NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tavern on the Green LLC, operator of the storied restaurant in New York City's Central Park, has filed for bankruptcy protection, a few months before the restaurant is due to change hands and maybe its name.
Chief Executive Officer Jennifer Oz LeRoy said in a statement on Thursday that the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing had resulted from the recession and the city's decision not to renew the lease.
Chapter 11 will allow the company to shed some debt while reorganizing.
Tavern on the Green, which opened on October 20, 1934, is expected to operate through December. Dean Poll, who won the license for the location in August, is then due to take over. He has proposed a $25 million renovation.
Poll operates the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park.
The LeRoy family owns the name "Tavern on the Green" and can sell it or keep it, according to Shelley Clark, the restaurant's spokeswoman. She said it was not known what they would do.
Tucked just inside the park off Central Park West, the restaurant is in a Victorian Gothic building erected in 1870 to be a sheepfold. It housed 200 South Down sheep that grazed across the road in Central Park's Sheep Meadow.
Tavern on the Green, one of the few Manhattan restaurants with a parking lot, can seat 1,500 people in six dining rooms, which made it ideal for parties and receptions.
Restaurateur Warner LeRoy owned Tavern on the Green from the 1970s until his death in 2001, when his family took over. He also owned the famed Russian Tea Room near Carnegie Hall.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which awarded Poll the Tavern on the Green license, said he had submitted the best proposal on the basis of "solid financial backing" and a substantial capital investment.
"To thousands of visitors, Tavern on the Green is New York," a 2005 New York Times restaurant review stated. It was also considered one of the most romantic spots in town to become engaged, have a wedding reception or spend an anniversary.
It was fated to be a restaurant by New York City's Parks Commissioner who thought it should compete with the Central Park Casino, known as "Jimmy Walker's Versailles" for the flamboyant mayor.
The sheep were banished to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, according to Tavern on the Green's website, and their shepherd was sent to work at the lion house at the Central Park Zoo.
Works Progress Administration (WPA) workers converted the building.
When Tavern on the Green opened in 1934, a coachman greeted patrons. In the late 1930s, under the shadow of World War II, it became headquarters for the Civilian Patrol Corps, which used it until 1943.
In 1962, after a few owners, Restaurant Associates took over. They closed it 1974.
LeRoy, who created Maxwell's Plum, a popular New York night spot, renovated Tavern on the Green and reopened it in 1976. It became wildly successful.
For years, Tavern on the Green was the highest grossing restaurant in the United States, its publicist Shelley Clark said.
Clark said that in 2008, Tavern on the Green was the second-highest grossing independent free-standing restaurant in the country. She said Tao in Las Vegas, Nevada, was No. 1.
The bankruptcy petition listed assets and debt in the range of $10 million to $50 million. The largest unsecured creditors include the New York Hotel Trades Council, with a claim of $1.78 million, and CCS Architecture Inc, with a claim of $235,000.
"Our whole way of looking at food and going out has evolved," said Clark Wolf, president of food and restaurant adviser Clark Wolf Consulting.
"We are less inclined to visit the old warhorse, just for the sake of nostalgia. We've gone from wanting a kitschy comfort food to wanting truly comforting foods and the latter is better and harder to do."
The case is In re: Tavern On The Green Limited Partnership, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan) Bankruptcy Petition, No 09-15450.
Reporting by Chelsea Emery; Additional reporting by Santosh Nadgir and Dhanya Skariachan in Bangalore; Editing by Toni Reinhold