Last week, after the premiere of Rocketman in New York City, celebrities and guests made their way to in Central Park for a glitzy afterparty. A disco ball hung from the ceiling, and petite hors d'oeuvres were served. Events like this are not uncommon for the restaurant, which has been a landmark of the city and a mainstay of the park since the early 1900s. The historic eatery—originally two sheep barns and shepherd housing since the late 1800s—has opened and shuttered, fallen and revived, thrived and withered several times over the past century. But Jim Caiola and David Salama say that this time success will be lasting.
Caiola and Salama—partners in life and in business—purchased Tavern in 2014, despite the fact that it lacked a roof, floors, windows, and doors. “It had been closed down for five years and was just brick—no plumbing, no electric, nothing,” Caiola tells ED. He says he had dreamed of getting his hands on the Central Park spot for decades. “When I was 21, I went with a friend to Tavern on the Green to celebrate a good week at school,” Caiola says. “We were in the (then) narrow courtyard outside, and I noticed over 10 different languages were being spoken around me. It was so cool.” Impressed by the microcosmic feel of the space, he vowed to never work at a restaurant again until he owned one.
But ask a New Yorker what Tavern on the Green is today and you’ll likely be bombarded with a history lesson—ranging from the original Calvert Vaux opening in 1934 to Warner LeRoy’s radical renovations in the ‘70s, they speak of the restaurant as an entity, not an eatery. While its history is key to the restaurant’s appeal, Caiola and Salama are working to add to that narrative a piece that it’s been lacking for decades: what it’s like to eat at Tavern on the Green.
The goal is twofold: link the new space to its original 1930s iteration, while refreshing its appeal to New Yorkers and travelers alike. “People think of Tavern on the Green as a place to have events—one bride walking in one door, another walking out of the next,” Caiola says. “Or, even worse, they think of it as a tourist destination.” While tourists are, of course, the backbone of many New York City restaurants, Caiola wanted to modernize the interior and exterior spaces, making it a place to pop in for a drink after work or a birthday lunch with friends. "While we do continue to host classic, sophisticated and boutique style weddings almost once a day, we also want Tavern to be a go-to spot for all occasions." In addition to their new menu, which features upscale American fare (raw bar towers and 28-day dry aged New York sirloin, for example), the restaurant’s decaying interiors demanded a complete overhaul, from bedrock to roof.
A gut renovation in 2014 allowed Caiola and Salama to restore elements of the original 1800s barn, while elevating the space to have contemporary elegance. Upon entering, guests are met by a sultry Swiss Alps-inspired bar room, marked by a round red velvet banquette and an attractive rounded bar; a room that begs the question: am I in the middle of Central Park or enjoying an apres-ski aperitif? From there, you’ll find the Central Park Room, with glass walls that glitter around you. Delicately patterned banquettes, rustic lighting, and small touches of greenery envelope you in a natural and cozy world, where you can see out into the courtyard and be reminded that you’re dining in a world-famous park. Outside, gardens designed by landscape architect Robin Key frame the seating areas and event spaces—a whimsical enclosure that disguises all signs of the surrounding city life. While these appendages of the building, including the Bar Room and Central Park Room, felt like the branches of a tree, the South Wing dining area felt flat to its new owners. Caiola and Salama opened the restaurant anyway—glamorous but unfinished in their eyes.
This year, they decided to polish it off. “It was the perfect excuse to give Tavern on the Green a facelift, to remind people that it really is the gem of Central Park,” Caiola said. Now, there would be no excuse for locals not to visit. A reconfiguration of the seating encouraged a better flow of conversation; new double mirrors brightened the otherwise dark space; luxurious gold leaf detailing lent a bespoke sense of luxury. “Even the smallest details made a huge difference, which was key to revitalizing the space,” Caiola explains. Other additions include handmade Scagliola stone sheep sculptures, which can be found throughout the property, a restoration of the original ceiling and beams, and handmade custom Pegasus chandeliers above the bar. These thoughtful changes may seem minor on the surface, but their purpose is very clear: to bring you back in time as you dine, while enjoying a modern New York restaurant experience.