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Green Machine

Tavern on the Green is the mother of all tourist restaurants, but after two decades dazzling out-of-towners, it pines for hometown cred.

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In 1976, when a splendaciously renovated Tavern on the Green reopened, I worked there as captain long enough to collect exactly one paycheck. I couldn't blame customers for barely acknowledging me. They'd never seen anything like this spectacular explosion of glass and crystal, beveled mirror and baroque molding, blinding brass and limitless bouquets done up in a rollicking version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown's parlor.

Owner Warner LeRoy's original plan was to create a restaurant to gratify the diverse tastes and pocketbooks of any park stroller who happened by, whether hungry for a burger with fries or sole amandine. The menu was enormous and the price range wide. All were equally welcome, and all were served equally wretched food. With a sprig of parsley. To make things worse, because of the inefficient floor plan and the basketball-court-size kitchen, the only way to get anything hot from the stove to the Crystal Room was to throw it.

Much has changed since I served my last scorched Toad in the Hole at brunch. Surprisingly, though the hallways and gift shop are still aglitter with gaucheness, the passing years have supplied the dining rooms with a softening patina, rendering them more fanciful than fantastical. Still, you can't fault all those disposable cameras going off like strobe lights in the Crystal Room. During the day, thanks to sparkling glass walls that overlook Sheep Meadow, and an interior more landscaped than decorated, the relentlessly ornamented ceiling, dripping in chandelier overkill, seems to float above the pristinely maintained dining room. At night, with the chandeliers dimmed and the light filtering in from the patio's flotilla of Chinese lanterns, all appears bathed in gold. It's as silly as a wedding cake, and just as romantic.

It is also devoid of New Yorkers. CEOs looking for a secret location to stage a let's-talk-merger lunch, or local clandestine lovers yearning to venture out into daylight, your tables are waiting. The room is populated by the citizens of Boca, Racine, and Commack, and they're having a hoot. Waiters intone "Happy Birthday to You" more times in an hour than Willard used to in a week. A day camp's worth of kids can be found there day or night, and they all seem to leave happily tethered to a balloon. For those expecting something more sylvan, a bar, outlining the patio, provides a peaceful perch to view the park at twilight. There's even a disco.

Two decades ago, Tavern was Central Park's Illyria, as superficially related to New York as a ride in a hansom cab. Now, looking at Times Square, South Street Seaport, Chelsea Piers, and even our own Kmart, it's hubris to claim that Tavern is any less urbane a destination. Check out the menu. Gone is the something-for-everyone aesthetic. Ingredients like olive tapénade and truffle vinaigrette have become routine at Tavern, deliberately raising its level of culinary sophistication. And for those thinking that by taking Aunt Marion here instead of to Aureole you're going to get away cheap, here's hoping she's leaving you something in the will. Dinner for two will cost you the same as at Le Cirque 2000 (smile for the camera, sweetie).

And this is where Tavern gets into trouble: The kitchen is trying to have it both ways. The menu seems au courant enough to intrigue anyone wearing a cashmere T-shirt, but its execution is still skewed toward the supposedly timid palate of the tourist. Consequently, no one is going to run out of spices in the kitchen anytime soon. A scallop ceviche is refreshing, but the surrounding seaweed salad is more prominent than the mollusk's barely perceptible marinade. She-crab-and-corn chowder sorely lacks the zing of the promised poblano peppers. Calamari is perfectly crisp, but the rudimentary basil marinara could have come off a supermarket shelf. The crab cakes, however, are dense and meaty, with a flavorful celery rémoulade; and orange-sesame-glazed shrimp have gumption even if the somen noodles are Souen flat. Though the slaw is hardly "spicy" as advertised, honey-barbecued baby-back ribs are easily worth tearing through a second order. Duck-confit spring rolls are actually pretty good egg rolls, but the tamarind dipping sauce is a washout. A lemon-pepper aïoli was wasted because there was no point in dipping the leaves of an artichoke that arrived soaking wet. Beet soup with duck is a hearty take on borscht, and while a brilliantly vermilion gazpacho could have been our favorite soup, it was, uncharacteristically, too salty. (So there is a shaker back there!)

Except for a golden crispy-skinned chicken, and a nicely pan-seared wild striped bass with a soothing if tame bean-and-corn relish, all the meat and fish entrées are cooked medium to well, unless you flat-out beg the waiter for that touch of pink. A barbecued duck breast with roasted plums might have been enjoyable if it hadn't arrived mocha brown. A well-chosen rack of lamb lacked the promised rosemary or any herb in its jus, and two thick pan-seared medallions of pork similarly reneged on the caraway and cider. Fettucine with lobster costs a small fortune and is almost as big a scam as restaurant-parking-lot fees -- a few nuggets of lobster and a few tablespoonfuls of herb-infused broth. And each thick, juicy, aged steak -- whether porterhouse, filet, or sirloin -- suffers from being identically underseasoned.

If desserts fare better, it's only because nobody ever went broke overindulging America's sweet tooth. Though a crème brûlée is just My-T-Fine-like pudding, the fruit tarts and peach cobbler are satisfying, chocolate-mousse cake hits its mark, cheesecake is as creamy as from that place in Brooklyn, and there's a better-than-not-half-bad milk shake. But what's a banana split without marshmallow, strawberry sauce, or maple walnuts? Strawberry soup is merely a purée, and at $18.50, a baked Alaska rages on like the finale of Burning Man, only to blacken its meringue while still reeking of alcohol, leaving the ice cream inside hard enough to shatter the patio glass.

Considering its physical enormity and enviable annual gross, it's admirable, even stunning, that Tavern on the Green has made such a concerted effort to be taken seriously as a restaurant. But with this tariff, effort isn't enough. A new executive chef has just been announced, but for the time being, that emerald-green chandelier outshines anything on a plate. If this is as far as they can go, at least throw in a monogrammed T-shirt from the gift shop.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park at West 67th Street (873-3200). Lunch, Monday through Friday noon to 3:30 p.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner, Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:45 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 11:30 p.m. All major credit cards.


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