Two of America’s Most Famous Restaurants Close by John Mariani
I hope this does not become a regular column in this newsletter, but I find myself writing obituaries for famous American restaurants that have, each in their own way, contributed enormously to the way we dine out. This time I report on the closing of two giants–the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, GA, and NYC’s Tavern on the Green. The fiscal reasons are of varying import, but I shall not dwell on what the newspapers already have (here’s a link to a NY Times story on Tavern). I just want to recall and praise them for all they did in their time, for we may not soon see their likes again.
To say that Tavern on the Green was a significant part of NYC history is, in its literal sense, to say it dates to 1870 as a Victorian Gothic structure in what was then pasture land for the 200 sheep who gave the Sheep Meadow its name. Not until 1934, when all-powerful Parks Commissioner Robert Moses decided the building should be a restaurant did it weave its way into NYC social life, designed to compete with the Park Casino on the east side. Moses tore the old building down, got rid of the sheep (they went to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park), and named the new place Tavern on the Green.
Raymond Loewy, the great art déco architect, renovated the restaurant in the 1950s, adding the Elm Room, and in 1962 Restaurant Associates (which also then operated The Four Seasons and Forum of the Twelve Caesars) ran it until 1974, when Warner LeRoy, son of film director Mervyn LeRoy and the creator of the emblematic 1970s eastside restaurant Maxwell’s Plum, acquired the lease and poured an astonishing $10 million into Tavern, adding the marvelous Crystal (above) and Terrace Rooms, stained glass–including one authentic Tiffany example–14 etched mirrors, and 45 chandeliers, along with 400,000 outdoor lights in the trees, so that the Tavern always looked like it was Christmas in the Park.
LeRoy (shown at right with a Lucite bear he installed at the Russian Tea Room that he also bought) opened the doors in 1976, and the new Tavern immediately became the most popular dining and banquet destination in the city, in some years serving 650,000 guests and even just last year grossing more than $36 million. It was, in a word, flamboyant in two words, kitschy splendor, and in three, a Warner LeRoy extravaganza. There were other thematic restaurants in those days, but Tavern was a place of wonder for families and wedding guests, politicians, sports figures, and musicians who came to be dazzled by the glitter, the gleaming brass, and the huge stag statue. The waiters dressed in powder blue livery, the captains in tuxedos, and you could arrive or depart in a horsedrawn carriage outside the entrance.
There was a gift shop full of Tavern and NYC memorabilia, and I remember bringing my young sons there for the first of many visits when they came away with eyes wider than when they went in. And, yes, there was the food, about which LeRoy was manic in his preferences. One manager told me LeRoy once stormed into the kitchen with a steak he thought was one-quarter inch too thin and threw it at the manager’s chest, then told him to change his shirt and get back in the dining room.
Reports on the food ranged from generous to damning, though the various chefs–some of them highly respected known in culinary circles–acted more like field marshals than chefs. Practice–cooking a thousand or more guests a day–made for something near perfection, as long as not too much was demanded from a kitchen turning out sauces by the vat and desserts by the hundreds. The winelist was at one time stellar.
When Warner passed away, his daughter Jennifer LeRoy took over and poured in more money. The menus changed with the times, keeping the Tavern signature dishes but absorbing global influences too. She also designed many of the gift items in the on-premises store. This year a new cookbook was published.
The demise of Tavern, despite its amazing gross income, came, as it has for many places, with the onset of the recession, which decimated the banquet business, said to have been 60 percent of Tavern’s bottom line. The lease on the city-owned property was up this year, and the Parks Department decided to sign another operator, Dean J. Poll, who already runs the beautiful Central Park Boathouse nearby, to a 20-year lease; LeRoy and her company declared bankruptcy September 9 this year. Tavern, as we know it, will close its doors Dec. 31 and be reincarnated as something different.
For all its wow factor, for all its assembly line cooking, and for all its touristy allure, it is difficult to imagine anyone who’s ever been to Tavern shrugging and saying, “Oh, well, no big loss.” Tavern was unique and its flamboyance was as close to the soul of the city as is Liza Minnelli belting out “New York, New York” for the millionth time. Before Warner Leroy did Tavern his way there was nothing like it, although Las Vegas learned a thing or two about the value of spectacle from him. So when it closes its doors on New Years’ Eve, something will vanish from the scene. I only pray that its new owners are well aware of the place Tavern holds in the world’s–not just New York’s–heart, a place where the lights always twinkled in the trees, the limos and horsedrawn carriages formed a line at the entrance, and a night of sheer fantasy awaited everyone who came through its doors.
The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Buckhead is quite a different kind of fantasy, for there on the outskirts of Atlanta (there is another Ritz downtown), it was a discreet respite from the rest of the city, embodying a quiet elegance that seemed closer to a resort in Scotland than a posh hotel restaurant in Georgia. Now, after 25 years of unstinting excellence, this, one of the greatest restaurants in America, has closed its beveled glass doors.
Its 19th century European artwork alone–“After the Hunt in Scotland,” by Pierre Jules Méné; a bronze crowing rooster by Paul Comolera; “The Homestretch” and “At the Crossroads,” by British sporting artist George Wright, and much else would put you very much in mind of a place in the Lake Country where men wore tweeds during the day and black tie at night. There were tufted banquettes, vintage silver Christofle serving carts and an array of perfectly aged cheeses, and petit-fours display (below), a winelist of 600 selections, and impeccable service. The restaurant won just about every award possible to receive, year after year, despite several changes in chefs over three decades.
The first was the redoubtable Guenther Seeger, who set the bar at the Dining Room from 1985 to 1996, later opening his own namesake restaurant. Seeger’s precision of classic French technique combined with his own stylish flair gave the restaurant cachet and quite literally gave Atlanta some bragging rights as a city where truly fine dining was possible. Next up was Chef Joël Antunes, from 1991-2001, who brought an even more modern focus to the menu while never betraying its refinement. Bruno Ménard, who brought in Asian elements, was here from 2001-2005, followed by Arnaud Berthelier, whose family’s baking business in France informed many of his innovations at the Dining Room. In addition, the kitchen was a grad school for many who would further distinguish the Atlanta dining scene, including Bennett Hollberg, (now at the Atlanta Grill at The Ritz-Carlton, Atlanta); Gary Mennie (Canoe, Taurus and Livingston); Shaun Doty (MidCity Cuisine, Table 1280 and Shaun’s); and Troy Thompson (Fusebox), among others.
The usual reasons have been given for the Dining Room’s closure–the recession, change in American dining habits, expense–and they all carry weight. Quite frankly, having visited the Dining Room during every chef’s tenure there, I never saw the place full in the way a restaurant of its caliber would be in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, so it was to the Ritz-Carlton’s credit to keep it open as a commitment to the hotel’s deluxe character. No one can blame them for the final closure, and I’m not sure there will be a return soon to the style of fine dining the restaurant represented.
And that is truly a shame, especially for Atlanta, which is now bereft of any restaurant at that level of cuisine and service, at a time when foodies are hyperventilating about storefront eateries with nothing but a counter and a menu of sandwiches and pork belly stew, nevertheless charging plenty of money for such short order grub.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, in a review of a new Upper West Side gastro-pub, Leo Carey writes, “Foodies shrug and mutter that hard times necessitate simpler fare, but the vogue preceded the downturn and—like the overpriced designer T-shirt—may represent a flight not from expense but from taste.”
And we of the “United States of Arugula” were just starting to believe that we were becoming more sophisticated and more appreciative of the truly finer things in life. Maybe not.