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End of an era for New York's Tavern on the Green

Tavern on the Green's decor includes copper and brass chandeliers and Tiffany-style stained glass.
Tavern on the Green's decor includes copper and brass chandeliers and Tiffany-style stained glass.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Legendary New York restaurant Tavern on the Green closes its doors
  • Destination for 500,000 people a year for anniversaries, birthdays, tourist visits
  • Warner LeRoy spent $10 million on chandeliers, stained glass, mirrors in 1970s
  • After bankruptcy, LeRoy family fighting with new lease-holders over Tavern name
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New York (CNN) -- The legendary New York restaurant Tavern on the Green closed its doors early Friday after serving its last supper and hosting a New Year's Eve party.

The iconic spot on the western edge of Central Park will undergo major renovations under a new operator and may even retain its famous name, but to many patrons, this is indisputably the end of an era.

Claudia Myers and Wayne Knowles, a semi-retired couple visiting recently from Norfolk, Virginia, were saddened by the news and decided to treat themselves to one last Tavern dinner. "I came here years ago and had good memories," Knowles said.

"It's the atmosphere and ambience," Myers added. "Everyone knows what Tavern on the Green is and where it is" -- here, Myers paused -- "except one cab driver. It's just a neat place. It has history, and it's in the park."

Ed Brown and his wife, Judy, also were in town for the holidays from Plantation, Florida, and were aware of the restaurant's plans. "It's my first and last time eating at Tavern on the Green," Brown said. "At least I can now say I ate there."

Rodney Shephard, the restaurant's maitre d' for the past 23 years, recently prepared for his last party. The event for 1,500 guests is nothing he couldn't handle, but he wasn't looking forward to the party on his last day of employment there.

"I never thought this day would come," said Shephard, 52. "Not like this. Not like the money-making machine that this place is."

The restaurant served its first meal in 1936, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia presided over its opening as the city and the country were trying to dig out from the Great Depression.

iReporter enjoys a final meal at Tavern on the Green

The restaurant almost died in 1974, when the operator shuttered the "rustic little money-losing pub," as New York Times food writer Eric Asimov later described it.

But Warner LeRoy took over the Tavern's lease and invested $10 million in renovations. He added two rooms to the existing four and installed scores of copper and brass chandeliers, Tiffany-style stained glass, bull's-eye glass mirrors and ornate pastel-colored fixtures, as well as a 167-foot mural depicting Central Park.

After its 1976 reopening, words like "playful," "dazzling" and "eclectic" were used to describe the restaurant's ambience and the menu. "It was an over-the-top whimsical place," longtime publicist Shelley Clark said.

Warner LeRoy's father, Mervyn LeRoy, produced the film "The Wizard of Oz." A black-and-white photograph hanging in the Tavern shows Warner as a child with Judy Garland on the set of the 1939 movie.

See iReporter's photos of the famed restaurant

Jennifer Oz LeRoy, in her recently published book "Tavern on the Green -- 125 Recipes for Good Times," which was co-authored by her mother, Kay, described the vision of the restaurant that her father wanted.

"When he walked into the courtyard of the run-down building, he imagined something wholly original and incredible: He would build a room in that space that would look like the inside of a wedding cake," she recalled.

"He was a brilliant showman and a brilliant restaurateur. He was bigger than life," said the Tavern's chief operating officer, Michael Desiderio. "He thought dining is like a great show, and when the curtain goes up, everything must be perfect."

Shephard, who started as a front desk manager, fondly recalled LeRoy and the sense of family that he brought to the establishment: "It's like a second home. I consider the employees like your brothers and sisters, and now it's all going to be cut off."

The restaurant became the destination for anniversaries, birthdays and family affairs, serving more than 500,000 people a year -- an average of 1,400 dinners a night. Tourists eagerly descended upon the eatery for the crab cakes, wedge salad, salmon and Parmesan-crusted chicken.

Food critics didn't share in the enthusiasm.

Andrew Knowlton, restaurant editor for Bon Appetit magazine, said the restaurant has never been the greatest venue for foodies. "When you're serving 2,000 meals a deal, I don't care if you're [chefs] Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, you just can't put out that much of a volume and have top-quality food."

The LeRoy family was forced to file for bankruptcy in 2009 after losing a bidding war for the lease to another proprietor, Dean Poll, who also owns the Boathouse Restaurant in Central Park. Now that the restaurant is closed, its contents will be auctioned off by Guernsey's auction house.

As part of the 20-year license to operate the restaurant, Poll is expected to invest $25 million in renovations.

While maintaining the Victorian historic features of the building, Poll's plan is to incorporate green building technology, as well as replacing the kitchen and electrical and plumbing systems. The renovations, which are expected to take four years, will be conducted in phases so the restaurant can remain open.

Attorney Barry LePatner, who represents Poll, said the new revitalized restaurant will become a popular destination for tourists and New Yorkers alike. "The new incarnation of Tavern on the Green will integrate modern respect with an iconic location and a sensibility that will warm to New Yorkers," LePatner said. "We want more New Yorkers as well as tourists."

LePatner said that while the terms of the lease are still being negotiated with the city parks department and issues with labor unions are still unresolved, Poll's vision is to create a new era. "The game plan is to have one of the biggest creative moments in the history of the city, and bring Tavern on the Green back to its original, enhanced luster."

One issue still unresolved is the name of the restaurant, which the current management estimates is valued at $19 million. The LeRoy family says it trademarked the name in 1981. U.S. District Court Judge Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum is expected to rule on the issue in January.

In the meantime, LePatner said, the city has filed a trademark for "Tavern in the Park," but he said Poll would like to retain the original name and feels it should rest with the site.