Tavern on the Green
Central Park West, NYC
Review by ThePlazaQueen, Susu, MaceVindaloo, Rosie, SteakGrrl, Runt, Hermi2, Norbert, Dumbledwarf, Hagrid
Fantasy or not, sometimes it's important to have a place where all of these wishes and dreams at least appear to be true ... someplace filled with beautiful trees and lights, and food presented attractively ... where service is great and everyone behaves. Alas, the kingdom of Genovia doesn't exist. The next best thing are grande and beautiful places like The Palm Court at the Plaza or Tavern on the Green.
This restaurant has been here since legendary parks commissioner Robert Moses ousted a casino that had become entrenched in his beloved Central Park -- it was simply not part of his greater plan for the city's infrastructure. He first tore down the Casino, then took over a shepherd's cottage to build a new business venture of which he approved. He banished the sheep (who had grazed on what is now called Sheep Meadow in Central Park) to Brooklyn; the shepherd moved to what is now the Lion House in the Central Park Zoo, and the restaurant was opened in 1934. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (after whom one of the major NYC airports and the high school of Fame fame are named) attended the ceremony that opened the grand restaurant. And because of the impact the former Casino had on Moses, all other businesses were banned from the park itself.
By the 1970s, the Tavern had become dowdy, like the city who advocated it 40 years earlier. They shut their doors and people thought it was closed for good. Dark times, dark times them were, as Hagrid might say ... the city's sports teams were not only doing badly, but the fans stopped coming ... the city was just about financially bankrupt ... crime and drug trafficking was part of city life ... people had forgotten how to dream, it seemed ...
But the restaurant re-opened shortly after the country's Bicentennial, and people were wowed by it's old-fashioned, gilt-laden, rococo / beaux arts splendor (remember, this was the 1970s, when design and fashion were progressive and progressing ... not always good, in hindsight!). The designer Leroy Warner hacked through mountains of plaster to expose beams, created the glass-walled Crystal Room and had the foresight to cover the ceiling so the heat did not become oppressive. And in covering the ceiling, he created canvases on which fanciful rococo and baroque style images were painted. Some rooms were painted with trompe l'oeil gardens, ceilings decked with clouds, sliding panels decorated with trelliswork, or decorated in fairy tale styles -- it's a little like the ceiling in the great hall of Hogwart's, in a way! Plasterwork is highly ornate, chandeliers are by Baccarat, exposed beams and rafters are polished to a high gleam. But rather than looking old and passé, it appeals to those who desperately wanted a fairy palace to sit in, if only for the duration of a party or a meal. It was the type of place you'd go to celebrate your dreams and redemption, like when Judith Krantz's much-abused Princess Daisy was bedecked in a ballgown and tiara and presented to the public as the glamorous, one-of-a-kind spokesperson for a signature cosmetics line. It led to other troubles via the machinations of a grasping, evil relative, but it also represents her salvation and a happy-ever-after fairy tale ending. Sigh!
On a visit to NYC, several of us wanted to experience those types of fantasy spaces, so Tavern on the Green was definitely on the "to do" list. Note that when making reservations theat you must leave a credit card number. That's so if you decide to not show up, the restaurant will charge a $25 per person no-show fee. Apparently, people would book tables then simply not come, which upsets everyone: the people who try to reserve but are told there is no room; the restaurant, who loses the money from the meal; the staff, who lose on tips and feel they came to work for nothing; and it probably upsets the fairies that you don't believe in them. So don't get all huffy if you are asked for your credit card number when you book. If you can't make it, call in advance and let them know!
You can't reserve a specific room, but when you get there and if you ask nicely, they will do what they can to accommodate you. The restaurant is not one room, it's many of varying sizes, which makes the place ideal for weddings, banquets, meetings. Depending on how the restaurant is booked that day or evening, you many not be able to get a table in the Crystal Room ... but if you can, ask nicely for a table by the window. The party in front of us asked rudely and were given a table three layers roomwards, and the hostess would not budge, even telling the woman who was yelling to calm down, and no, she could not move. We decided to ask nicely and we were seated right by the window! We have to admit, we enjoyed the first party's daggar-like stares at us -- serves them right for being bad tourists and thinking they are acting like native New Yorkers, when in fact they behaved more like evil step-tourists! (Natives of anywhere are not rude for the sake of it! They always have a reason and try to use more persuasive means first, which makes sense, eh?)
What's so special about the window? It looks out over the garden, which is also a bar and dining area. Fanciful topiaries reside out there, and there's a story behind that. Do you remember those animal-shaped bushes in Edward Scissorhands? These are them! After the cameras had stopped rolling, the restaurant decided to maintain them -- a lot of work, but totally worth the effort! As the restaurant's publicity points out, this place is to feed the mind as well as the appetite.
We were having dinner here before going to see The Lion King and thus were here at 5pm (curtain time was 8pm). If you order the pre-theatre dinner and let them know you need to get to a show, they will serve you efficiently with an eye on the clock. Also, you can imagine the cost of a fairy tale dinner might be steep, but if you order the prix fixe dinners which are available for the less-attended times of the day or night, you can control your budget nicely. For about $45, you get a choice of appetizers, a main entré and a dessert. There are some items that require a price supplement, but they are well worth it -- it's still a bargain.
Once seated and presented with menus, the first order of business was liquid refreshment. The adults in the group indulged in unusual cocktails like "What a Peach!" and mixed berry juleps, while the Wooklets stuck with water and soda, but even they felt grown up toasting all around with their glasses.
The waiter brought a big bread basket around, offering us a choice of semolina, rye, pumpernickel, white and plain rolls. He placed each person's selection on the bread plate with tongs rather than just plopping a basket on the table. How elegant! After a few more minutes to peruse the menu we made our selections. The mixed green salads and the tomato gazpacho piqued our interest so we ordered those as our appetizer course. (It was still early for dinner, and we didn't want to get overladen.) Just to prove that even top restaurants make mistakes though, when our appetizers arrived, the gazpacho looked a lot like mozzarella, tomato, and basil salad. We pointed this out to the waiter who apologized and promptly whisked the plates away, then returned with the delicious cold soup in a trice. (Thank goodness this wasn't some odd version of their "house soup" or something equally weird!) How a place handles mistakes and mishaps is actually the mark of a great place, and so far, this plate rates highly.
We actually ordered our whole meals at once and managed to cover much of the Prix Fixe menu, which contained five entrés: Roast Chicken, Herb-crusted Salmon, Rigatoni alla Marinara, Roast Rack of Pork, and Prime Rib. And Chicken fingers and fries for our junior connoisseurs; the Tavern does have a lower-priced children's prix fixe menu too, a very nice touch for those traveling with picky or small-stomached eaters.
The Rigatoni vanished like magic -- sightseeing is hungry work after all. The Prime Rib was cooked to medium rare perfection and deliciously tender. It was served with whipped potatoes, pencil-thin green beans, and yorkshire pudding. Can't get better than that! The rack of pork was moist and tender and seasoned to perfection. It was accompanied with mashed potatoes and asparagus. The roasted chicken and the salmon were not ordered by anyone in the party, surprisingly, so those choices will have to wait for our next visit.
In the 1980s there was a fad called nouvelle cuisine, which ended up being derided for it's beautifully plated but tiny, artful portions. Although food historians agree nouvelle cuisine was pivotal in changing how Americans thought about food, there was a backlash where some restaurants oversized their portions. After all, food in America is cheap, so to charge significantly more, it was good practice to put more on the plate. However, at this meal, we were not paying too much for the experience and the food, but the portions were VERY generous and filled the plate without looking like too much. Even the chicken fingers on the kids' plates were piled high, in an appealing, appetizing manner.
After all that amazing food, could we possibly have room fore dessert? Absolutely. Vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce for the Wooklets and crème brulée and cheesecake for the rest of us capped off a meal that was a truly wonderful experience. The waiter got a bit confused though; he kept forgetting to bring our tea, but he was nice and charming and apologetic, and he got us out in plenty of time to catch a cab and get downtown to the theater.
Did we mention that proper dress is required? We know some of you will roll your eyes at this, but dressing well amidst others dressed properly adds infinitely to the experience. As Beau Brummel pointed out, "One does not yap like a dog when one is dressed as a gentleman." We knew this of course, and had carried our couturewear (as Carson Kressley might call it) in our rucksacks (Carson might not approve of this, though). We had been out sightseeing all day, and we needed to retreat to the restrooms to change before we could be seated for dinner. Those restrooms are attended, but they are tiny. We all got to practice our contortionist skills in the confined space while the attendant just shook her head. She'd seen it all before. (Be sure to tip the nice lady as you leave!)
What could be the perfect ending to this meal? For the coachmen, groom and mice to roll up in the pumpkin carriage to take us to Happily Ever After, the ultimate destination for any princess or Prince Charming. As it was, we managed to flag down a cab with two layers of seats sort of like a minivan, so we could drive down to Lion King in spacious comfort, rather than cramming us all in or having to hail more than one cab. Driving through Times Square is something everyone should do, and best to leave the driving to the professionals, for the best ending to a fairy tale dinner in possibly the closest thing to a fairy palace restaurant on this earth!
Night-time photo from www.tavernonthegreen.com
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