Lessons I Learned At The Tavern on the Green

18409492The Tavern on the Green will soon live again and I am thrilled. The Tavern on the Green has a special place in my heart, having worked there as a waiter in the summer of 1972.

If you hadn’t caught up with the news, the Emerald Green Group, led by Jim Caiola and David Salama, who own Philadelphia area creperie Beau Monde, were recently named future operators of the world-famous Tavern on the Green, which has been dormant since 2009.

For those Strumings readers who have never been to the Tavern (shame on you), it is located on 67th Street at the West side of Central Park. The Tavern opened in 1934 (no, I was not an original waiter) and could be one of the most famous restaurants in the world.

The Tavern will reopen in a year in the fall of 2013 and the plan appears to be to create a smaller, more rustic restaurant.  “The hope is that it will not be only a destination, but a place that will serve the neighborhood and locals who use the park every day,” said Katy Sparks, the new executive chef. The goal for the restaurant will be provide an informal and accessible restaurant, less formal than the one which I worked at 40 years ago. The good news for the new operators is that New York City is paying the nearly $10 million bill for the work that will restore the building to its original design.

When I worked at the Tavern in the summer of 1972, I was a 19-year old in between my sophomore and junior years at Rutgers. I worked at the Tavern along with my buddy Chuck Sabo, whose dad was an executive at Restaurant Associates (RA) which ran the Tavern and many other New York area restaurants, including the restaurant at the Bethesda Fountain where we worked in the summer of 1971. While it was a terrific summer job, I can’t say that I enjoyed working at the Tavern as the work was hard, though the money was good. The previous summer at the Fountain Cafe in the park was more fun though less lucrative. My buddy Chuck and I were (deservedly) the low men on the waiter totem pole. We got the fewest tables and often worked inside in the Tree Room with “Mr. Fritz”, an older perfectionist maitre d. Mr. Fritz didn’t care if the 2 young boys were connected to some RA executive. He was determined to whip us into shape as waiters.

In hindsight I learned a lot:

1. Waiting on people is hard work. It can be back breaking, harrowing and it taught me about multi-tasking before I even knew the term. I had a deeper respect for those who did it as a livelihood.

2. Details are important—part of the experience is to set an immaculate table and serve with grace.

3. Serve well and often—provide appropriate attention without being overbearing

4. Uncork wine precisely I broke a cork of the first bottle I served—thankfully the patron was a Rutgers grad who told me to jam the cork into the bottle—I had to hide the bottle after they were done. Mr. Fritz would have fired me instantaneously if he saw a cork in the bottle.

But the most important thing I learned was the dignity of service and the difficulty of serving others with grace. I have to admit I also quickly came to the conclusion that I really wanted to be on the receiving end rather than the serving end. I had hoped to return to the Tavern as a patron, which I did in subsequent years.

I am thrilled the Tavern will be reopening. Largely a tourist destination, I haven’t been back since the 80s. When it reopens, I look forward to returning. I won’t forget the lessons I learned from Mr. Fritz that summer.

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  1. Nancy says:

    lonnie what a great story… and yes i has so many tavern memories and yes i waited tables. i knew it wasn’t for me when all i could think when asked to bring yet one more thing was, “get it yourself”. oops.

    • Lonny Strum says:

      Yes, Nancy. The “get it yourself” comment would not have gotten you into the waitress hall of fame. Tavern was a great place. Glad it is returning.

    • Kevin Reilly says:

      Lonnie, I vividly recall going there after my college graduation held at Lincoln Center. It’s a special place.

      I too worked as a waiter, during summers at an upstate NY resort. Three meals a day, six days a week. Backbreaking, to say the least. To this day, I am a much better tipper than my wife would like.

  2. Jeremy Neuer says:

    Great post. As a service provider, I would be lying if I told you I didn’t sometimes feel like an order taker. There’s a big difference though between waiting tables at Tavern On The Green and working behind the counter at The WindMill.

    Well done, as usual.

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