Tavern on the Green morphs into a food court

Gone are the Baccarat crystal chandeliers, the stained-glass ceilings and the twinkling lights. No longer will a giant King Kong topiary lord over diners and waiters in coats and bow ties.

With the ceremonial clip of a ribbon, the once-iconic New York restaurant Tavern on the Green has been replaced by something that Tavern devotees might shun, but that city officials say is the perfect fit for rough economic times: a food court.

“Things change, trends change, things people like to eat change,” the city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, said earlier this month as he presided over a grand opening that ended a bitter dispute over the famous restaurant’s fate and the prime Central Park plot it once occupied.

Like other cities, New York has seen its share of restaurants fall to the recession. Nationwide, restaurant visits fell 3% between May 2009 and May 2010, and 5,204 restaurants closed, according to NPD Group, which tracks the industry. In New York, no demise has been as closely scrutinized by local media, restaurant critics and followers of the food business as Tavern on the Green’s, whose last meal was served New Year’s Eve after its owners succumbed to mounting financial and legal woes. And no transformation says as much about the changing face of New York eating styles than this one — for this is not just any food court.


First, it shares space with an airy new visitors center, where T-shirts, mugs and maps have replaced the $21 shrimp cocktails and $41 slabs of prime rib that once drew locals and tourists. Sunlight streams into a room once darkened by heavy curtains and thick carpets. There are also the shiny new public toilets, complete with black granite countertops.

“As everybody knows, you can’t have too many nice public bathrooms in the city of New York,” Benepe said only half-jokingly as people peered curiously at the spacious restrooms across a brick patio from the food trucks. Perhaps it was the lack of doors, not attached in time for the ceremony.

But it was the four purring food trucks that drew the most attention and that exemplified the foodie fanaticism that is rampant in New York even as money remains tight. No $2.50 hotdogs, giant pretzels or packaged ice cream bars here. Instead, try some fried truffle chickpeas, a lavender and honey-roasted chicken Turkish taco, or for the simpler palate, a Serrano and Manchego sandwich. (That’s ham and cheese to most of us.)

The city awarded contracts to four high-end food trucks to operate on the plaza outside the 19th century building that housed Tavern on the Green, saying their offerings strike the perfect balance between street food and the select fare that New York foodies and visitors to Central Park, especially to this venerable spot, might want.


“I think the park was very forward-thinking in doing this,” said Kenny Lao, a Pasadena native whose Rickshaw Dumpling business is among scores vying for preeminence in New York’s gourmet street-food race. Lao considered it a “great opportunity to be part of Central Park” when he heard the city was looking for food trucks to replace the restaurant, but he didn’t realize how big a deal the change was until he won a contract and CNN called for an interview.

Ben Van Leeuwen’s artisan ice cream truck business also scored a spot. It’s not just chocolate ice cream here. It’s Michel Cluizel infini noir from France. Don’t expect just hazelnuts in your cone. Do expect tonda la gentile hazelnuts from Italy. If it sounds a bit extravagant, that’s the point.

“Let’s say you’ve lost your job. You certainly can’t afford the $400 designer jeans, but you can afford a scoop of really good ice cream,” Van Leeuwen said.

Not everyone is happy with the loss of a restaurant that since 1934 had been one of the country’s most successful. The LeRoy family, which had run it for 35 years, fought to keep it open.

But the city owns the land, which in the 19th century served as a holding area for sheep that trimmed the lawn at the park’s nearby Sheep Meadow. Last year, the city refused to renew the lease. The LeRoys filed for bankruptcy protection, and in January, all the fittings, from the Tiffany fixtures to King Kong, were auctioned off.

Even the name of the restaurant was dragged into the legal dispute when the LeRoy family said it, not the city, owned the rights to it. Earlier this year, a judge ruled in the city’s favor.

Given the tepid reviews of Tavern on the Green’s food — it scored a humiliating 15 in a recent Zagat guide — few said they would miss its meals. “The food was mediocre,” said Phil Terenzio, who with his wife, Valerie, ate at Tavern on the Green several times. As they sampled the food truck fare while pushing their 14-month-old grandson, Jake, in his stroller, both said they missed the extravagant gardens that surrounded the demolished Crystal Room, and agreed that Tavern on the Green was more than a restaurant. It was an event.

But an event whose time had come and gone, said Michael Whiteman, an international restaurant consultant based in New York. He described Tavern on the Green as “frozen in time.”


“In the culinary world these days, you can’t get by on just razzle-dazzle,” Whiteman said. “You have to keep the cuisine current and temporary, and in my opinion, they did none of that.”