The long-troubled Tavern on the Green had its re-opening party on Monday, and anyone acquainted with the old Tavern would have been hard-pressed to tell they'd entered the same building.
Located in New York's Central Park, the Tavern was originally built to hold the sheep that populated Sheep Meadow. In the early 1930s New Yorkers took back their lawn, the sheep were removed, and the building was converted into a restaurant that reached its apex in the late 1970s, when its proprietor Warner LeRoy installed an interior that’s been euphemistically described as "Versailles- like." Most famously decadent was the Crystal Room, a conservatory-like space decked out with colored-glass chandeliers, stucco embellishments on the ceiling, and an almost aggressive number of combating flower motifs.
Elsewhere in the restaurant, mirrored hallways were topped by (yet more) chandeliers, giant stained-glass murals, bronze animal statues, Tiffany lamps, and a seemingly infinite number of knick-knacks.
All of that has vanished in the new Tavern on the Green, renovated by Richard H. Lewis Architects and operated by a Philadelphia-based pair of restaurateurs. The Crystal Room has been razed completely, relegated to hazy memories and faded bar-mitzvah albums.
While it could be argued that any changes to LeRoy's interior are improvements, the re-opened Tavern's decor might find a few detractors of its own.
In the center of the structure is a slightly institutional, lobby-style glass box, which faces the outdoor courtyard. It holds banquettes and, further inside, an open-kitchen. It's a modern room, but in what may have been a nod to the interior's previous, maximalist decor, windows into the kitchen are flanked by Gothic-style columns. The juxtaposition is jarring, and it’s a recurring problem throughout the interior. Whereas the old restaurant at least knew what look it wanted and went for it, the current design scheme can't seem to make up its mind: is it modern or nostalgic? Ornate or austere? It tries to have it both ways, and the result is muddled.
A room on the south wing, for instance, is painted a pretty, pale green, and decorated with a leaf motif applied over mirrors. But then the room is dwarfed by a massive, baronial vaulted ceiling with ornamental plaster, topped off by giant air ducts running the length of the space.
Clearly, the refurbished Tavern's architects recognized the restaurant's key strength: the location. They opened the building up with the glass-box facade, and wisely made Central Park the primary focus of most of the dining areas. Plus, the outdoor space is doubly pleasant. You can settle down in the courtyard with a cocktail, then watch joggers on the Central Park loop stream past for hours.
Still, it might have been nice if they made the restaurant a draw, too.