When Jim Caiola visited New York City in the 1980s, Tavern on the Green (67th and Central Park West) was in its heyday. “I remember coming here and feeling like it was the most magical space on earth,” he says. “It had a certain twinkle.” Years later, he and his partner David Salama — who were then living in Philadelphia and running a cabaret and a restaurant called Beau Monde — found themselves pondering bidding on it at auction, but it had fallen into such disrepair that Caiola couldn’t imagine rehabilitating it without closing it and stripping it down to its studs. They passed on the project and forgot about it.
Two years later, while Caiola was at his daughter’s fifth birthday party, he got an email that renewed his interest. This time, the city was willing to gut the place and then turn the building over to someone who’d do the interior and landscape work. “It was almost as if someone had recorded me,” says Caiola. “That’s exactly what it needed.” The pair began working on a serious proposal for the space, enlisting chef Katy Sparks, an early champion of the sustainable food movement who worked under Bobby Flay before starting her own consulting business, to take over the kitchen.
By the time the proposal was finished — with a watercolor from Salama on the cover — “I knew we were going to be a top contender,” says Caiola. He was right: After the team’s presentation, the city indicated that the proposal was the frontrunner, and it wasn’t long before Caiola and Salama scored the project. They moved to New York, and then everyone set to work on what would be a two-year-long construction process, undertaken in conjunction with several city agencies.
Tavern on the Green opened its refurbished doors — unveiling a bar room, a room that looks out over Central Park, and a quiet south wing that can be booked out for private parties — at the end of April, and became fully operational in mid-May. At its busiest, it’ll serve 1,200 people at once, and while it will accept event bookings, one room here will always be open to New Yorkers.
In this interview, Caiola and chef Sparks chat about the meaning of stewardship and putting out noteworthy food to a high volume dining room.
What does being a steward of a place like this mean?
Caiola: There was so much controversy over the interior — you’d say, “chandelier,” and they’d be like, “chandelier!!” We’re classic designers — we like to take a space and make it feel like it’s always been done that way. When people come in here, they ask, “Oh, how many layers of the carpet did you lift to get to this beautiful floor?” We didn’t. The floor is new. None of this was here, not even the fireplace. But we intended to make people ask those questions. Tavern on the Green is so magical. It’s such a great location. The middle room — natural, as if you’re in the garden.
Sparks: Using great authentic raw materials. For the front of the house, it’s this building. For me, it’s about bringing authentic food to the menu, and that means a seasonal approach, but also my cuisine. I wanted to bring that along for the ride. I’m a big believer in sustainable local product, and that hasn’t changed. The time has come to scale it up to this volume: The products are there, and anything we can add to that tipping point, we should. We’re just adding our considerable weight to a movement that’s been in process for a long time.
You want this to be a space for New Yorkers. Tell me a little about that.
Caiola: My sister moved here 13 or 14 years ago, to Central Park West. When I came and visited her, I said, “Let’s go to Tavern on the Green.” She said, “Oh God no, we don’t go to Tavern on the Green. I’ve never met a single New Yorker who’s been there.” So what I realized in that moment is that New Yorkers never experienced it as a local establishment where you go. We want this to be a great addition to the Upper West Side — and a world-renowned, wonderful addition to New York. I don’t think there’s a place you can go here where half of the crowd is not tourists. You’re always with tourists — that’s what makes New York magical. When I ate here in the ’80s, the waiter and I counted 11 languages in the room — this is where the world meets. But when my sister moved here, that didn’t include New York. We knew we wanted a local, sustainable menu and restaurant. We don’t just want to be an empty restaurant waiting for the next wedding.
Talk to me about the vision for the food here.
Caiola: I wanted Tavern on the Green to be a place where you loved the food separately from the fact that you were eating it at Tavern on the Green; you’d come back because the meal was so good that you wanted to come back. I wanted a really good restaurant. At her busiest, Katy fed 100 people a night — now, it’s 600 or 1,200 or people a night. That’s a totally different challenge. In order to make that food excellent, it takes a lot of simplicity and a lot of finesse. And an open kitchen. This place was so vile before, transparency is really important to me. That’s why the kitchen is that open.
Sparks: When I thought about feeding many hundreds of people at the same time, I had to have a strategy, and that meant simple proteins that cook quickly. We’re using Faroe Island salmon, which is the best of the raised salmon, and it cooks in three minutes on the plancha. We use the grill for steak, burgers, and things it’s good at doing. We use the plancha for patatas bravas, the duck egg for the ricotta spring onion tart, the crimini mushrooms in a bowl with cabrales blue cheese. The hearth oven is good at the mussels and the pasta and the hake. For the cold line, we designed things we could plate up with speed. And we’re doing ceviches. As much as I love raw bars, I knew we couldn’t make that work up here. So that’s how we’re managing to get wonderful food on the plate.
Can you talk to me about some of the big challenges with taking on this project?
Caiola: I grew up in a large family, and you had to take your place, know your place, then get as far ahead as you could in your place. This was sort of like that, between working with different city agencies. It was very challenging and very nerve-racking, but ultimately, we all kind of came together — we had the same goal, and that was to get this place open. It was two solid years of us knowing our place and inching along. And there were some things we couldn’t control: We were warned that getting gas was going to be hard — so we were warned two years ago, and two years later, it took months to get gas. There were three blizzards in the row, and then our last connection was scheduled for right after that big gas blow-up in Harlem. So then everyone who’s ever smelled gas in their whole life is calling the gas company. We couldn’t get the gas company here for a month. So a lot of the not opening for months and months was because of those kinds of things.
Sparks: I have to stay flexible, and when things aren’t working, I have to identify them and move on. When we started, we were slicing skirt steak, but it takes too long — we cannot have meat that we have to slice, so I took it off the menu and put tuna on instead. We have to be realistic about what we can do without making flavor or quality compromises.
Katy, why did you give up your consulting business and join this project?
Sparks: Jim and I had been friends, but we’d never worked together. When we were crafting the RFP, found I really liked working with him and David — our visions dovetailed in so many ways. That was wonderful; clients aren’t always like that. By the end of it, I felt like this could be a very exciting way to get back into the business. I hadn’t been craving it, but what a huge challenge it presented, and I could bring my passionate local and sustainable vision to this big stage.
What are you most excited about?
Caiola: Giving New York and the world Tavern on the Green back – they deserve it. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so happy to be a part of it. And then I’m excited about getting everything in a pattern of a well-oiled machine. I can’t wait to get to the point of feeding 2,500 people a day.
Sparks: Being here every day is really exciting. I love being in the park, this gorgeous building with natural light, connected to nature. I get excited every time I walk through the park from the Q stop — it’s a real privilege to work here.