NEW YORK - Of all the glamorous landmark restaurants in this glamour-obsessed town, only Tavern on the Green survives. Windows on the World was vaporized in the 9/11 attacks. The Rainbow Room stilled its revolving dance floor in 2009.
So, when it came time for the city to auction a new lease for that storied Central Park institution, it was assumed that Tavern's mantle would naturally pass to one of New York's own. Maybe a bold-faced restaurant titan like the Gramercy Tavern's Danny Meyer. Or four-star chef and Eataly cofounder Mario Batali.
One can only imagine the flinging of pots and the tearing of chef whites in New York kitchens when word came down in 2012 that the city had instead picked two Philly guys to relaunch the restaurant, nestled in a romantic glade off Central Park West, at 67th Street. Especially when it was learned that the winning pair operated just a single neighborhood creperie in Bella Vista.
"What a load of Crepe!" the aggrieved headline in the New York Post declared. "Out-of-towner . . . tapped," marveled Crain's New York Business. Even the New York Times couldn't help pouting a little, noting that Tavern on the Green, where Steven Spielberg and Billy Joel once partied, had become "somewhat unhip."
The Post even doubted that Philadelphia's Jim Caiola and David Salama had the wherewithal to bring Tavern's crumbling Victorian building back from the grave, never mind fill the gargantuan space with diners. Their Creperie Beau Monde at Sixth and Bainbridge was a storefront with just 65 seats; at Tavern, they would have to fill 350 seats several times a day, every day, plus do a gangbusters banquet business.
Despite the dire predictions, Tavern finally flung open its heavy oak doors in late April. Because its magical garden overlooking the park was still a construction site, Caiola and Salama decided on a soft opening. But by Mother's Day, they were going full-tilt, serving high-end, farm-to-table cuisine at lunch and dinner, and brunch on the weekends. Think wood-roasted Maine bouchot mussels and heritage breed pork chops.
"It's the best location in the world for a restaurant," Caiola declared.
Now the couple just have to prove that Tavern's three sprawling dining rooms and enormous patio can keep the momentum going in an era when discriminating diners increasingly favor cozy, Brooklyn-sized boîtes.
Populating such a huge restaurant is so hard that consultant Michael Whiteman said he advised potential bidders "to lie down until the urge passes." Adding to the challenge, parks officials have asked the pair to limit banquet business, so the restaurant feels less like a wedding hall, and more like a place New Yorkers might actually patronize.
Caiola, 51, dismissed the skeptics, who were surprised that he and Salama, 50, bested four New York applicants. The Post's Steve Cuozzo speculated that they got the nod because Caiola's sister is married to Michael Bloomberg's former campaign manager, a charge that Charles Kloth, of the Department of Parks and Recreation, denied in an interview.
Still, Caiola conceded, "we've definitely had to prove ourselves on a daily basis."
Striding through the dining room on a recent weeknight, past the new circular bar with a twinkling Pegasus chandelier and red velvet banquettes, he acknowledged that they "were seen as two bumpkins from Philly."
The drone of an electric drill punctuated the predinner preparations, but Caiola, sporting a multiday stubble, couldn't have been more cool - issuing quiet instructions to some of the 400 newly hired waitstaff, juggling questions from contractors, consulting with chef Katy Sparks, calling Salama to check on their sniffly 8-year-old daughter.
"It's all fine now," Caiola said, noting an encouraging review from Cuozzo, written a mere week after Tavern reopened. "We've turned opinions around, and that's very satisfying."
Never once did the two men doubt they could handle the legendary Tavern, a former sheep barn. Caiola, a respected filmmaker before opening Beau Monde in 1998, observed that managing a restaurant was like directing a movie, except that it's easier to get investors to back a restaurant. It cost $12 million to do Tavern's interior, and $20 million in public funds to renovate the redbrick exterior.
Caiola said he feels as if it is his destiny to run Tavern. His first visit was in 1981, shortly after moving to New York to study acting, and it was love at first sight. Stepping into the gilded, mirror-encrusted restaurant was like being transported to a magical candy land. And that was before he bumped into Bianca Jagger.
That version of Tavern was fitted out by Hollywood scion Warner LeRoy, who treated his restaurants like stage sets. LeRoy, who owned the similarly glitzy Maxwell's Plum, camouflaged the Tavern with additions, like the Crystal Room, to make people forget about crime-ridden Central Park. Patrons came for the scene, not the food, which was never good.
"It was the place you went to celebrate being a New Yorker," explained Whiteman. Tavern was once the country's second-highest-grossing independent restaurant, but, the glitz got old. It became a tourist trap, succumbing to bankruptcy in 2009.
By then, Central Park was a jewel again, drawing 35 million visitors a year. Kloth said the parks department wanted to integrate the picturesque sheepfold back into the park by tearing off LeRoy's appendages and restoring its Victorian Gothic exterior. In doing so, it reduced seating capacity by 300.
Because the barn never had a finished interior, Caiola and Salama created one. Drawing from Beau Monde's craft-heavy aesthetic, they lavished the space with parquet floors as thick as steaks, a terrazzo fireplace, wainscoting, and leather-topped tables.
Veteran renovators, they bought and restored several houses in Philadelphia. Salama, who was born in Bolivia, originally came to Philadelphia to study graphic design, but developed a skill as a muralist and interior designer. Tapping into their stable of Philadelphia craft workers, they had nearly every piece in Tavern handmade, from the painted mirrors to forged lamps.
Except for the weirdly modern, glass sunroom installed by the parks department, the decor is tasteful and elegant, the antithesis of LeRoy's gaudy aesthetic. In keeping with today's fashion, "it's appropriately egalitarian in its bucolic grandeur," said restaurant consultant Clark Wolf.
The food is a version of the same craft aesthetic. Caiola reached out to Sparks, a college friend who was a renowned New York chef. At first she was aghast. "I was a real snob. I wouldn't eat at Tavern," she recalled, then thought: "What a site. What an opportunity."
Realizing that the project needed all of their energy, Caiola and Salama moved to New York, leaving Beau Monde in the hands of Caiola's father.
The trick will be to make the business work with a mix of locals, tourists, and banquet guests. It's no accident that the bar, reminiscent of beloved venues like the Plaza's Oak Room, is called the New York room.
Time will tell whether a couple of out-of-towners can succeed in making New Yorkers appreciate once again what great New York institution sits in their midst.
Note: This story was modified to correct spelling errors.