When it comes to iconic destinations that you have to check off your bucketlist, Tavern on the Green is one of them. It's not just a culinary destination, but it is steeped in history. Earlier this fall we had the chance to talk with their General Manager, Kelly Harbison during their Fall Apple Event. With the holidays descending upon us, we had to circle back to share the history of Tavern on the Green, it's new incarnation, focus on approachability, being a steward in the community and of course, receive a snapshot on what the holiday season is like for them going into this time of year.
ATHLEISURE MAG: Can you tell us about the iconic history of Tavern on the Green?
KELLY HARBISON: Tavern on the Green is called Tavern on the Green because obviously we are located directly in front of Central Park and our building in the 1800’s was a sheepfold for the sheeps that would graze in Sheep’s Meadow which is right across the street from us. It’s really not even just historical in the 1900’s or even recently, but really all the way back to the building of Central Park where our building is a historic landmark is really influential in that kind of a growth of Central Park as a location which is really exciting for us.
Our ownership of Tavern on the Green has been since 2014. And basically, it was a restaurant for most of the 1900’s and then is was closed down for a little while and then the city really wanted to find a new owner/operator to come in that would bring the park inside. The old Tavern on the Green was really big and people were always in the Crystal Room that had all the chandeliers and such which was great and beautiful, but in the new incarnation of Tavern on the Green, we really looked to bring the park inside. We took down the Crystal Room and having that really beautiful Courtyard that really opens right up to Sheep’s Meadow and having an entrance open on that side so that people can just walk right up from being in the park and have a drink with us at our Courtyard. Our main dining room is the Central Park Room and it has a full glass front so that people can be experiencing the park while they are dining with us. Our two other rooms – our Bar Room and South Wing were really designed with nature in mind. So the original wood in the Bar Room or the leaves in the South Wing really help us to bring Central Park in and make it a bit more of an approachable place!
The Old Tavern, you would wear a suit and tie and go there for a 1,000 person gala and in the new incarnation, both the city and the operators really wanted to make it a place where everybody could come. You could still do a gorgeous wedding here in our Courtyard, but you can also stop here for lunch on a Mon if you are here visiting NYC and really have Tavern be a part of NYC as well as Central Park.
AM: We love that and we think that that is why Tavern on the Green has such a feeling for those visiting the city as well as those that live here! Because you guys have a number of rooms/areas, is the menu the same regardless of where you choose to dine?
KH: We generally for our dining room, have one menu. We have a lunch, brunch and dinner menu depending on the day and time. Additionally, we have our bar menu which is only served in our Bar Room and that has snacks and light bites if you are looking for something to nosh on while you have a nice beverage. In addition to that, we have our nice To Go Window open mainly year around although it closes in Jan. and Feb. – that’s more of a grab and go kind of thing for sandwiches and coffees for those that are walking through the park and don't have time to sit down for a nice meal. You can still have a nice lunch while you are walking by.
AM: As the General Manager, what is your role at Tavern on the Green?
KH: My role is to be the liaison of our ownership. We have over 300 staff members over a number of departments and a lot of things going on! I always joke that Tavern may be one restaurant, but it’s really 5! At any given point, we can have a wedding reception going on in our South Terrace, we can have our To Go Window open, another party in our South Wing, have a la carte in our Bar Room and Central Park Room and then have a full Courtyard with people coming in off of the Park and enjoying lunch or brunch. So it’s one building, but it’s really telling many stories at the same time. So my job is to help our ownership put that all together and what that looks like to ultimately hone in on the guest experience. I make sure that all of our departments whether it’s the front of house or back of house is firing on all cylinders and really just providing that really magical Tavern experience.
I know that you said before that people may have come here years ago – we have guests that come in that say, “oh this is my first time back since my friend’s wedding 10 years ago.” Or they will say, “I have never been here, but my grandparents got married here.” Or that their mom proposed to their dad here. There are a lot of really special family moments that we enjoy having them as Tavern moments as well and being able to speak to that. Simultaneously, being a part of NY.
We have a number of guests that live across the street on the UWS and they love having us here as their local establishment. It’s about holding those two things together and making sure that we are serving all those guests with absolute perfection - which is essentially my job and helping the management team from the front and back of house to do that!
AM: To be sure that is a huge job!
KH: Haha yes!
AM: On Nov 29th, this will be the 3rd Annual Tree Lighting for Tavern on the Green. Why did you guys start this tradition and what events will take place on this night? We know this is one of many events that will flow throughout this holiday period.
KH: The holidays here are about a month and a half of events at Tavern on the Green. We start with Thanksgiving Week. We do over 1500 people for Thanksgiving that Thursday and obviously, we know that that whole weekend is really a fun food and beverage weekend for everybody. That Saturday, we start our Holiday Brunch so our Executive Chef, Bill Peet puts together a $70 prix fixe menu that really focuses on the holiday and celebration and we run that menu every Saturday and Sunday through New Years. So coming off of that week, we head into the celebration of Christmas and all the holidays. So one thing that we do is participate in Winter’s Eve which takes place on Nov 26th at Lincoln Center which kind of brings together all of the restaurants out onto the street. We set up little kiosks and it allows us to be a part of the neighborhood and welcoming in the winter celebrations. This flows right into the Tree Lighting which takes place on Nov 29th and I’m so excited about it!
One of the things that I really love about it is, that yes we are in this iconic city, at an iconic restaurant, but we also try to be a good local steward of our community as well. Our charity partner for both the Winter’s Eve event and this Tree Lighting event is the West Side Campaign Against Hunger - a hyper local charity that really does amazing work around issues of hunger and scarcity right in our backyard. They run a food pantry which is set up like a grocery store and it allows people that need that food support to be a customer and get the kinds of things that they need for their families versus just giving boxes of food to them. It’s a really classy and respectful way for you to help someone out while making them feel valued at the same time. We love partnering with this organization for these reasons. So all of the money we raised for the donations from the delicious apple cinnamon donuts and delicious hot chocolate dipping sauce that was made for the Winter’s Eve event will be given to the West Side Campaign Against Hunger and similarly on the evening of the Tree Lighting Ceremony, we will host students from their Chef's Training Program who will be giving out soup and and raising money as well. Once again, we’re tying in this celebratory Tree Lighting into something that is a little greater than that and a bit more about the reason for the season – I think they say!
From the decorative side, we have a decorator that comes in who starts on Thanksgiving night at 1am to put up all the decorations.
AM: Oh wow!
KH: Oh yes, he’s right up in there! We will have over 12 Christmas Trees all over the building in addition to the beautiful one that is in the Courtyard that is 20 feet tall and has over 20,000 ornaments. There’s also 10,000 lights that we put up all over the eaves and the outside of the building and then really fun kinds of nooks all over the building. We have this white fireplace and we’re really playing up this cute Christmas Village in that area. We have Toy Soldiers when you come into the front and Chef Peet is putting together a full-scale Tavern on the Green as a gingerbread house. We have some lifesized elves in the Courtyard that are really fun to take a picture with. Finding these nooks so that people can take pictures of those great moments is really important to us.
Finally, for the Tree Lighting event, we will give out Chef Peet’s famous hot chocolate, spiced cider, warm cider, Christmas Cookies, gingerbread and apple cinnamon donuts. These will be complimentary to our guests for this event as we want our guests to enjoy the evening with us from 5-7pm. Our entertainment for the evening is the LaGuardia High School which is right around the corner from us. So we’re happy to have these talented young people to come celebrate with us!
AM: This sounds amazing! Will you continue to partner with West Side Campaign Against Hunger throughout the holiday season?
KH: We do events with them all of the time! I actually meant to mention an event we did the Tues after Thanksgiving …
AM: Yes Giving Tuesday
KH: Yes – on Giving Tuesday we donated 5% of our gross profits to West Side Campaign Against Hunger as well. We’re really happy to be engaging with them and the work that their Executive Director is phenomenal and the work that they do is amazing. It’s really important with the work that they are doing and it is being done in an amazing way. It’s about raising people up and doing charity in a way that helps people move themselves forward too.
I mentioned the Chef's Students that will be participating in the Tree Lighting, that’s a jobs program right? We come to them, they learn a skill and that helps them with their families to continue to succeed as they go forward. It’s an amazing way to serve the community. We work with this organization all the time so at the Apple Garden event you were at earlier this fall, one of the apple items had a $1 from every Waldorf Salad went back to them and we really look to find ways to donate to them as well as to incorporate them into what we do at Tavern. A couple of those Chefs Students who will be working at the Tree Lighting will actually be here all day with us by working with Chef Peet to see how a kitchen runs, helping with some prep work and really taking their classroom experiences in this charities kitchen to this big open kitchen on Tavern on the Green to give them that experience.
AM: That is truly amazing and the students must be excited for that experience!
What would you consider to be a classic holiday dish that people enjoy at Tavern on the Green as well as a cocktail to enjoy during this time of year?
KH: Oooo we have so many! In terms of a classic dish, we have a Tomahawk Steak that is served with Truffle Macaroni and Cheese which is as decadent and I mean that in the best way! It’s perfect for a cold Dec. night. Our beverage program is great as we do seasonal cocktails throughout the year and for the holidays we have some really beautiful Mulled Spice Cider which is delicious and served hot. We have a spiced Eggnog which is amazing and we can do those versions styled for the kids as well. We really searched far and wide for this Eggnog recipe and our Beverage Director joked last year that he really perfected it. This is the Tavern version and that Eggnog is really the way to celebrate this holiday.
AM: We feel that the holidays wrap up with New Year’s Eve essentially. What are you guys doing this year?
KH: We do. We’re really happy to do New Year’s because it is a really beautiful space to do it in. You can see all the fireworks that they do over Central Park. Once again it’s bringing in that Park and NYC experience right into Tavern. This year, we are doing it a little differently with an a la carte experience that will start at 4:45pm until 6:45pm. We want to be really approachable for everybody so maybe it’s a family with 2 really young kids and they want to celebrate but their kids need to be in bed by 8pm. We want to provide something for them.
So in the beginning we will have a normal lunch service and our evening will be a really fun celebratory affair with open seating so that people can have fun but then enjoy seeing the ball drop at home on TV. They can have an early celebration with us.
Starting at 9pm, we have our full 4 course meal with seating so you purchase your ticket by buying by table and it is yours for the evening. There will be live entertainment at the Bar Room and our Atrium so there will be several different party areas. The idea is that you will have a beautiful meal, then we will have passed desserts so once you finish the first part of the meal, your table is your home base, but then you can enjoy exploring the restaurant to bring in the New Year celebration!