How Green Is Her Tavern?

talesjennifer leroy How Green Is Her Tavern? “It’s just such an assault on all your senses,” my discerning wife, Heather, said over brunch on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 15.

We were seated at a small table near the center of the famous Crystal Room at Tavern on the Green, the largest and most scenic of all six separate dining areas within the sprawling 25,000-square-foot restaurant in Central Park.

The vast, 380-seat space is bathed in bright pastels and bizarrely juxtaposed floral carpeting and upholstery, flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows and all blinged out with a dozen or so shimmering chandeliers, including an Austrian-made emerald centerpiece believed to have once belonged to the Maharaja of Udaipur.

“It’s just such an assault on all your senses,” my discerning wife, Heather, said over brunch on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 15.

We were seated at a small table near the center of the famous Crystal Room at Tavern on the Green, the largest and most scenic of all six separate dining areas within the sprawling 25,000-square-foot restaurant in Central Park.

The vast, 380-seat space is bathed in bright pastels and bizarrely juxtaposed floral carpeting and upholstery, flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows and all blinged out with a dozen or so shimmering chandeliers, including an Austrian-made emerald centerpiece believed to have once belonged to the Maharaja of Udaipur. An expansive mural above the entrance depicts winged ponies and castles among the clouds.

It was the same spot where she was sitting nearly 17 years ago, a doe-eyed teenager from Ohio, dining with her grandparents, on her first trip to New York.

The place remained very much the way she remembered it, overwhelmingly ornate and still bustling with wide-eyed youngsters and their wiser elders from out of town. (An estimated half-million or more visit each year.)

It just looked older. Much older.

“It reminds me of Mrs. Havisham in Great Expectations, the grande dame who’s seen better days,” my perceptive spouse said, noting the fraying pink tablecloth covering our sloppily bussed table, which was strewn with stray bread crumbs and specs of black pepper. “It seems a little worn around the edges.”

The service, meanwhile, seemed remarkably indifferent. When we complained about the large triangular gap in window shading, which cast a blinding beam of afternoon light directly at our table, and politely suggested that something be done about it, our crusty career waiter, dressed in a black suit and pink-and-green-striped bow tie, barely shrugged: “I’ve been advocating for that for 10 years now.”

The illustrious Tavern has undoubtedly lost some of its swagger in the more than three decades since the legendary restaurateur Warner LeRoy took it over.

“It will feel like dining inside a wedding cake,” the flamboyant LeRoy had told his own wife, Kay, after acquiring the license to operate the historic city-owned building back in 1973, and embarking on a flashy $10 million renovation (a moment recalled in Ms. LeRoy’s new cookbook, Tavern on The Green: 125 Recipes for Good Times).

How it will feel a year from now is anybody’s guess.

 

THE CITY’S long-standing contract with the late LeRoy’s family will expire at the end of 2009, and parks officials are clamoring for a massive (and most certainly costly) modernization of the old 19th-century sheepsfold turned New Deal–era eatery, as part of the next 20-year contract, which is now up for public bidding.

Officials are specifically seeking an “alternative design” for LeRoy’s iconic Crystal Room and an overall plan to make the entire building more environmentally friendly, energy-efficient and legally accessible to disabled patrons, according to the Parks Department’s formal request for proposals released on Feb. 2.

It’s a pretty tall order, given the gloomy economic forecast. Yet, “even in a faltering economy,” Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the New York Post, his phone was “ringing off the hook” with prospective operators seeking to cash in on the lucrative location, which nets around $30 million in annual revenues, ranking it among the highest-grossing non-chain restaurants in the country.

(The city is also seeking a higher cut of the proceeds, somewhere between 10 percent to 20 percent of gross revenues, compared with the current 3.5 percent, which amounted to barely more than $1 million annually.)

All sorts of big names have been mentioned as possible suitors—including Donald Trump, Drew Nieporent, Dean Poll, Danny Meyer and Peter Glazier—though the actual list of interested parties will likely become clearer on March 19, when the city hosts an official meeting with proposed bidders. (The formal bids are due on May 1.)

First and foremost, aspiring operators will have to contend with LeRoy’s formidable ghost.