NEW YORK – Tavern on the Green, once America’s highest-grossing restaurant, is singing its culinary swan song.
The former sheepfold at the edge of Central Park, now ringed by twinkling lights and fake topiary animals, is preparing for New Year’s Eve, when it will serve its last meal. Just three years ago, it was plating more than 700,000 meals annually, bringing in more than $38 million.
But that astronomical sum wasn’t enough to keep the landmark restaurant out of bankruptcy court. Its $8 million debt is to be covered at an auction of Baccarat and Waterford chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass, a mural depicting Central Park and other over-the-top decor that has bewitched visitors for decades.
Even the restaurant’s name is up for grabs. At stake is whether another restaurateur taking over the 27,000 square feet of space, owned by the city, can reopen as Tavern on the Green.
For 75 years, since it first opened amid the Great Depression, the Tavern has attracted clients from around the world.
Hanging over the main Crystal Room, an all-glass dining area, is a century-old chandelier made of green glass, said to have been owned by an Indian maharajah. Two elk decked with red-and-green ornaments stand at the entrance, and outside is a huge King Kong topiary.
Former Tavern mogul Warner LeRoy, befitting his heritage as son of a producer of “The Wizard of Oz,” searched the globe for the whimsical goods after he took over the Tavern’s lease in 1973. He died in 2001, leaving the business to his wife, Kay LeRoy, and daughter Jennifer LeRoy.
As the end of the family’s operating license approached, the city sought competing bids.
The LeRoys lost to Dean Poll, who operates the stylish Loeb Boathouse restaurant overlooking the Central Park lake and offered to invest $25 million on Tavern renovations. The city awarded him a 20-year license in August, citing his significant capital investment and vision; the new Tavern will incorporate green building technology while a conservatory-style dining space will complement the original Victorian architecture.
Poll also plans an outdoor cafe, bicycle racks and new public restrooms.
The LeRoys, employing more than 400 unionized workers with full benefits, couldn’t match that. As the recession hit, they accrued more than 450 creditors.
A spokeswoman for the company running the auction said the LeRoys couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday, but people close to 31-year-old Jennifer LeRoy said she feels heartbroken over the closure and betrayed by a city that pulled the lease to a business her father turned into a New York icon.
The decisive moment in the intellectual-property dispute over the name comes in January. That’s when a Manhattan federal judge will either side with the city and rule that the moneymaking name Tavern on the Green, valued at about $19 million, can be used by whoever operates the space or say the LeRoys own it.