Dean Poll is a towering figure with a deep voice and an even deeper affection for old-school New York City restaurants. “I go to all different types of restaurants, but I do tend to gravitate towards old restaurants,” says Poll. “I like La Grenouille. I like ‘21.’ I like Four Seasons.” For fans of historic haunts like him, the uncertain future now facing the venerable Four Seasons, where the rent is expected to triple when its lease expires in 2016, is especially troubling. “To think that the Four Seasons might not exist is just, to me, horrible,” says Poll. “That’s a crime.”
The city is already losing a number of notable long-standing restaurants, some even younger than the Four Seasons — Pastis, Union Square Cafe and wd-50, among them — due to similar real-estate pressures.
As a restaurateur, Poll knows that it’s mostly up to him and operators like him to preserve these types of places. Landlords, by and large, aren’t going to do it on their own. Not purely for posterity’s sake. Not out of sheer big-heartedness. Not in today’s molten-hot real estate market. And, beyond the simple act of patronage, there’s not a whole lot that the dining public can do, either. There is no quasi-governmental agency charged with preserving the city’s culinary landmarks. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission can act to protect the architecture surrounding a given dining room but not its interiors and certainly not its vibe. Upholding that legacy falls squarely on the leaseholder.
“I don’t know if that’s my obligation, but absolutely that’s how I feel,” says Poll, looking out upon one such ancient restaurant, which he has managed to save from fading into oblivion: Gallaghers. The 87-year-old steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan reopened last year after a sweeping multi-million overhaul, courtesy of new owner Poll and designer Peter Niemitz.
“I feel a great love for bringing old restaurants back to life,” says Poll.
It shows. Even cantankerous New York Post restaurant critic Steve Cuozzo seemed smitten with Poll’s refresh of the place, calling it “as stirring a resurrection of a classic beefery as Keith McNally’s Minetta Tavern transformation in 2009,” in a mostly positive review of the reopening last spring.
Poll has some experience in resuscitating geriatric restaurants like Gallaghers. This is the same guy who acquired the city contract for the decrepit Loeb Boathouse property in Central Park in 2000 and turned it into one of the park’s most vibrant spots. And, a proven money-maker, too: the restaurant reportedly generates more than $20 million in annual revenue. “The construction of the Boathouse was very difficult, building on top of water, building inside of the park,” says Poll. “This restaurant,” he notes of Gallaghers, “was a lot more from the heart.”
It is a delicate art, updating a decades-old facility without disturbing its long-standing charm. “We didn’t want people coming in here, saying ‘you ruined Gallaghers,’” notes Poll, who cites the venue’s “very colorful history” as the whole reason for taking on the massive project in the first place. “This is one of the oldest restaurants left in New York,” he says of the former Prohibition-era speakeasy, opened by former Ziegfeld girl Helen Gallagher in 1927. Over the years, the venue attracted various sports figures, Broadway stars and the hordes of spectators who came to see them, thanks to its close proximity to the theater district and the old Madison Square Garden. A great location, in other words. “That being said, the place was in desperate need of repair,” Poll admits.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Gallaghers’ glowing revival, it essentially boils down to this: rip out and replace all the functional stuff, but keep and clean up the things that make the place unique. “Infrastructure-wise, it’s virtually all new,” says designer Niemitz during a tour of the various improvements. “All the plumbing, electrical, mechanical.” Meanwhile, the “key iconic elements” — the revolving front door, the windowed meat locker, the horseshoe-shaped bar — were all painstakingly restored, Niemitz says.
About the only thing remaining of the old kitchen is the restaurant’s signature hickory wood ovens, Niemitz adds. “We had them all rebuilt,” he says. “Those are grandfathered. You can’t do that in New York anymore.”
Poll even decided to hang on to the restaurant’s funky-looking chandeliers, fashioned out of copper and hickory logs. Albeit somewhat reluctantly. “If I had to choose a light fixture, this wouldn’t be it,” Poll says bluntly. “But, Peter convinced me and I’m glad he did.” When renovations began, the lighting fixtures were essentially black, “covered in grease and dust and just disgusting,” Niemitz says. “We were shocked that the color came out like it did,” adds Poll. “It didn’t remotely resemble what we started with.”
Surveying the gleaming new-old Gallaghers, you’ve got to wonder what might have become of the city’s storied Tavern On The Green if only things had turned out a little differently. In 2009, the city awarded the highly coveted concessions contract to Poll. But the deal fell through when he was unable to work out an agreement with the historic Central Park restaurant’s unionized workforce. Tavern On The Green eventually reopened last year under different management. Reviews have been less than favorable.
“Sometimes, the best deals are the ones you don’t do,” says Poll, noting that the new owners came in with an entirely different vision for the property. “They made Tavern smaller than what it was; I was going to make it bigger than what it was,” he says. “I think, no matter who went in there, it would’ve been very difficult. It’s got to be a high-volume restaurant. And there’s something lost in a high-volume restaurant. I think the verdict is not out on Tavern yet.”
Poll already has has his eye on another old New York restaurant, one that is “not in the same state of disrepair but it’s lost its soul,” he says, declining to identify the place by name.
Asked whether his apparent preservationist streak is somewhat lacking among his peers in the industry, Poll gets a little pensive: “I sometimes ask myself the same question: do people appreciate the things I appreciate? People who do what I do? I’m not too sure.”
Niemitz interjects, “I would say no. Not the majority of restaurateurs.”
“But, I’m more concerned with the customers,” says Poll. “And, if the business that we’re doing is any indication, then they do.”
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