January 15, 2010

The End of an Era - Farewell to Tavern on the Green

The party is truly over at the Central Park landmark Tavern on the Green. After 34 years under the direction of Warner and Jennifer LeRoy this famous eatery, scene of countless weddings, parties, holiday dinners and banquets has closed its doors and the marvelous collection of over-the-top decorations and fixtures dispersed at public auction. While its future remains unclear, let's take a look back at the history of this New York institution.

When Central Park was developed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the mid 1800s, they planned a green oasis for the thousands of city inhabitants living in over-crowded and unhealthy conditions. Part of the design called for a dairy to provide fresh milk and a meadow where 200 South Down sheep grazed. The sheep were housed across the street in a Victorian Gothic structure built in 1870 by Jacob Whey Mould. The building served as a sheepfold until 1934 when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses saw an opportunity to capitalize on this prime location, moved the sheep to Brooklyn and hired WPA workers to re-vamp the building as a restaurant. The first Tavern on the Green was a huge success and New Yorkers flocked to enjoy this unique dining experience.

Over the years Tavern on the Green had been managed by a series of operators each with his own vision of how to make the facility viable. In 1974 the restaurant was deemed "out of date" and the operation ceased. Enter Hollywood progeny and restaurant entrepreneur Warner LeRoy, a larger-than-life figure whose credits included the wildly popular Maxwell's Plum. Mr. LeRoy assumed the lease and invested an astonishing $10 million to renovate and decorate Tavern on the Green. The new version, which opened in 1976, was a spectacular fantasy of stained glass, crystal, brass, mirrors and paintings and was an immediate triumph. This glittering palace in the heart of Central Park quickly became the hottest address for benefits, functions, openings and premiers, and it was a destination for tourists and locals alike.

In 2001 Warner LeRoy succumbed to lymphoma and responsibility for the restaurant was assumed by his daughter, Jennifer, who maintained her father's flair and penchant for theatricality. Tavern on the Green continued to host huge events such as the pre-New York Marathon pasta party in a tent installed over the parking lot and smaller private affairs in the magical Crystal Room or rustic Chestnut Room.

Here's where the fairy tale starts to turn sour. The LeRoy lease on the premises expired on January 1, 2010 and bidding on the license was opened by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation in the Spring of 2009. Jennifer LeRoy's tender was not successful and the Parks Dept tentatively accepted the bid of Dean Poll, operator of another Central Park restaurant, The Boathouse. Shortly afterward Miss LeRoy filed for bankruptcy protection. She also went one step further and claimed ownership of the name, the trademark of which she would part with for $19 million. This case is still in the courts and the operators license is not formally signed.

Last week the final curtain came down on this incarnation of the Tavern on the Green. In an effort to satisfy creditors and to clean out the premises, Guernsey's Auction House was enlisted to conduct an on-site liquidation sale. I took the opportunity to say goodbye to this once shimmering establishment and attended the auction preview along with dozens of other viewers most with a personal attachment to the place. It was sad to see the elegant dining rooms emptied of tables and chairs and with tags attached to every fixture. Everything was for sale - dishes, uniforms, garden furniture, topiary, paintings, Christmas decorations, weather vanes, stained glass panels, the magnificent chandeliers and Tiffany windows - even the sign that hung on Central Park West. While I was not a regular patron, I am sorry to see the Tavern go. Its lit-up trees and colorful Japanese lanterns were cheery sights as one passed by on the West Drive and the parade of horse drawn carriages and limousines (and lately Pedi-cabs) dropping off elegantly dressed customers made one feel that something really special was always going on.

No one knows what the future holds for this celebrated dining room, but one thing is for sure -- the fabulous fanciful confection of color and light and sparkle is gone and will not come back. It is truly the end of an era, but we hope the beginning of something new and wonderful too - a fresh setting for the next generation of magic and memories.

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