Newsday transportation reporter Alfonso Castillo talked to commuters about the lack of food options at Penn Station and Grand Central Madison. Credit: Craig Ruttle; Newsday archive

That rumbling you hear while waiting on an LIRR platform in Manhattan may not be the next arriving train, but commuters’ empty stomachs.

Along the Long Island Rail Road's Penn Station concourse, where "coming soon" signs on storefronts taunt hungry commuters each day, several eateries are set to open in January — more than four years after all the shops and restaurants on the level closed for renovations, officials said.

But it will take several more months for other eateries to open at the station, including the returning Rose's Pizza, a longtime staple for rushing commuters and late-night revelers.

And the arrival of the first restaurants at the LIRR's new Manhattan terminal, Grand Central Madison, is even further away. 


  • Long Island Rail Road commuters continue to go hungry at the LIRR two Manhattan terminals, as only one eatery is open at the railroad's Penn Station concourse, and none are open at Grand Central Madison.
  • More than four years after all of the businesses in the LIRR's Penn concourse closed, some eateries are set to open in January, and more should come by the spring, retail property owner Vornado Realty Trust said.
  • The Metropolitan Transportation Authority expects to put out a contract next year for a firm to operate Grand Central Madison's retail space, and to open a cafe/bar in 2024. Until then, the only options are several snack and beverage kiosks.

“At Penn Station, there’s light at the end of the tunnel … And once we have a few open, it won’t be quite so bad," said Gerard Bringmann, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council and a nonvoting member of the MTA Board. "Grand Central is more of a concern … because I’m not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m not seeing the signs [that say] ‘Coming soon’ or ‘See you in January.’ And we really need that.”

A spokesperson for Vornado Realty Trust, which owns most of Penn’s retail space, said Thursday that Pret A Manger, Dos Toros taqueria, Shake Shack and Le Cafe will open in January. Other eateries, including Chick-fil-A, Chopt, Raising Cane's and Rose’s, won’t open until spring, the spokesperson said.

More than a dozen businesses along the LIRR's concourse stretching below 33rd Street were shuttered in 2019 as the railroad took on a $600 million renovation that included widening the walkway and raising the ceiling. Vornado took the opportunity to revamp its retail presence in the station, bringing in more upscale food vendors. When announcing the closures in November 2019, a Vornado executive vice president, in a conference call, told investors the businesses would be "out of service … for a couple of years."

Unable to grab a bite just before scurrying down to her track, Central Islip commuter Jill Zeitler said when she’s hungry after work, she’s sure to stop somewhere to eat before heading to Penn.

“There’s really few options in here. Nothing’s open,” said Zeitler, 45, who used to frequent the Pret a Manger that once sat at the bottom of the 34th Street escalators. “When you’re hungry and waiting for a train, or if you’re delayed, it was very convenient if something was open.”

Planned spring openings delayed

More than a year ago, the LIRR promoted several eateries would be returning to Penn by this past spring, but so far only one has. Playa Bowls, specializing in acai meals and smoothies, arrived in July in the southwest corner of the railroad's concourse.

“It’s been pretty busy. Commuters are happy that we’re here, grabbing a bite to eat real quick,” said Playa Bowls general manager Celina Saleh, who won’t mind giving up the shop’s status as the only eatery in the LIRR’s Penn Station concourse. “We’re actually really excited for all the stores to open up and share our experience.”

Celina Saleh, general manager of the Playa Bowl eatery at...

Celina Saleh, general manager of the Playa Bowl eatery at Penn Station, would welcome some competition. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Bringmann was grateful to finally have an option for commuters at Penn, but said Playa Bowls caters more to younger riders, and “not so much guys like me. We’re more, ‘Grab a pizza, grab a Coke and go.’ ”

Sessle Sarpy stopped into Playa Bowls for a smoothie on his way to work, but said he often looks for a more substantial meal before getting on a train. 

"If I'm partying in the city and I'm headed back … everything here is shut down. So there's nothing really to eat," Sarpy said. "I think it's very important. You should have a lot of options open — especially late-night options."

Although the pantry remains largely bare on Penn’s lower level — where the LIRR operates — there are plentiful dining options on the upper level used by NJ Transit and Amtrak, and at the adjacent Moynihan Train Hall, which includes a large food hall with several upscale eateries, including Sauce Pizzeria and Burger Joint.

Sessle Sarpy wants more substantial options available at Penn Station.

Sessle Sarpy wants more substantial options available at Penn Station. Credit: Craig Ruttle

Similarly, the dining concourse at Grand Central Terminal is loaded with foodie favorites. In a recent statement announcing the opening of several new eateries at Grand Central, Metro-North president Catherine Rinaldi said quality retail tenants are "key to delivering a world-class transit experience" at the station, shared by Metro-North, the LIRR and the New York City Transit subway system.

But, just below it at the LIRR’s new $11.1 billion, 350,000-square-foot concourse, retail space has remained vacant since Grand Central Madison opened in February. And, for some hurried commuters, working your way from the dining concourse to the LIRR's track level is quite the haul, Wantagh commuter Cynthia Raven said.

"It's too far to the main level or food court area," Raven said. "What about people pulling luggage? That's quite a distance when your hands are full."

Café and bar planned at Grand Central Madison

Aaron Donovan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the LIRR’s parent company, said the MTA is still working on some “construction elements” in the new station, and expects to put out a contract next year for a “master tenant” for Grand Central Madison that would lease out and manage the station’s retail space.

The MTA first put out feelers to prospective bidders in 2021, but agency chairman Janno Lieber at a March meeting said the procurement was stymied by pandemic-related uncertainty among retail operators.

“[They] said, ‘We’re not taking on new projects. We have to wait until things settle down and we see the foot traffic,’ ” Lieber said.

“In the meantime, the MTA continues to market the space,” said Donovan, who noted the MTA in July put out a separate contract for a cafe and bar near the Grand Central Madison ticketing area and waiting room. The transit authority is reviewing bids now and expects the new business to open sometime next year.

Until the retail space is filled, the only sustenance available to commuters at Grand Central Madison is in the form of six kiosks spread throughout the station selling coffee, snacks and refreshments. Two more kiosks are set to open by the end of the year, Donovan said.

“It would be nice to have some more options,” Woodmere commuter Anna Mann said while strolling by a potato chip rack in front of the Central Market New York kiosk. “It would be nice if they brought in some things and even if there were some kosher options, too. That would be really lovely.”

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