TAVERN ON THE PARK
Mid-City: 900 City Park Ave.
It’s a brave restaurateur who opens shop in a neighborhood with few or no other restaurants. Most people, when running dining options through their minds, do so geographically. Even when you have a good idea about what kind of dinner you want, you sort through the options by neighborhood. (As proof of this, I offer a statistic: of the three lists of all local restaurants here on NOMenu.Com, the one sorted by neighborhood is by far the most popular.)
The neighborhood of the Tavern on the Park had no other restaurants. Nor was it on the way to nearby restaurant-rich neighborhoods. So it didn’t pop up on would-be diners’ mental screens.
But the location had other advantages. It was where Ralph’s on the Park is now, across from a major entrance to City Park. Its dining room windows offered generous views of the biggest and oldest live oaks in town, and the lagoon behind them. It was uniquely pastoral, enticing customers to take a nice walk under the trees after lunch. The building itself was historic. Although it had been a bar, then stood empty for quite awhile, a restaurant of some notoriety was here as early as the 1860s.
Jack Sands was a former United States Marine master sergeant. Short of the Marine General himself, no more semper fi could fit into a man. He had never been in the restaurant business. But he liked dining out, and had a strong idea of the kind of restaurants he preferred. I had already met him somewhere when he called me one morning and asked if I’d have a meeting with him about a restaurant project.
The year was 1985. The previous few years were great for new restaurants, as the Baby Boomers came of age and started dining out a lot more than their parents ever had. That would continue for at least fifteen years. Jack outlined his plans to open a classy restaurant across from the park. It would largely be a steak house, managed by Dale Wamstad. Under the semi-nickname “Del Frisco,” Wamstad had opened a small but much-talked-about steak house in Gretna, and had influenced Jack’s thinking. But it was pretty clear that Wamstad had a loose-cannon quality in his management style. (My visit to him in the hospital after he’d been shot at Del Frisco’s by his wife convinced me of that.)
Fortunately for Jack, once Wamstad had Tavern on the Park operating smoothly, he left town for greener pastures. (He would open Del Frisco’s in Dallas, later to be bought out by the Lone Star Steak chain for $23 million. Del Frisco’s locations are now all over the country.)
In the renovation of the old Tavern building, Jack got the atmosphere right. The dining room looked even older than it really was, furnished with lots of brass, glass, mirrors, and marble and a general antique charm.
The food was longer in coming around. The steak aspect was good enough, but it seemed to Jack that the menu should be more along the lines of Galatoire’s. That was in a way an improvement, but the Tavern lacked uniqueness. Nothing on the menu would grab you away from whichever restaurant you were already patronizing for that stuff. And if you had the oysters Rockefeller or Bienville, you probably wouldn’t again.
About five years in, Jack hired a chef with the innovative specials that other first-class restaurants were dabbling in. The Tavern became an exciting place to eat. That chef was ultimately succeeded by Jack’s son Lee Sands, who continued the adventuresome nature of the specials.
One of the best of these was a salad called the tomato blossom. The skin was peeled back to reveal the meatiest part of the interior. It was surrounded by a few greens and some onions, and slathered with a mustardy dressing with a bit of feta cheese in it. This was especially good if you shared it with someone getting the bigger-than-average shrimp remoulade. (They were, unfortunately, the tasteless Pacific shrimp, something Del Frisco had insisted upon.) Salads were dressed with, among other things, a variation of the great avocado dressing we used to get at LeRuth’s.
The Tavern still had great steaks and chops, both of lamb and veal. A very interesting roast duck with both Asian and Creole touches was way ahead of its time.
The only complaint I heard often about the Tavern on the Park was that the sarge could be high-handed, particularly when a customer asked for a bit of hospitality beyond the norm. And there were some inexplicable rules. Like the policy of not serving drinks at the very handsome bar, only at the table.
I felt some of this rigor personally. One night, Jack told me that he didn’t want me in his restaurant anymore. He relented after a year or so, and we ended up as we started, as friends. The last time I dined during his hegemony, it was a celebration of the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps, attended by a major figure in the outfit, with a band playing the kind of music you’d hear from the Marine marching band. It was a great dinner, I recall. (I’d better say that I have marginal Marine connections, as a member of the first Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program in the nation, managed by the Marines at Jesuit High School.)
The Tavern was clearly running out of gas at the turn of the century. Jack Sands himself–an older man than he looked–had typical health problems. He sold the place to Ralph Brennan, who was immediately slammed by the 9/11 slowdown followed by the need for much more extensive repairs than he expected in this very old building. Ralph’s opened in 2003, brightening the memory of those who ever dined at the Tavern on the Park. Which, at its best, was a very good place to dine.