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The New Lord Of the Tavern

The New Lord Of the Tavern

The Observer 2/23/2010

by Dana Rubinstein

It was Feb. 27, 2008, and Kay LeRoy, ex-wife of the late flamboyant restaurateur Warner LeRoy, and their daughter Jennifer were hosting a dinner at Tavern on the Green. The purpose was to rededicate the Pavilion Room in honor of Jennifer’s late brother Max, a room that now included a 167-foot panoramic mural of Central Park iconography so precise it took a group of muralists more than a year to create. And yet, despite the obvious sentimental importance of the evening—despite the presence of the restaurant’s owners and their guests—one couldn’t help but note the poverty of the cuisine. The surliness of the staff. The guest list that included few, if any, political dignitaries, the sort of people it pays to know when your landlord is the city.

Nearly two years to the day after that dismal dinner, the LeRoy organization officially vacated the premises of Tavern on the Green at 3 p.m. on Feb. 12. And while a new owner and the restaurant workers’ union negotiate a fresh agreement for the concession to reopen, Tavern on the Green sits dark. The detritus of disuse accrues, and quickly: the candy wrapper litter, the overturned patio furniture, the abandoned motorcycle behind the unlocked gates.

Warner LeRoy would surely be shocked by what has become of Tavern on the Green, but its demise was not some tornado-like act of God. Tavern on the Green was a marked restaurant, the victim of years of mismanagement and, in the end, of official lassitude.

At least one man knew it. While Jennifer Oz LeRoy, who inherited the legendary establishment following her father’s death, allowed her Central Park legacy to wither, Dean Poll, the proprietor of the Boathouse across the way, was licking his chops.

MR. POLL, THE CENTRAL Park Boathouse concessionaire who successfully bid for the Tavern on the Green concession, comes from a family that is, in some obvious ways, everything the LeRoys are not.

Mr. Poll, 6-foot-7 and 52 years old, grew up in Manhasset, Long Island. He still lives on the island, now with a wife and two sons. In Williston Park, he and his two brothers run a seafood restaurant called Riverbay that got a good review in The Times. It’s the successor to a restaurant called Pappas that his father owned in Sheepshead Bay. Mr. Poll worked there as a kid. After graduating from college, he went straight into the family business, working at a family-run food concession in the Time-Life Building.

If Jennifer LeRoy grew up steeped in Hollywood heritage and the trappings of uptown wealth-Dalton, horses, high society-Mr. Poll grew up in restaurants, raised in a Greek-American family that prided itself on hard work. He won the Boathouse concession in 2000, growing its revenue from $8.2 million a year to $18 million. He is said to arrive early at the Boathouse and leave late. He sometimes makes his own early-morning trips to Hunts Point in the Bronx to buy meat and fish. He’s said to have coveted Tavern on the Green for years.

“I can tell you he’s very fastidious, a perfectionist, and ambitious,” one of his colleagues wrote in an email.

Mr. Poll declined to comment for this article. His high-powered attorney and PR consultant are keeping him tightly under wraps, pending the conclusion of his ongoing negotiations with the restaurant workers’ union and the signing of a contract with the city.

But while his management of the Boathouse has been lucrative, it is, from an aesthetic standpoint, something of the polar opposite of Tavern on the Green. “You’ve seen other spaces like it,” said Ron Genereux, the lead artist behind the murals for the Pavilion Room in Tavern on the Green. Indeed, the Central Park Boathouse, from the handheld buzzers that alert patrons that their table is ready to the Pottery Barn décor, has something of a suburban blandness to it. “It’s like the nicest restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina,” said one observer.

In other words, the remnants of Tavern on the Green, perhaps the most fantastical restaurant in New York—Mr. Genereux calls its aesthetic “idealized fantasyland”—will be resurrected by a disciple of suburban chic.

MUCH INK HAS BEEN spilled in hagiographic accounts of the last days of the LeRoy reign at Tavern on the Green, a restaurant with which New York City has a relationship that is, at best, fraught, and at worst, scornful. But sources close to the LeRoys say that following Warner’s death, Tavern on the Green was allowed to atrophy.

“I would go in there with colleagues, and they would go, ‘Oh my God, this place really needs work,” said a LeRoy colleague. “But the ladies from Ohio off the tour buses would still be enthralled.”

And why shouldn’t they be? The place was a wonderland of excess, guests ushered by frocked doormen into rooms of Tiffany stained glass and Waterford chandeliers, inanimate monkeys and brass samovars, with views of the world’s most famous park, framed by King Kong and elephant topiaries. The sort of world that could only have been created by Warner LeRoy, son of Wizard of Oz producer Mervyn LeRoy and Doris Warner, child of the Hollywood backlots, imagination unbound by questions of money.

Warner LeRoy, after acquiring the concession in 1973, made himself, and Tavern on the Green, the center of his own Technicolor universe. He was, said one insider, “a consummate operator.”

“He had a relationship with all of the political centers of the city,” said the family confidant. Campaign finance records show he spread his money around, doling out thousands of dollars in donations in the 1990s to Ruth Messinger, Rudy Giuliani, Mark Green, Alan Hevesi, David Dinkins and Peter Vallone.

Jennifer LeRoy was all of 22 when she inherited Tavern on the Green in 2001, and her upbringing hadn’t prepared her for the cutthroat world of restaurant management. Nor did she seem particularly inclined to learn. Sources say her presence on the scene was negligible. As was that of her mother, Kay, whom she called in to help. As far as political power was concerned, she and her mother seemed, for whatever reasons, principally interested in cultivating the support of former public advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

Yet Jennifer was good with the press, which positively salivated for her, the pretty young socialite atop one of New York City’s most prized baubles. She posed for a profile in Page Six magazine as Dorothy in ruby high heels and thick braided hair, clutching a Toto-like dog in her hands. Actual management of the restaurant fell to chief operating officer Michael Desiderio (he declined to comment for this story).

THERE WAS DECAY BEHIND the gilded curtain, and Tavern on the Green’s landlord, the Parks Department, appeared to notice. In February 2009, in preparation for the year-end expiration of the LeRoys’ lease, the city issued a request for bids that pointedly read: “Proposals are expected to include a substantial capital plan.” Proposed capital expenditures are said to have been a determining factor in the decision to award the new concession rights not to the LeRoys but rather to Central Park Boathouse operator Dean Poll. He promised to invest $25 million. The LeRoys: about $8.5 million.

But Mr. Poll had more going for him than that. Eager as he was to establish a monopoly over Central Park’s most lucrative restaurants, spanning the Boathouse on the eastern side and Tavern on the Green on the west, Mr. Poll was also something of the last man standing, abetted in his efforts by the LeRoy family’s own dysfunction, the torpor of the Parks Department and a hospitality industry reeling from the recession.

The February 2009 request for proposals indicates a strong preference for a re-envisioned eatery and includes photos of the restaurant from pre-LeRoy days: “The historic photos included in this RFP are meant to inform proposers and provoke design ideas.”

Further, “Parks envisions a restaurant that will honor the original design intent of the Olmsted and Vaux park plan,” the RFP reads. “Today’s Central Park is much changed from the Central Park of the 1970s, when Mr. LeRoy began to operate Tavern on the Green. The Central Park Conservancy (“CPC”), founded in 1980, has invested more than $450 million to enhance, repair and maintain Central Park’s 843 acres. Parks encourages proposers to place particular focus on the restaurant’s relationship with the park, which has enjoyed renewed vitality in the last few decades.”

It’s not hard to read between the lines. Parks wanted a new Tavern on the Green, perhaps one more in keeping with the Connecticut farmhouse aesthetic of the Upper East Side-heavy Central Park Conservancy.

Nor was the timing of the RFP propitious for the LeRoys.

“Why didn’t they do it the year before, when a lot of people had expected it?” said Shelley Clark, Tavern on the Green’s longtime spokeswoman (neither Kay nor Jennifer would comment for this article). “Why didn’t they issue it in 2008, so that a decision could have been made so there could have been a smooth transition? The current Tavern wouldn’t have had to go into bankruptcy. We couldn’t book any business. There was a perfect storm of not getting that cash flow, or not even being able to cooperate with a future operator. Then we had the economy.”

The Parks Department, for its part, claims that “[t]he license expired at the end of 2009, [and] we had no choice but to issue the RFP for the new license term,” said Vickie Karp, a Parks spokeswoman. (This reporter, it should be noted, worked in the Parks Department for three and a half years.)

IN SEPTEMBER 2009, A group of investors did try to find a way to save some semblance of Tavern on the Green. They contacted the Plaza. Maybe a new Tavern could be reprised there, relocated to the Palm Court, or the Fifth Avenue lobby? Another investor reached out to the New York Athletic Club, also on Central Park South, only to be told that it was a no-go because Dean Poll was a member. At any rate, come October, it was a moot point. The LeRoy organization had not only declared bankruptcy, but it was also struggling to retain ownership of Tavern on the Green’s very name. The city was now claiming ownership of the trademark, contrary to the original RFP, in which the Parks Department wrote, “The City does not represent that it owns the name ‘Tavern on the Green.’ Proposers who wish to continue to use this name should be prepared to pursue its availability independently.” The investors disbanded. The issue of who owns the name—valued by an appraiser at $19 million—remains tied up in court.

The resulting dissolution of all that was Tavern on the Green has been well documented: Mr. Poll’s ongoing and hard-nosed negotiations with the restaurant workers’ union; the long line of creditors seeking a piece of the LeRoys; the massive auction of everything inside Tavern on the Green, from the chandeliers to the topiaries to the murals, which have actually been peeled off the walls.

What’s left is an empty, litter-strewn memorial to the house of LeRoy, shorn of decoration, lights haphazardly lit, front door padlocked. Mr. Poll may well resurrect it, but there’s no question that the landmark restaurant of Warner LeRoy’s imagination will never return.