Tavern on the Green Replaced by Food Trucks

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It was once the most glamorous spot to eat in the city. Celebrities would flock to Tavern on the Green and its famed Crystal Room, known for spectacular glass walls and twinkling chandeliers. Dinning there wasn't just a meal but an event.

Today, the Crystal Room is gone, replaced by four trucks that pull up each morning and serve, tacos, dumplings, ice cream and sandwiches to Central Park visitors willing to sit outside.

Many New Yorkers would say that Tavern's glory days when Grace Kelly and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia would dine there had long past, that the restaurant had turned into an overpriced, mediocre tourist trap.

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But it was still an institution -- one that managed to serve more than 500,000 meals a year. Even before filing for bankruptcy last year, Tavern was Manhattan's top-grossing restaurant, pulling in an estimated $27 million. It was also a movie star, appearing in films including "Edward Scissorhands," "Ghostbusters" and "Wall Street."

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Plans to reopen the restaurant failed when restaurateur Dean Poll and labor unions couldn't agree on a contract.

So forget the white linen tableclothes and heavy silverware. Enter the food trucks and disposable cutlery.

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Faced with not having a proper restaurant, the city's parks department transformed Tavern on the Green's grand entrance into a Central Park visitors' center and gift shop.

Shrubs that once hid the restaurant's courtyard have been removed, opening up the space to the nearby Sheep Meadow. And each day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. four food trucks -- Rickshaw Dumpling, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, Ladle of Love and Pera Turkish Tacos -- pull into the courtyard and serve diners who sit at nearby tables and benches.

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The four trucks beat out nine others for the right to sell food there for the next year. That right did not come cheap. Leases range from $45,000 to $100,000 for each truck, according to the parks department.

If you think that is bad, the space for a hot dog cart outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art goes for more than $50,000 a month. Yes, a month.

The city is leaving open the possibility of finding somebody else to eventually reopen Tavern on the Green or keeping the trucks and reopening part of the restaurant. The visitors' center and gift shop only take up about a third of the interior space. The rest remains vacant.

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"Nothing is permanent. This is an interim use," a parks spokesman said. "No decisions have been made yet."

New Yorker Eilnor Buckley and her friend were among those eating at the trucks the other afternoon.

Like many New York residents, she rarely went to Tavern on the Green.

"It was too glitzy. It was not for me," Buckley said.

The two women sat outside, eating lamb tacos and hummus and chatting in the afternoon sun. Two copies of The New York Times sat half-read on the table.

"What I had was very, very good but also very tiny," Buckley said of her $3.50 taco from Pera. "Two are probably the right size for a meal.

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"It's very pretty. It's very convenient," she added. "We love the atmosphere."

Jason Avery is executive chef of Pera restaurant on Madison Avenue and 41st Street and chef and co-owner of the taco truck, which is his concept.

"We have been looking to expand," Avery said of the decision to bring a truck to the park. "It's a good way to get exposure for the restaurant."

Avery said he hopes to expand his business to deliver to businesses and homes in the area and to get a liquor license to sell alcohol in the park.

His concept: heavy meats in the winter -- the park plans to add heaters soon -- and lighter seafood and vegetarian items in the summer.

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"People like to eat a lot lighter, healthier now," he said.

Selling food out a of truck offers all sorts of logistical challenges, the least of which is squeezing the truck into the tight space behind the historic Tavern building.

Tavern may no longer feed the titans of Wall Street, but then again, thanks to the recession, a gourmet food truck might be just what they are seeking.

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