Central Park’s iconic Boathouse Restaurant shutters with 163 permanent layoffs

The Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, Sept. 30, 2020.

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BY RACHEL HOLLIDAY SMITH, THE CITY. This article was originally published on by THE CITY.

Indoor dining has returned to New York, albeit in a limited form. But one iconic restaurant in the heart of Manhattan can’t stay afloat.

The restaurant at the Loeb Boathouse in Central Park, long the site of lakeside lunches and picturesque weddings, is shutting for the foreseeable future, according to union officials representing workers and a state notice of layoffs there.

The owner of the park eatery, restaurateur Dean Poll, had furloughed workers there in March at the start of the pandemic, the Department of Labor notice said. But those layoffs “will now be considered permanent,” according to Sept. 8 filing.

All of the venue’s 163 workers will be affected by the closure. The reason given for the layoffs: “Unforeseeable business circumstances prompted by COVID-19,” the labor notice read.

Megan Moriarty, Parks Department spokesperson, said the restaurant at the Boathouse has been closed since mid-March, but is allowed to reopen “to the extent it can operate in accordance with the applicable state COVID-related guidelines.”

A lone worker leaving the locked and darkened Boathouse on Friday told THE CITY that Poll hopes to reopen the restaurant in April. A separate source with the workers’ union, the Hotel Trade Council Local 6, confirmed Poll had mentioned that idea recently. But no reopening plan has emerged.

Inquiries to Poll and his restaurant group, which includes Gallagher’s Steakhouse in Midtown, were not returned. Nearly 100 staffers were laid off from Gallagher’s, according to a separate Department of Labor notice posted in early September. However, the steakhouse reopened for indoor dining Sept. 30, staff there said.

The worker at the Boathouse, who declined to give his name, said the expansive restaurant usually welcomes in throngs of park-goers and tourists — and needs “thousands” of guests to run. Without the usual crowds in Central Park, the Boathouse can’t make a go of it.

“It’s a big place,” he said of the eatery.

Troubled Waters

The Loeb Boathouse had been operating under a 15-year concession license agreement with the Department of Parks and Recreation that began in January of 2017.

Poll is the subject of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 alleging staff at the restaurant stole wages and harassed workers. That case is pending. Attorneys for the plaintiff did not return a request for comment.

In 2018, Poll invested in a $2.9 million renovation of the restaurant, reopening in late summer of that year. In total, he is on the hook for $23.9 million to be paid to the city for the right to operate the Boathouse. 

The Parks Department hasn’t been looking for payment for months, Moriarty said.

“The restaurant has been closed since March, and we haven’t been charging the monthly license fees since then,” she said.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY
The Loeb Boathouse in Central Park announced it was permanently closing during the coronavirus outbreak, Sept. 30, 2020.

The Boathouse concession agreement also included responsibility for running Central Park’s famous row boats. The boats have been docked since the COVID-19 crisis began.

The Loeb Boathouse — named for banker and philanthropist Carl Loeb who, with his wife, Adeline, donated $305,000 for an earlier 1870s-era boathouse to be demolished and rebuilt — first opened in 1954 on the northeast side of Central Park’s lake. Since then, it has been a special-occasion destination for New Yorkers and tourists alike — and a fixture in films. The Manchurian Candidate, When Harry Met Sally and 27 Dresses all feature the beloved waterside restaurant.

Even with some indoor dining now allowed in the city, Poll is not alone among restaurateurs struggling to stay above water in New York right now.

A recent report by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli found that by August, only 55% of pre-pandemic employment in the restaurant industry had returned as of August.

And the outlook for restaurants is bleak, with a looming rent crisis and a trickle of returning customers, as Eater New York has recently reported.

The website has kept a running tally of all city restaurants and bars that have shuttered since the pandemic began. As of September, Eater had documented nearly 150 closures.

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