Jim Caiola (Photo by Robin Caiola)
Monday night marked the grand gala reopening of Tavern on the Green, an iconic restaurant that's received a very natural-looking facelift. For proprietors and partners Jim Caiola and David Salama, it's been a long time coming. Last year they hired executive chef Katy Sparks to create a modern menu of well-sourced meats, seafood and seasonal vegetables then endured months of waits for all the permits and construction to be completed. We chatted with Caiola to learn more about this journey.
You were supposed to open by New Year's so there must have been a lot of hold-ups.
In a way we were thankful the opening kept getting pushed back but in another way we were biting our nails. Every week for four months we thought we were opening in three weeks. It gave us enough time to get it together. We didn't finish the landscaping until 5:30 the night of the opening party.
What was the low point?
Right when we were finally about to get gas the explosion happened at that Harlem apartment building and we went back to the bottom of the list. That was scary for us. We thought, "are we ever going to get gas?" We were worried we wouldn't be open for the summer.
Can you talk about when you studied acting with Lee Strasberg in the '80s?
I was about 21 and Lee was very loving one day in class about my acting -- he wasn't normally like that -- and he made me feel so positive I took myself out to lunch at Tavern as a gift to myself. I had a Romanian waiter and asked him to help me identify all the languages I was hearing around my table. We counted eleven. I remember thinking this is the melting pot of the universe. I thought if I went into the restaurant business this was the best location in the world, so magnificent and phenomenal, in the middle of Central Park.
How much was your check?
$36, not cheap. I think it would be around the same price to have lunch here now.
For a hamburger and a beer in the bar it might be less. I like that it's a place New Yorkers can stop in casually now, that it's not just for weddings. And it actually looks like a tavern.
One of the things David and I loved about this project was making it look authentic to what it is, a huge restaurant in a bucolic setting. The indoor seats focus on looking out and we have 700 seats outdoors.
You ended up running restaurants in Philadelphia. Have New Yorkers been welcoming?
It's not like I'm from Dubai or something, I'm from Philly. Most New Yorkers are transplants. The only true New Yorker I've ever met was Woody Allen and he was really rude. One night my partner and I were seated at his table -- we knew his assistant -- where he was playing clarinet and he wasn't in the mood to talk to us. Everyone else has been very friendly, even Steve Cuozzo.
What did you find when you were gutting the place?
The carpets were moldy and the cement was moldy underneath it. The whole foundation had to be dug out. Raccoon families were living there.
Did you go to Tavern in the bad days before it closed [in 2009]?
My sister and her husband moved to Central Park West and when I visited them about fourteen years ago I said, 'Let's go to Tavern on the Green for a drink.' My sister said, 'Eewww. You don't go to Tavern for a drink.' She thought it was so absurd she walked away from me. That's when I thought: This place needs me. I've had these big highlight-y moments about Tavern over the years that led me to think about it more. I left New York in 1984 so didn't see it become just an event space. When I lived here it was cool to go there.
So you never saw how bad it got?
I crashed a couple people's parties to see for myself and it was really rundown. I remember smelling the mold where the carpet was. They had a huge tent for the coat check then you were in this beveled mirror hallway that led to another huge tent. You could have been anywhere and never known you were in Central Park. One bride would be coming in the front and another going out the back. I'm an Upper West Sider now and one of the immediate things Katy Sparks and I wanted to do was make it a neighborhood restaurant. We're giving business to as many small, local purveyors as we can, serving Brooklyn beer and making desserts with Mast Brothers chocolate.
I understand you and Katy have been friends for a long time.
We worked together many years ago and then she opened Quilty's in SoHo and was on the cover of all these magazines. When David and I opened our restaurants in Philly she was so supportive and gracious and available to us. We never forgot that. When we won the bid to reopen Tavern we had fallen out of touch but I thought if I could get Katy we'd be in much better shape. She said yes to being a consultant and then I talked her into being our executive chef.
It really seems like you were meant to do this.
I had this feeling that if you went up in the sky Tavern would be like a light on earth. I still feel that way.
Tavern on the Green, Central Park West and 67th St., 212-877-8684 http://tavernonthegreen.com/