberry pie that became a favorite with Leonardo DiCaprio. Does any of this sound special? You’d be surprised to know how few restaurants leave things alone. “The great thing Rebecca Charles did was raise hunters’ food—and she was smart enough not to complicate it,” says Michael Landgarten, owner of Bayley’s Lobster Pound in Scarborough, Maine.
But things got complicated. Charles and Reding split up, with the latter going on to open the Mary’s Fish Camp just blocks from Pearl. It was opened by Ed McFarland, Charles’ former sous chef for him She owns a New England restaurant, too: Ed’s Lobster Bar. He so imitated pearl ‘yar’ stripes that Charles sued him for space and menu plagiarism, a suit that was eventually settled out of court.
These two spots are still open, but they have never attracted Pearl. Rebecca has a very high Zagat score “It’s rating so quickly, that’s when lines started forming out there,” says Jared Paul Stern, a Maine-based journalist and regular Pearl journalist for nearly a decade. Celebrities followed: “Everyone, including neighborhood actresses like Uma Thurman, had to wait their turn. When I was there and walked into Brooke Shields, I waited as patiently as everyone else.”
James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano, craved excellence, following a stroke, in a 2006 episode of the sopranos. In his hospital gown in his bed, he says to Edie Falco’s Carmella after she asks about his dream meal: “Pearl’s Oyster Bar… crab roll.”
Charles recalled: “When Gandolfini finally came to the restaurant, I said to him, ‘Well, now you can understand what it’s about’—that is, the lobster roll.” He didn’t know what Charles was talking about. “So I had to remind him of the line he said when he came out of his coma. He didn’t remember that either,” she laughs. “Just an actor saying lines!”
soprano Creator David Chase was a fan of the restaurant, as were executive producers Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess. “We’ve been living in Los Angeles for 30 years,” says Green, who is married to Burgess. “When we came here to write and produce the sopranos, We found a place in the village to live. I was missing the steamers and the lobsters I grew up with in New England.” Then she and Burgess found Pearl. “It was always like coming home,” Green says. “No one had ever had the best shrimp cocktail.”