Like the many memorable stories about Tavern on the Green that are shared with him, Jim Caiola’s history with the iconic Central Park restaurant is just as magical. When he was a young acting student of Lee Strasberg, the famed teacher praised his work, which led him to treat himself to lunch there. The D.C. native was immediately taken in by the palpable energy the place radiated and how guests from all over the world seemed to all be celebrating. “I thought to myself, “If ever I would own a restaurant, this is the one I would want.””
As fate would have it, many years later, it came up for auction and Caiola, who holds a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Johnson & Wales, and his partner in business and life, David Salama, won it, which he calls “a miracle.” When they bought the property, it had no roof, floors, windows or doors, but through their labor of love, they brought it back to the original grandeur of its inaugural opening in 1934.
During the pandemic, they closed for 13 months, but are back to hosting life’s “time capsules,” from 16th to 103rd birthday parties, not to mention those who have met and had the first date there. And although their events department is facing the challenge of cancellations due to the new variant, they are still holding holiday festivities. On Thanksgiving Day this year, they welcomed a record 1,550, and are now prepping for Christmas, when they can expect up to 1,800 guests.
Caiola, who lives on the Upper West Side with Salama and their two sons, said he is sometimes brought to tears reading the notes he receives from clients about what Tavern means to them. “The excitement and the enthusiasm of all the partying that has always been what Tavern has been about, whether it’s a two-person engagement or a huge wedding,” he said. “It just always has been a place to celebrate.”
The story on your website about your history with Tavern is so amazing. You willed it to happen that you would own it one day.
When I went to Lee Strasberg, he complimented me when I was doing sensory work, it’s called, where you are pretending you’re holding a grapefruit for four hours. You’re sitting on a chair on a stage like 10 feet from the next actor who’s doing the same thing. And then after four hours, they’re like, “Oh, hey, it’s not a grapefruit anymore, it’s an egg.” And then you have to do that for four hours. Literally, that’s your eight hours of class that day and it’s really psychotic in a way. Anyway, Lee Strasberg popped in the year he died a couple times when I went to school there and he complimented me, which made me very popular at the school. And the way I celebrated was to take myself to Tavern on the Green. And I got there and I was like, “My God, this place is like energy. Everybody here is celebrating in every language.” And I felt like if you pulled up from the earth, like if you were a rocket, you would just see a light, just Tavern on the Green.
You bought it with your partner. Explain the condition it was in back then.
With Tavern, you don’t really buy it. You bid for it because the Parks Department owns the property, which is acres and acres on Central Park ... So we won the bid and then, you’re right, we bought it after that, ‘cause then we had to invest a lot of money because there was no roof, no floor, no windows, no doors. It had never really been fixed up since 1934 when it became a restaurant. So there was a lot to do and the city did a lot and we did a lot. We did the whole interior and all the exterior. They did the windows and roof. We did the decorative floor; they did the cement.
It took a year and a half to build it. We saw these amazing photos from the ‘30s when it opened originally. And we wanted to return it to that ... You know, it’s interesting, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Warner LeRoy made it the phenomenal palace that it was, he was putting these huge, from “Edward Scissorhands,” bushes to hide Tavern on the Green from the park because it was a dangerous park. Whereas, now, we wanted it to be within the park and part of the park, a very different time in the world. So it worked out that our vision and the time in the world all happened to make sense together.
Tell us something interesting you learned about its history.
It was originally a sheep barn. And there’s an under-alley, a crawl space underneath different areas. You can just feel the history of what’s been there including interesting things left down there from past owners of Tavern.
What are the best and hardest parts of working with your significant other?
The best part is we know each other really well and share children and a home and all that. I think the hardest part is, you’re two ships passing in the night. So I haven’t seen the guy in like 10 years, which is probably why we get along. [Laughs]
During the pandemic, you were closed for 13 months. Why were you shuttered for so long?
Well, we thought about opening in the first summer of COVID, but what happens with a place like Tavern is, it’s so big, that in order to rev it up, you have to make sure that the revving is gonna keep going. And there was this whole weird, “Are we going to be able to, when it gets cold out, stay open?” And thank God we didn’t open because, I think, right after that, they kind of shut down everything. So we would have had to open then reclose again, and that, we didn’t want to do, because, again, it’s too big of an engine to get rolling just to close it again.
What are some changes you’ve seen after reopening?
In the events department, we had to be very creative ... We just had a huge party cancel for tomorrow night, a very large party that comes every year ... because of this new variant ... But in September and October, we did unbelievably well in the events department because everybody wanted to get their last event outside in. And we have such a great outdoor space, it just was incredible. So that was unexpected. In the old days, you sort of predicted what was happening and could take the growth of each year and make it all make sense. But I feel really blessed and lucky because Tavern is just Tavern no matter what.
What are the bestselling items on the menu?
The roasted fig is the highest selling appetizer. The short rib and maybe salmon second [for entrees]. Birthday cake, mostly ‘cause we give it away on your birthday [Laughs], and the crème brulee are the biggest desserts.
Whose idea was it to name the cocktails after the boroughs?
That was my idea and backed up by my incredible beverage director, Jordan Tannenbaum. We collaborated on those initially because we thought that would be the first way of keeping the classic New York tavern. And we also had a huge local wine and liquor list at the point, but that has been very hard to keep everything local, though it was our goal initially. But we still have a lot of representation of local wines and liquor.
Who are some memorable guests you’ve welcomed there?
I think any star you could think of, we’ve had. During the “Hamilton” year for the Tony Awards, “Hamilton” had its afterparty at Tavern. Barbra Streisand gave the award, so she was there, everybody you can ever imagine. And it was interesting for me because I rarely party at a party at Tavern ... but this night at like 1:30, somebody gave me a beer, and then I had two beers, and then I started dancing. And I was in the middle of one of those incredible two-week every-night binges on TV and it was for “Homeland,” and every star I ever thought about was at Tavern, but I look up and I’m dancing with Claire Danes.