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By Gina Pace

START WITH ONE wooded area of Central Park. Stir in mirrored hallways, dozens of crystal chandeliers, millions of white sparkling lights in the winter and hundreds of cloth lanterns in the summer. Combine with horse-drawn carriages that bring diners to the front door where a doorman in a top hat greets them. Finish with numerous appearances in movies and TV programs. The result: a landmark restaurant in New York.

Built to house sheep in 1870, the building now known as Tavern on the Green first became a restaurant in 1934, when then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses wanted to create a restaurant to compete with the Central Park Casino. Having undergone several renovations, Tavern on the Green is now the highest grossing restaurant in the United States, earning nearly $38 million every year, according to Gia Miller, who handles communications for the restaurant.

While each dining room is different, the most famous is the Crystal Room. Surrounded by windows that look out into gardens, the room has intricate molded ceilings and planters with changing fresh flowers that give a fantasy feeling to the dining room. Most of the magic of the restaurant comes from the location, said Michael Desiderio, the general manager.

 

“A waiter will come
into the kitchen because a diner wants him to
put a ring in a desert
or on a cheesecake.
It happens quite often – it’s such a romantic location."

— John Milito, executive chef

“The park plays a huge role in the identity of the Tavern,” Desiderio said. “The location draws a lot of people to it.” Many of the 750,000 diners that flock to the restaurant every year are tourists, and executive chef John Milito said he consistently serves celebrity clients such as Billy Crystal, Al Pacino and “Newlyweds” Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson (he had salmon, she had crab cakes).
 


Many Broadway shows have opening night festivities at the restaurant, and the Tavern makes its way into pop culture in movies appearances such as “Ghostbusters” and the “Out of Towners” and television shows such as “Regis and Kelly Live” and “Elimidate.”

Milito described the cuisine as “American with international influences,” and mixes traditional dishes such as sautéed calves liver with caramelized onions and mashed potatoes, and filet mignon with bearnaise sauce, with pasta and fish dishes he spices up with a contemporary flair. The menu changes seasonally and during holidays, and in the summer, the restaurant adds a garden bar that sells smaller plates.

Aside from being one of the few restaurants in the United States that has a full-time florist and horticulturist, Tavern on the Green has other special touches to set it apart. Every Valentine’s Day, the first 14 couples that get engaged win a free honeymoon trip to a Caribbean resort.

Milito thinks the fairy-tale ambiance leads to large number of couples that get engaged at the restaurant. “A waiter will come into the kitchen because a diner wants him to put a ring in a desert or on a cheesecake,” he said. “It happens quite often – it’s such a romantic location. It’s good to be a part of it.”

Some food critics, however, avoid the restaurant. Andrea Strong, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications like the New York Times and New York magazine, hasn’t been to Tavern on the Green since she graduated law school, a dining experience which she described as a “nightmare.”

“The place is such a tourist trap,” Strong wrote in an e-mail. “I would love to see it taken over by a seasoned restaurateur who could strip it of its garish decor and tone it down and bring a fresh, honest, seasonal menu to that sad excuse for a restaurant.”

Kurt Kulikowski and his mother Linda Kulikowski said it met their expectations after celebrating Linda’s birthday with lunch. Kurt came up from Florida to meet his mother who traveled from Niagara Falls, N.Y. for two days of Broadway plays and sightseeing.

“We had to put Tavern on our list,” said Kurt Kulikowski, who had a crab-stuffed avocado while his mother ordered calves liver as they dined in the Crystal Room. “The prices were New York City fair. Especially for a landmark restaurant in the middle of Central Park.”

 
MAP: Elva Ramirez
 
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Quick facts
 

Number of diners each day during December’s high season: 2,700

Staff: 450

Capacity: 850 in six dining rooms, 1,500 using the gardens and tenting the parking lot

Revenue: Nearly $38 million annually, making it the highest-grossing restaurant in the United States

Most popular desserts: cheesecake and creme brule

The night before the New York City Marathon, Tavern on the Green serves 4,500 pounds of pasta and 2,100 gallons of sauce.

   
 
Source: Michael Desiderio & Gia Miller
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