Restaurant finally opens in Union Square pavilion

salute-coverBY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  Well, in the end, Mayor de Blasio didn’t nix the contract for the new seasonal restaurant concession in the renovated Union Square pavilion.

Local advocates and politicians, at recent rallies outside the historic park building, had vocally called on him to do just that. As public advocate, de Blasio had written a letter to the State Liquor Authority urging that a liquor license for the place be denied.

But the new eatery called, fittingly, The Pavilion Market Cafe, opened late Thursday afternoon for dinner.

However, some call it the “most controversial restaurant in New York” due to the protracted legal battle.

The private concession had been approved under former Mayor Bloomberg, but was then tied up by a community lawsuit that sought to block it, on the grounds that it represented an illegal use of public park property. The pavilion would first need to be “alienated” — or removed from park use by the state Legislature — the lawsuit plaintiffs argued, ultimately unsuccessfully.

Shortly after 10 p.m. last Thursday evening, the place was pretty packed with patrons, both at the tables, as well as at the full bar, in the pavilion’s southeast corner. Waiters and staff, a seemingly disproportionate number of them male, were whisking about in light-green green aprons.

The place was suffused with light from white globe fixtures hanging from the ceiling, as well as light glowing up through opaque white glass-block floor tiles.

The evening’s warm temperature was, well, just about perfect for dining in the open-air pavilion. There are heat lamps for when it turns colder.

In a major renovation project, the Union Square pavilion has been spruced up inside and out.     photo by Milo Hess
In a major renovation project, the Union Square pavilion has been spruced up inside and out. photo by Milo Hess

Maitre d’ Paula Nielacna said the 160-seat eatery will be open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to midnight. In the coming weeks, they’ll be adding lunch, she said, then brunch on weekends and, finally, breakfast, when the place will start opening at 8 a.m.

The outdoor seating area in front of the pavilion would be open as of Monday at 11 a.m., she added. The chairs and tables were already out there last Thursday night, but they weren’t being used.

Right now, she said, they are taking only walk-in customers, but will eventually be moving to reservations.

Theater producer Frank Zuback was exiting after a satisfying dining experience. He said he knows the chef and the owner.

“My wife writes a food blog,” he added.

“The tuna tartare was spectacular,” he said. For his entrée, he had short-rib ravioli — also tasty, he said.

“The butter here is really good, too,” he raved. “It’s got saffron in it, and it’s really creamy.”

He enjoyed a glass of pinot noir, and topped it all off with a devil cake featuring pistachios and raspberry sorbet.

The bill came to $60, plus tip. That didn’t include the two Scotches he knocked back at the bar. But the tab didn’t seem to faze Zuback, producer of “Moulah,” which he’s hoping will make it to Broadway.

“Not on your cheap list, but not very expensive either,” he offered, giving his overall assessment. “Mario, the chef, has done himself well.” He said he knew that, admittedly, there had been some controversy when the previous chef bailed.

“It’s going to be a good place,” he predicted. “I’ll be coming back, and bringing friends.”

Former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer has been a leading critic of the pavilion restaurant plan. She and her fellow opponents spent 10 years fighting the eatery initiative, both in and out of court.

“The legal case is over, but I’m not so certain that the issue is altogether over,” she said this week. “The mayor took the easy way out by not doing anything, but he does have the power to stop the restaurant and close it down.”

Greitzer and her allies feel the pavilion should be used for children’s activities and other community-oriented purposes.

“Ironically, the playground is closed now for repairs due to heavy use,” she said. “Disabled kids could have used the pavilion. It could have been a sheltered recreation space during summer storms.”

Greitzer also objected to a liquor-licensed premises being located right next to a playground.

“I could see beer bottles being thrown over the top,” she said. “It’s probably not going to happen — but it’s a possibility.

“The pavilion was also used for free-speech activities,” she added, “like the first Labor Day celebration in 1892. It was these activities that made Union Square a national landmark.”

However, Jennifer Falk, the executive director of the Union Square Partnership, sees only good in the new gustatory presence.

“This terrific new amenity enlivens the park, activating the north end and making it safer for all who visit,” Falk said. “The restaurant has also created 100 jobs, and patrons should know that a portion of the revenue generated goes back to the city and will fund vital services, like the salaries of teachers and firefighters.

“We are grateful to the de Blasio administration for supporting this effort,” Falk said. “And whether it’s to play in our wonderful 15,000-square-foot playground or grab a delightful meal al fresco at the seasonal concession, we look forward to welcoming everyone to Union Square Park this summer.”