Taking off the glitz at Tavern on the Green

After an estimated $17 million, over a year of construction and several delays, New York City’s Tavern on the Green is ready to be unveiled. What customers and curious onlookers will see is a pared-down version of the ornate behemoth that former owner Warner LeRoy created in the 1970s. The structure, built as a sheep barn in 1871, now shows off its Victorian-Gothic architecture.

The project began when New York City’s Parks Department reclaimed the abandoned Tavern on the Green in 2009 after it went bankrupt. In its heyday, the restaurant was one of the highest volume independents in the country. But in 2010, crews began tearing down the wings LeRoy had added to house a warren of dining rooms and event spaces. They also removed the Crystal Room, a venue for galas and weddings, decreasing the footprint by 11,900 square feet. “We were basically given a space half the size, with the building’s original glass box in place of the Crystal Room looking over the courtyard,” says Jim Caiola, the Philadelphia restaurant owner who submitted a proposal and won the rights in 2012 to operate the restaurant with his partner, David Salama. “But the bones of the building had been revealed when the city cleaned it up, and we wanted to keep that character.” Plus, unlike LeRoy’s Tavern on the Green, the new operators say they were aiming for a more casual restaurant where neighbors and out-of-towners would feel equally comfortable.

After submitting an application fee of $25,000, investing over $1 million of their own money and borrowing from a private equity firm, the pair hired Richard H. Lewis in 2013, a New York City architect who had done work for Keith McNally and other notable restaurateurs. They figured they could build out the space and open in five months, but didn’t count on city workers still being onsite. Nor did they expect the chimney to fall down, pipes to burst or a wall to crumble. “Many layers of hardship were uncovered in a building that hadn’t been maintained in 30 years,” says Caiola. Not to mention the permits and approvals required by both the Parks Department and Landmarks Commission. “Tavern on the Green has almost been rebuilt brick by brick; not a single electrical cord is left from its previous incarnation,” he says.

The interior now sports a 3,400-square-foot kitchen that opens to the bar, plus two more seating areas: that glassed-in central section and a south room for private parties and a la carte dining. Caiola and Salama hired Chef Katy Sparks, former owner of Quilty’s in New York City and a pioneer in the seasonal cooking movement, to create an ingredient-driven menu with an urban farmhouse vibe.

Leather-top tables in three colors—brown in the bar, off-white in the central room, green in the private dining room—define the eating areas. Dark wood parquet floors, mahogany on the bar and wood wainscoting on walls add warmth. A takeout window accommodates picnickers in Central Park.

The terraces and landscaping still are a work in progress, with winter to blame for that delay, owners say. But Tavern on the Green officially opens this month, although patrons may have to sidestep construction debris to get in the door.

Concept: Tavern on the Green
Location: New York City
Interior footprint: 10,800 square feet, including the kitchen, bar, glassed-in central seating area and private dining room
Exterior footprint: 16,160 square feet, including the central courtyard and two terraces
Seating: 396 interior; 730 exterior
Key features: Cathedral ceiling with wood and iron trusses; glass-enclosed dining room with views into Central Park; fireplace and warm woods for a cozy feel; leather-top tables and fabric on walls to absorb sound; takeout window for picnickers

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