After reopening the iconic Tavern on the Green to a tepid reception in April, co-owners Jim Caiola and David Salama parted ways with chef Katy Sparks just five months later. But they weren’t sure who they wanted to replace her.
“We were really conflicted about, was it going to be somebody more established, was it gonna be somebody who hasn’t had their moment? Or was it gonna be one of each?” Caiola says.
“Our last chef was so uncomfortable with the volume of this place, and sort of the barking from customers ‘cause you know, everybody owns Tavern on the Green. So we knew we needed somebody who could thrive in that environment.”
A month and a half in, they were contacted by Jeremiah Tower, who had been none-too-gently nudged out of his Mexican retirement by friends (the kind who can say “get off your a—," including Gordon Ramsay mentor Pierre Koffmann) during this summer’s MAD conference, the TED Talks of food.
Tower, 72, made his name in California at his San Francisco restaurant Stars, which opened in 1984 and churned out big-name chefs like Mario Batali. And it was always close behind Tavern on the Green on lists of busiest restaurants. “We knew he could cook — well, we knew he used to,” he jokes. “We knew that he would be in a place in his life where if he said he could do it, he could do it.”
Tavern on the Green's cuisine always was and will remain American, says Caiola, but “we’re gonna play with it.” Tower literally wrote the (James Beard Award-winning) book on New American food, and his Tavern will be more relaxed.
“It’s not just something for everyone, it’s everything for someone. Tavern should be your local,” Tower says. That means anything from a hamburger at lunch to a three-hour dinner. Tower has been test-driving new ideas for two months, but the full menu debuts this week. “There has to be some local food with a lot of other interesting things.”
Though there are some critics of the new atmosphere — “We did get b—ed out by a neighbor the other day, ‘Why are you letting people in there without a jacket on?’” Caiola recounts — hints remain of the Tavern that was. Gone is the Crystal Room, but in its place is a courtyard strung with hundreds of tiny crystal chandeliers.
The food, too, will nod to its history. “Jeremiah dug up an old ’50s menu with frog legs, so we’re gonna start incorporating weird things like that,” Salama says.
“Some of the old classics,” Tower corrects.
“There’s so many things that are not on any menu in New York anymore, things that have sort of fallen out of favor that need to be brought back,” Caiola says. He’s personally looking forward to Tower’s clams casino.
Wait, clams casino?
“They were mass-produced ’cause it’s so easy,” Tower says, “Same for oysters Rockefeller – delicious dish, but because nobody’s made it properly in so long, those things that every hotel, every continental restaurant, every banquet picked up on and did horribly. So of course every young chef says, ‘I don’t want that crap,’ and throw it out, but they didn’t deserve to be thrown out in their pristine, properly done condition."