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 tonight, 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 Jan. 13-15 of Baccarat and Waterford chandeliers, Tiffany stained glass, a mural depicting Central Park and other over-the-top decor that has bewitched patrons 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 the place as Tavern on the Green.
For 75 years, since it opened during the Great Depression, the Tavern has attracted people from around the world.
Former Tavern mogul Warner LeRoy, befitting his heritage as the son of a producer of The Wizard of Oz, searched the globe for the whimsical decorations 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 LeRoy.
As the end of the family's operating license approached, the city sought competing bids.
The LeRoys lost to Dean Poll, who offered to invest $25 million in Tavern renovations. The city awarded him a 20-year license in August, citing his significant capital investment and vision.
The LeRoys, employing more than 400 unionized workers with full benefits, couldn't match Poll's offer. As the recession hit, they accrued more than 450 creditors.
The decisive moment in the intellectual-property dispute over the name comes in January. That's when a Manhattan federal judge will either side with the city and rule that the moneymaking name Tavern on the Green, valued at about $19 million, belongs to whoever operates the space or say that 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.