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Debts close iconic NYC restaurant

Tavern on Green plans to serve its last meals tonight

A Central Park horse-drawn carriage passed lunch customers Tuesday at Tavern on the Green, in operation since the mid-1970s. Interior decor will soon be auctioned to defray owners’ debts. A Central Park horse-drawn carriage passed lunch customers Tuesday at Tavern on the Green, in operation since the mid-1970s. Interior decor will soon be auctioned to defray owners’ debts. (Don Emmert/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Verena Dobnik
Associated Press / December 31, 2009

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NEW YORK - Tavern on the Green, once America’s highest-grossing restaurant, is singing its culinary swan song.

The former sheepfold at the edge of Central Park, now ringed by twinkling lights and fake topiary animals, is preparing for New Year’s Eve, when it will serve its last meal. Just three years ago, it was plating more than 700,000 meals annually, bringing in more than $38 million.

But that astronomical sum wasn’t enough to keep the landmark restaurant out of bankruptcy court. Its $8 million debt is to be covered at an auction of Baccarat and Waterford chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass, a mural depicting Central Park, and other over-the-top decor that has bewitched visitors for decades.

Even the restaurant’s name is up for grabs. At stake is whether another restaurateur taking over the 27,000 square feet of space, owned by the city, can reopen as Tavern on the Green.

For 75 years, since it first opened amid the Great Depression, the Tavern has attracted clients from around the world.

“This reminds me so much of Poland!’’ exclaimed Vermont resident Meg Kearton as she entered for her first time in late December. “It reminds me of a restaurant in Warsaw - the grandeur and the colors.’’

She came for lunch a few days after Christmas, when green and white dominated the Tavern’s year-round wonderland of lights, flowers, and ornamental mirrors.

Hanging over the main Crystal Room, an all-glass dining area, was a century-old chandelier made of green glass, said to have been owned by an Indian maharajah. Two elk decked with red and green ornaments stood at the entrance, and outside was a huge King Kong topiary.

Former Tavern mogul Warner LeRoy, befitting his heritage as son of a producer of “The Wizard of Oz,’’ searched the globe for the whimsical goods after he took over the Tavern’s lease in 1973. He died in 2001, leaving the business to his wife, Kay LeRoy, and daughter Jennifer.

As the end of the family’s operating license approached, the city sought competing bids.

The LeRoys lost to Dean Poll, who operates the stylish Loeb Boathouse restaurant overlooking the Central Park lake and offered to invest $25 million on Tavern renovations. The city awarded him a 20-year license in August, citing his significant capital investment and vision; the new Tavern will incorporate green building technology while a conservatory-style dining space will complement the original Victorian architecture.

Poll also plans an outdoor cafe, bicycle racks, and new public restrooms.

The LeRoys, employing more than 400 unionized workers with full benefits, couldn’t match that. As the recession hit, they accrued more than 450 creditors.

A spokeswoman for the company running the auction said the LeRoys couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday, but people close to Jennifer LeRoy, 31, said she feels heartbroken over the closure and betrayed by a city that pulled the lease to a business her father turned into a New York icon.

The decisive moment in the intellectual-property dispute over the name comes next month. That’s when a Manhattan federal judge will decide whether the moneymaking name Tavern on the Green, valued at about $19 million, belongs to whoever operates the space, as the city contends, or whether the LeRoys own it.

If the city loses, Poll will use the name Tavern in the Park, creating a new menu of American cuisine with fresh seasonal ingredients and reopening by March, said his attorney, Barry LePatner.

“We’re going to bring the park into the restaurant,’’ said LePatner, by eliminating the thick shrubbery around the premises to reveal Sheep Meadow, where the animals grazed until 1934, housed in the 19th-century Victorian Gothic shed that is part of the restaurant.

Just about everything from the current restaurant will be for sale Jan. 13 through Jan. 15 at a Guernsey’s auction held live at the Tavern, with a public preview there from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12.

The city’s parks department has asked the bankruptcy court to bar the sale of items that “cannot be removed without irreparably damaging the space they occupy,’’ according to an objection that department lawyers filed in court this week.

Those items include lavish decorative elements on the Crystal Room ceiling, as well as chestnut paneling and the brass lettering for The Bar and six banquettes. A judge has scheduled a hearing on the disputed items for Jan. 11.