m Chris Kokenes of CNN
: The legendary New York restaurant Tavern on the Green will close its
doors after serving a last supper and hosting a New Year's party.
iconic spot on the western edge of Central Park will undergo major
renovations under a new operator and may even retain its famous name,
but to many patrons, this is indisputably the end of an era.
Myers and Wayne Knowles, a semi-retired couple visiting from Norfolk,
Virginia, were saddened by the news and decided to treat themselves to
one last Tavern dinner. "I came here years ago and had good memories,"
"It's the atmosphere and ambience" Myers added.
"Everyone knows what Tavern on the Green is and where is it" -- here,
Myers paused -- "except one cab driver. It's just a neat place. It has
history and it's in the park."
Ed Brown and his wife, Judy, also
were in town for the holidays from Plantation, Florida, and were aware
of the restaurant's plans. "It's my first and last time at eating at
Tavern on the Green," Brown said. "At least I can now say I ate there."
Rodney Shephard recently was making preparations for his last
party, for 1,500 guests. It's nothing the restaurant's maitre d' for
the past 23 years couldn't handle, but he wasn't looking forward to his
last party on his last day of employment at the restaurant.
"I never thought this day would come" said Shephard, 52. "Not like this. Not like the money-making machine that this place is."
restaurant served its first meal in 1936, when Mayor Fiorello La
Guardia presided over its opening as the city and the country were
trying to dig out from the Great Depression.
almost died in 1974 when the operator shuttered the "rustic little
money-losing pub," as New York Times food writer Eric Asimov later
But Warner LeRoy immediately took over the
Tavern's lease and invested $10 million. He added two rooms to the
existing four and installed scores of copper and brass chandeliers,
Tiffany-style stained glass, bull's-eye glass mirrors and ornate
pastel-colored fixtures, and a 167-foot mural depicting Central Park.
its 1976 reopening, words like "playful," "dazzling" and "eclectic"
were used to describe the restaurant's ambience and the menu. "It was
an over-the-top whimsical place," said longtime publicist Shelley Clark.
Leroy's father, Mervyn LeRoy, was the producer of the "Wizard of Oz," A
black-and-white photograph hanging in the Tavern shows Warner as a
child with Judy Garland on the set of the movie.
LeRoy, in her recently published book "Tavern on the Green 125 Recipes
for Good Times," -- co-authored by her mother, Kay -- described the
vision of the restaurant that her father wanted.
"When he walked
into the courtyard of the run-down building, he imagined something
wholly original and incredible: He would build a room in that space
that would look like the inside of a wedding cake." she recalled.
was a brilliant showman and a brilliant restaurateur. He was bigger
than life." said the Tavern's chief operating officer, Michael
Desiderio. "He thought dining is like a great show, and when the
curtain goes up everything must be perfect."
started as a front desk manager, fondly recalled LeRoy and the sense of
family that he brought to the establishment: "It's like a second home.
I consider the employees like your brothers and sisters, and now it's
all going to be cut off."
The restaurant became the destination
for anniversaries, birthdays and family affairs, It served more than
500,000 people a year, an average of 1,400 dinners a night. Tourists
eagerly descended upon the eatery for the crab cakes, wedge salad,
salmon and parmesan-crusted chicken.
Food critics were not so thrilled.
Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine, said the
restaurant has never been the greatest venue for foodies. "When you're
serving 2,000 meals a deal, I don't care if you're [chef] Jean-Georges
Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, you just can't put out that much of a
volume and have top quality food."
The LeRoy family was forced
to file for bankruptcy in 2009 after losing a bidding war for to
another proprietor, Dean Poll, who also owns the Boathouse Restaurant
in Central Park. Once the restaurant closes, its contents will be
auctioned off by Guernsey's auction house.
As part of the 20-year license to operate the restaurant, Poll is expected to invest $25 million on renovations.
maintaining the Victorian historic features of the building, Poll's
plan is to incorporate green building technology as well as replacing
the kitchen and electrical and plumbing systems. The renovations, which
are expected to take four years, will be conducted in phases so the
restaurant can remain open.
Attorney Barry LePatner, who
represents Poll, said the new revitalized restaurant will become a
popular destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike. "The new
incarnation of Tavern on the Green will integrate modern respect with
an iconic location and a sensibility that will warm to New Yorkers"
LePatner said. "We want more New Yorkers as well as tourists."
LePatner said that while the terms of the
lease are still being negotiated with the city parks department and
issues with labor unions are still unresolved, Poll's vision is to
create a new era. "The game plan is to have one of the biggest creative
moments in the history of the city, and bring Tavern on the Green back
to its original, enhanced luster."
One issue that is still left
unresolved is the iconic name of the restaurant, which the current
management estimates is valued at $19 million. The LeRoy family claims
it trademarked the name in 1981. U.S. District Court Judge Miriam
Goldman Cedarbaum is expected to make a ruling in January. In the
meantime, LePatner said, the city has filed a trademark for "Tavern in
the Park" but that Poll would like to retain the original name and that
it should rest with the site.
who was fond of flamboyant bashes, probably would approve of the
Tavern's plan to say farewell on New Year's Eve. Over the park, as
fireworks light up the sky and as the last party-goers exit, they will
gaze at the 750,000 tiny white light bulbs that envelop the restaurant
and just hope the new owners remember to keep the lights on.