Tavern on the Green coming to the Metreon
San Francisco Chronicle 5/7/2008
By James Temple
Tavern on the Green, the iconic New York restaurant better known for its sales volume than stellar cuisine, will open a huge establishment at San Francisco’s Metreon, the first step in a long-discussed repositioning of the troubled shopping center.
The 40,000-square-foot restaurant, about four times larger than Pat Kuleto’s new Epic Roasthouse, will be located on the top floor, with an outdoor terrace overlooking Yerba Buena Gardens. The business will focus heavily on private events, catering to groups through nearby hotels and Moscone convention center. It will share the opulent (some say over-the-top) feel of the original Tavern on the Green, with chandeliers, murals and art, and may include a bar space serving lighter fare during the afternoon.
“We’re very excited about moving to another area and spreading what we have here,” said Jennifer LeRoy, chief executive officer of Tavern on the Green and daughter of the man who made the restaurant famous. “We’ve gotten a lot of (expansion) opportunities, but it just seemed like the right time, right space and great partners.”
Those would include developers Westfield Group and Forest City Enterprises, which together bought the Metreon from a joint venture between Sony Corp. of America and Millennium Partners in 2006, saying at the time that it would be “repositioned and re-tenanted.”
Westfield declined to elaborate then and didn’t add much on Tuesday.
“Westfield and Forest City acquired Metreon with an eye towards revitalizing it to add to the dynamic nature of the Yerba Buena neighborhood,” Westfield spokeswoman Catharine Dickey said in a statement. “Tavern on the Green is an iconic name with local, regional and international appeal that is the first of several exciting new concepts and ideas under consideration.”
Industry sources say that the owners, which also own the nearby Westfield San Francisco Centre, have been interviewing architects to reconfigure the Metreon space.
The problem is that the funky layout and tenant mix, originally trumpeted as a newfangled fusion of entertainment and retail, simply didn’t work well for shops or shoppers. A stream of exhibits, stores and restaurants have come and gone since its opening in 1999, including the Way Things Work, Where the Wild Things Are, Microsoft, Discovery Channel and Montage. The most successful part of the shopping center is the 15-screen Loews Theatres.
The orientation “fed the belly of the project and the food court and the theaters, but it really made the retail an afterthought,” said Matt Holmes, principal with San Francisco brokerage firm Retail West.
New tenants like Tavern on the Green and planned design changes, which include moving the entrance and adding signs and glass storefronts to advertise the shops, should draw more traffic, he said.
Tavern on the Green has a storied history. Originally a Central Park sheepfold, it was converted to a restaurant in 1934. Warner LeRoy, the famed New York restaurateur who founded Maxwell’s Plum Bar and later the Russian Tea Room, oversaw a $10 million renovation and reopened the restaurant in 1976.
A rare example of fine dining on a massive scale, the more than 25,000-square-foot restaurant became a popular spot for Broadway openings, charity auctions and movie premieres.
It’s made guest appearances in a handful of films, including “Ghostbusters” and “Wall Street.” To this day, it remains one of the largest-grossing independently owned restaurants in the country, with nearly $40 million in annual revenue and 600,000 visitors.
In 1995, then-New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl famously deflated Tavern on the Green in a review that, while complimentary of the food, thrashed the service, citing long delays and an aloof waitstaff.
“To thousands of visitors, Tavern on the Green is New York,” she wrote. “Does it really have to be such a blatant example of our famous rudeness?”
Reichl gave the restaurant one star, meaning “good,” the ranking it retains today. Its current entry in the dining and wine section of the New York Times Web site includes the notes: “very expensive” and “strictly for tourists.”
Asked how Tavern on the Green would address such alleged shortcomings as it rolls into a competitive restaurant town, Chief Operating Officer Michael Desiderio said it has already made improvements, including the hiring of Brian Young as executive chef.
He is the former chef de cuisine of the three-star Michelin restaurant Le Bernardin and executive chef at Citarella the Restaurant, an outgrowth of New York’s esteemed food shop. He will oversee the San Francisco kitchen.
The restaurant is expected to open during summer 2009. The menu will be contemporary American, featuring local ingredients and wine selections.
“We understand we need to step up certain things,” Desiderio said. “We’re expecting to get into this market and show how serious we are about food and service.”.