Tavern on the Green
Saturday, May 5, 2001

While I sat at the bar of Tavern on the Green, snorting down tall glasses of bourbon in anticipation of the meal to follow (my niece's sixteenth birthday dinner), served by the most venomously nasty cocktail waitress in the whole wide world (my first stiffed tip this year), I struck up a conversation with a magician seated next to me.
He'd just finished working a party somewhere deep within this huge joint (the NYCFD sign limits capacity to 1500) and was decompressing over a vodka. The guy did a few card tricks for us (he was extremely good), we bought him a drink, and got to talking. I mentioned that I was a trombonist and had played here before (with Illinois Jacquet's band), and he immediately started talking to me as a fellow insider. And that's when something clicked.
Maybe I'm like the last guy in the world to realize the deal. The fact that nearly every table is a family party (including at least twenty little girls dressed in startlingly bride-like confirmation dresses) hadn't done it for me. Neither had the fact that the staff is at any given moment singing "Happy Birthday" somewhere in the building, nor my failure to spot a single table-for-two. It wasn't until I received the magician's "welcome to the club" look that I connected to the fact that this is a catering hall. It's not a restaurant. They're not even really TRYING to be a restaurant. So while I've always approached family events here with dread, knowing that I was about to eat at one of the worst restaurants in NYC, my dread was mislabeled. Tavern on the Green is NOT one of the worst restaurants in NYC. It's one of the best catering halls for miles and miles.
Sure, the food's mostly inert, the place is a mill, service is on the Catskill's model and the decor is repellently tacky. But compared to the Huntington Clown House, Terror in the Dark, and pretty much all the other full-out nightmare catering joints serving uniformly odious food-shaped products to undiscerning celebrants, Tavern on the Green is at an entirely higher level. Some of the food here is actually edible.
Not my pork, alas. It seemed to be some sort of pork jerky the kitchen had neglected to rehydrate. And my mashed potatoes tasted like they were processed from leftover hollow - out - the - potatoes - and - inject - yellow - potatoey - crap - back - into - the - shells remnants. Their fish monger is pretty good: scallops, tuna, and softshell crab were fresh and nice, but everything had unfortunately passed through the kitchen. The coffee was vaguely evil; one guest just phoned me to report that her throat had swelled up at first sip and she's still experiencing choking fits.
But the chicken was actually palatable, and came with only mildly flaccid baby carrots. The steak looked like a good hunk of meat. The wine list is decent and includes some OK values (as does the after-dinner scotch list). The outdoor tables look pleasant. The pianist may only know one and a half songs (Girl From Ipanema and the bridge to All the Things You Are) and repeats them over and over again between near-continuous "Happy Birthday" interruptions, but at least he plays reasonably hip chord changes.
Of course, I'm grasping at straws, but catering halls are so uniformly abysmal that these mild positives place Tavern on the Green in a higher echelon.
We spent $420 for six people. Yes, we could have gone to Union Square Cafe, we could have gone to any number of great restaurants for the price. Don't cluck your tongue at me, you didn't have to sit there and eat that stuff. I walked the walk and gnawed the pork. But the thing is that this wasn't a restaurant occasion; it wasn't an adult night out in search of serious eats occasion. It was a "celebrate the niece's sweet sixteenth" occasion -- a catering hall occasion, really -- with just enough teen-friendly Manhattan glitz to mark her milestone. And though I must pry the concession out with orthodontic force, it wasn't the worst choice in the world under the circumstances.