CENTRAL PARK — A sparkly new Tavern on the Green opened its doors to the public Thursday, after an extensive $28 million restoration that took years to complete.
The fabled structure, which dates back to 1874 and was originally used to house sheep, was completely gutted to create a brand-new interior that's meant to harken back to the early 1900s, said co-owner Jim Caiola.
Only the original wooden beams remain, but guests were already commenting about the space's historic feel, despite the restoration using completely new materials, Caiola said.
The narrow structure features a circular bar with a spinning golden carousel hanging from the ceiling, surrounded by tufted leather seats and a red banquette.
The restaurant then leads into the Central Park Room, with an open kitchen for its 55 cooking staff, headed by chef Katy Sparks. This main dining room holds the bulk of the restaurant's roughly 520 seats.
Glass walls to the east of the room expose the outdoor terrace and provide a view of the park. Caiola said he worried at first that the glass, which was part of the city's initial redesign, was "too Apple Store," but then it grew on him.
The South Wing, the last section of the restaurant, holds an additional 160 seats unless reserved for private functions. People are already rushing to book weddings for this summer, said Jordan Tannenbaum, the restaurant's beverage manager.
Caiola said he and his partner, David Salama, both of the Philadelphia-based Emerald Green Group, put $18 million into to the project thus far, with $12 million for restorations and another $6 million for operations. The city kicked in the the remaining $10 million for the overhaul.
There's already evidence the bet will pay off, with the restaurant fully booked for the next 30 days, Caiola said. However, there are a couple of Monday and Tuesday night reservations people might be able to snag, he said.
The bar is open to anyone who wants to drop in and serves the full menu, Caiola added.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who participated in the ribbon-cutting Thursday, said she was pleased to have a woman in charge of the food.
"I think it's very exciting you have a woman chef," she said.
Sparks' menu is "ingredient-driven," with locally-sourced, seasonally appropriate dishes, she said.
"The quality of the natural light is tremendous...The light connects me to nature and the food connects me to nature," she said of cooking in the bright open kitchen.
Brewer poo-pooed the food at the former Tavern on the Green, which opened in 1934, and said she was excited that the quality was being elevated.
Others, including Central Park Conservancy President Doug Blonsky, spoke of the park's dangerous past, particularly in the 1970s, when the restaurant walled itself off.
"Now the walls have come down and we've become one with the park," Blonsky said of the new layout, which is smaller.
Locals and tourists who may balk at the prices at the new Tavern — with main courses between $24 and $34 — will also have the option of ordering from the to-go menu, which will be slowly rolled out starting Friday, Sparks said.
The to-go menu will operate from a window at the southern end of the building and is something of a Brooklyn foodie's dream.
Dounughts from Dough in Bedford-Stuyvesant, ice cream sandwiches from Blue Marble in Boerum Hill, and a chocolate and ricotta sandwich with ingredients from Mast Brothers and Salvatore Ricotta are all part of the to-go menu, Sparks said.
"It's very Brooklyn," she said.
The regular menu, on the other hand, is "very spring," with the simple ceviche one of its hits, Sparks said.
In mid-May, Tavern on the Green will open its courtyard and begin offering lunch.
"Tavern has a great name," Caiola said, "and we hope to honor that.".