Tavern on the Green, the legendary Central Park restaurant that used to be one of the highest-grossing establishments in the country, is closing on December 31. In August 2009, the restaurant lost a bid to renew its operating license with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. One month later, Tavern on the Green filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The restaurant building will be empty on January 1, 2010, anticipating a new owner.
There’s quite a backstory to Tavern on the Green’s failure, according to Crain’s New York Business. After charismatic owner Warner LeRoy chose his daughter Jennifer to run the restaurant, things went downhill. From Crain’s:
When a 22-year-old Jennifer LeRoy assumed control of Tavern on the Green and the Russian Tea Room in 2001, she was stepping into a role that few people expected her to succeed at. Many saw an untested, beautiful heiress who liked to ride horses and spend weekends in the Hamptons—not someone who would toil or be a leader in such a demanding industry.
Eight years later, the skeptics turned out to be right. Just 17 months after she took over the family business, crushing debt forced her to close the Russian Tea Room. Her father had bought the restaurant in 1996, and borrowed money for a lavish $30 million renovation. And this September, Tavern on the Green filed for bankruptcy. It is closing Dec. 31, having lost the bid for a new 20-year lease from the city.
It is the end of an era for New Yorkers…The incoming operator, Dean Poll, who runs the Boathouse in Central Park, plans to spend $25 million on a complete renovation of the restaurant. An auction in early January will remove Tavern’s signature artwork from the building forever. For some, the demise of Tavern on the Green is shocking, given its storied past and its distinction for many years as the top-grossing restaurant in the country, generating at its peak just under $40 million in revenues.
Ms. LeRoy (made several moves to) put her stamp on the restaurant and (grow) into her role. (She) can be credited with a more fiscally conservative approach to running the business. As she gained confidence, Ms. LeRoy fired several top executives…not because the business wasn’t successful, but because she was asserting her own vision for the restaurant. There had been…attempts over the prior two years to expand the brand that never took off, in large part because investors wanted reassurances that Tavern on the Green’s lease would be extended for another 20 years.
But in the end, Tavern remained a stand-alone restaurant inexorably tied to a city that no longer wants the LeRoy family operating it—a reality for which the family was unprepared.
Did Warner LeRoy make a mistake by chosing a young, inexperienced heir? Or did Jennifer make a mistake by not wanting to follow her dad’s setup? It’s a fascinating, sad account of a family legacy gone awry.