New Tavern on the Green Too Casual for Donald Trump

By Leslie Albrecht on March 29, 2012 7:58am 

Donald Trump said he's no longer interested in taking over Tavern on the Green.
Donald Trump said he's no longer interested in taking over Tavern on the Green.
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Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

UPPER WEST SIDE — The Donald doesn't do casual dining.

Potential operators for Tavern on the Green have until Friday to submit their offers to the Parks Department, but bombastic businessman Donald Trump won't be among them because the new scaled-down Tavern doesn't jibe with Trump's luxury-laden brand, a Trump representative said.

"We only get involved with projects that are super high quality and luxury," said Ron Lieberman, executive vice president of management and development at the Trump Organization.

The city is renovating the famed Central Park restaurant, which closed in 2009, by stripping away glitzy elements like the Crystal Room and slashing the size of the dining room.

Whoever takes over Tavern on the Green, once a go-to destination for wedding proposals and graduation dinners, will be expected to run a moderately priced informal eatery, according to the city's request for proposals.

Trump boasted that he was primed to reopen the storied restaurant in early 2011, announcing plans to pour $20 million into spiffing it up.

He also struck a deal with the union that represents Tavern employees, a crucial step. An attempt by Central Park Boathouse operator Dean Poll to take over Tavern failed when he couldn't reach an agreement with the union.

But when Trump saw the phrase "casual dining" in the city's request for proposals, he balked, Lieberman said.

"For us to be involved we would want to turn it back to its glory and make it one of the greatest restaurants in the world," Lieberman said. "But the way the city has set it up makes it impossible to do that."

Lieberman said Trump wouldn't rule out a possible future with Tavern, given his successful experiences running Wollman Rink and the Central Park Carousel.

Poll, who won the city contract to run Tavern in 2009 but ultimately didn't take over the restaurant, said he won't be submitting an offer this time around.

"I chose not to pursue it," Poll told DNAinfo. "It was a business decision."

After reviewing the proposals due Friday, the Parks Department hopes to select a new operator for Tavern by the end of spring, spokesman Phil Abramson said.

Several big-name restaurateurs showed up to tour the Tavern in February, including Drew Nieporent, founder of the Myriad Restaurant Group, which operates Nobu and Tribeca Grill; a representative of B&B Hospitality Group, the people behind Mario Batali's Eataly; and Legends Hospitality Management, which runs Yankee Stadium.

Representatives for all three didn't return requests for comment on Wednesday. Representatives for the legendary 21 Club attended the site tour as well; a spokeswoman declined to comment on whether the restaurant had submitted a bid to run Tavern.

Lawry's, a group of high-end prime rib restaurants and steakhouses based in Beverly Hills, also seriously considered pursuing the Tavern on the Green contract, said its culinary development chef Ryan Wilson.

The restaurant group is planning an East Coast expansion, and thought Tavern on the Green would be an ideal venue for a combination of traditional fine dining, quick take-away service, and a gastropub element. But the labor issues, small kitchen and dining room and lack of storage space made the concept unworkable, Wilson said.

"When we started modeling the square footage and how much seating capacity you could have, the numbers just weren't working," Wilson said. "We felt we couldn't do the volume necessary to make the business work."

Some say the city has taken so much glamour out of Tavern on the Green that it's no longer an attractive business venture. Whoever runs the new version of the restaurant won't even be allowed to put lights in the trees, once a trademark feature, parks officials have said.

"They eliminated one of the big rooms for catering, they constricted the footprint of the space, plus there's the issue of the restaurant union," said Donnie Evans, chairman of the New Taste of the Upper West Side.

"It's like a booby prize at this point. It's not a win. You'll have a busy restaurant that's never going to make a dollar."

Michael O'Neal, who owns the West 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe, attended February's site tour, but said running Tavern was beyond his means. O'Neal said he hoped whoever operates the Tavern on the Green next will have "as much imagination" as Warner LeRoy, the man who transformed the Tavern into one of the highest grossing restaurants in the country.

"He was a genius in a lot of ways," O'Neal said.

"Some people on the West Side might call it tacky. It was over the top, but there's a place for that. He made it into a world destination and the city just pretty much tore it down and that's a shame."

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