Food Arts Staff - May 1998
Food Arts presents the May 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Warner LeRoy, who, by bathing restaurants in the white heat of klieg lights, created a plethora of showman dining genres that thrive to this day. Flamboyant, as a true son of Hollywood should be, LeRoy has brought to life the singles bar, sidewalk dining, the grand cafe, and the glittering, theatrical “celebration” restaurant.
First with Maxwell’s Plum in the mid 1960s on New York City’s Upper East Side, then with Tavern on the Green in Central Park, and now with the coming resurrection of the Russian Tea Room near Carnegie Hall (with David Bouley as executive chef), LeRoy envisions each mega-restaurant venture as a loud, tinselly statement. His establishments make up in decorative details—many of his own design—for what they lack in subtlety.
“He’s a masterful impresario who’s constantly directing a three-ring circus,” says restaurateur Drew Nieporent, who worked four years for LeRoy at Maxwell’s and Tavern in the late ‘70s. “From his gold lame jackets to his tremendous appetite for great food, he’s always looking to climb the culinary mountain as the ultimate promoter.”
"I’ve been involved in real-estate projects, office buildings, and shopping malls, and I’ve got to say that restaurants are the most difficult to do,” LeRoy says emphatically. “There’s so much detail, they’re so intense, and everything has to be perfect And they’re time consuming, with small ones being just as much work as large ones. But small restaurants can’t support the kind of theatricality I like.”
From the playpen on, fun and fantasy have always been a big part of LeRoy’s life. After all, he’s the grandson of Harry Warner and the grand nephew of Jack Warner, founders of Warner Brothers, and his father was Mervyn LeRoy, the producer of nearly 90 movies, including The Wizard of Oz. To the young Warner LeRoy, born in 1935 during Hollywood’s golden studio age, life was a movie set—his grandfather’s ranch was Warner Brothers’ back lot. Of course, hobnobbing with the outlandish Munchkins also could do wonders for a young boy’s burgeoning imagination.
After graduating from Stanford in 1954 at age 19, LeRoy moved to New York City to become a stage manager for writer/director Garson Kanin. In 1959, he leased the York Theater at First Avenue and 64th Street, which he turned into one of the first successful Off-Broadway houses. He transformed it into the York Cinema in 1964. When the little luncheonette next to the theater went belly up, LeRoy decided to lease the space and turn it into a casual sidewalk cafe.
He called this New York novelty Maxwell’s Plum. He filled it with stained glass and crafts, many of his own making. He hung Tiffany lamps and stuffed animals from the ceiling. When it opened in spring 1966, six policemen were needed to control the mobs flocking to this heretofore unheralded neighborhood. Libidinous youth—thanks to the birth-control pill—jammed the bar five deep in search of libation and love. Maxwell’s jump-started the singles scene, spurring a restaurant/bar building frenzy that redefined the Upper East Side. Enlarged in 1970, Maxwell’s Plum endured until 1988, balancing four-star cuisine with a volume of more than half a million guests a year. LeRoy opened a short-lived Maxwell’s clone in San Francisco in 1981.
In 1974, LeRoy created and developed a sprawling amusement/theme park concept in New Jersey called Great Adventure Entertainment and Safari Park. Rivaled only by the Disney parks, the concept was exported to five countries.
At the same time, LeRoy gained hard-won approval from New York City to take over Tavern on the Green. After a two-year, $10 million makeover that transformed it into a rococo culinary palace, Tavern re-opened in 1976 and quickly topped the charts as the largest grossing independent restaurant in the country.
“I was once told that if Oz had a restaurant, this would be it,” LeRoy beams with undimmed delight.
Today, LeRoy’s “Emerald City” is a vast enterprise that includes 550 full-time employees—including upholsterers, carpenters, purchasers, truckers, and maintenance staff. Tavern pulls in $35 million a year and serves as many as 20,000 meals a week.
LeRoy may outdo himself at the Russian Tea Room, a $20 million spectacle expected to premier by January, and at the Bouley culinary multiplex he’s installing bit by bit in TriBeCa in partnership with the acclaimed chef. With four grown children—including Carolyn, who’s a vice president at Tavern—one would think that LeRoy would ease off after this big go-round. But he won’t. “I’m always finding something interesting to do,” he says, “and I have other projects in mind. I love it.”
Lights, please! LeRoy’s show must go on.