Dean Poll determinedly runs a tight ship at the Boathouse, the famous fine-dining restaurant set amid the bucolic surroundings of New York’s Central Park.
The iconic restaurant and banquet facility, which boasts outdoor dining along with unrivaled views of the lake in Central Park, has been the setting for myriad weddings big and small, has served as the backdrop for many a movie filmed on location in New York City, and has catered to the needs of locals and tourists alike looking to experience high-end dining in the most picturesque location the city has to offer.
Poll, proprietor of Central Park Boathouse LLC, the operating company that runs the Boathouse concession for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation, says the restaurant is symbolic of the kind of establishment he always dreamed of operating, and it is the crown jewel of his restaurant business. He says he knew it even before he took over the Boathouse’s contract, when the place still was in dire need of renovations. He recognized it was a diamond in the rough and knew he had to be the one to transform it into one of the most-visited dining destinations in New York City. It seems he was right, too. Today the facility generates about $20 million in annual revenue.
According to Poll, the Boathouse has been located on Central Park’s west side since 1858. He notes, however, that in all of those years it has never been operated quite the same way it is now, as a full-service restaurant and banquet concern, bar and grill and takeout counter. The structure that houses the current facility was constructed in 1954 and is the third to have been built, he says.
“It was a gift from the Loeb family—Carl and Adele Loeb, whose grandson was the U.S. ambassador to Denmark and still is a customer here to this day,” Poll says. “When I first came here to look at it, I couldn’t even find it,” he remembers. “I entered [the park] at 76th Street and asked where it was. And when I finally found it [on 72nd Street], I was floored. I saw its great possibilities.”
He says that at the time of that first visit, the building was “rimmed with graffiti and in terrible disrepair,” in need of major renovations. So when the Parks Department awarded him the Boathouse contract in October 2000, he began making plans and started implementing lots of changes.
“It was crude,” he says. “There was no air-conditioning or heat in the banquet room, which we added, and the kitchen needed redoing. We knew an investment had to be made, so we … committed to spending $1.6 million or whatever it took to do it, which ended up being an additional $6.4 million. At the beginning, there were a lot of times—when it rained or snowed and raccoons walked around inside—when I said, ‘Why did I get myself into this?’ It was just terrible, but we had the support of the city, especially of Henry Stern, who was then the parks commissioner, so we proceeded with the renovation, which took a year and a half.”
Those fixes included enclosing the banquet room, which essentially had been little more than a party tent, and adding air conditioning and a heating system to ensure year-round use.
Poll also hired Peter Bischoff, an acquaintance during Poll’s days as a restaurateur on Long Island, N.Y. Bischoff signed on as the Boathouse’s director of operations and essentially has become Poll’s right-hand man.
Bischoff knew the restaurateur and his brothers, George and Gillis, from their days as owner-operators of the upscale Riverbay restaurant and the Bryant & Cooper and Majors steakhouses on the island’s north shore. He says the decision to join Poll was a no-brainer; he instinctively knew, based on Poll’s and his family’s reputations as successful restaurateurs as well as the Boathouse’s spectacular location, that helping to run the Boathouse was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he could not pass up. He instinctively knew that the operation would be wildly successful once the renovations were completed. Eleven years later he is still there running its banquet operations.
“I just knew that if we put it in the right direction, added the right amenities, it would be incredible,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that when you are here it’s like you don’t really know where you are; you’re in an oasis in the city.” Furthermore, he adds, “Knowing his family and the places they have, I just knew what he would do with this. There was no question that it would be great. It just needed a lot of TLC; it was missing a personal touch and was very evident it needed someone to put his arms around it.”
The renovations proceeded throughout 2001, and the brand-new Boathouse opened its doors for business in 2002. Poll never looked back. In the first year alone, sales at the facility increased by $1 million, he says. He even installed a gondola on the lake and a shuttle bus in the park so guests could be transported with ease since the restaurant isn’t accessible by car.
Fast-forward 11 years and today the Boathouse is a 165-seat restaurant and banquet facility that caters to more locals than tourists. According to Poll, it serves 58 percent neighborhood customers and 42 percent tourists. The menu, which is under the direction of executive chef Anthony Walton, features continental dishes priced in the mid-$20 range and up that change seasonally. Lunch and brunch are served year-round, but dinner service is not offered in the winter. During that time, the space is used for private events.
Besides being known as the go-to establishment for outdoor dining in New York, the Boathouse is just as well known for the catered events it puts on, such as the extravagant weddings and family celebrations that are held there year-round.
“I always knew this would be a wedding destination,” Poll says. “Every young lady wants to get married in Central Park. That’s the dream.”
Bischoff asserts it is the facility’s attention to detail that ensures the Boathouse’s reputation as the premier special-occasion place in New York City.
“We average around 325 events a year with just one room,” he says, “but what makes the event space so unique is that we cater it for just one event [each time]. That plus our reputation for food and service puts us in a different category.”
Bischoff directly attributes the Boathouse’s success to Poll’s hands-on attention to all details, from the food to the décor to flower boxes hanging from the out-door dining room’s wrought iron railings. In addition to being an excellent manager, he also has a strong culinary bent and is heavily involved in everything that is served to his guests.
“Dean has a real know-how for the food he wants,” Bischoff says. “There is not one thing prepared that he has neither seen nor tasted. I can’t tell you how many times he has gone back into the kitchen and said, ‘Let’s try it this way.’ He is involved in everything on a day-to-day basis.”
He also notes that Poll is a stickler for detail, exacting and demanding, but fair.
“He has a lot of heart and cares tremendously about his business,” Bischoff says. He’s a perfectionist, a critical person who will let you know how he feels about something without holding back. But he also cares about what his people feel and think.”
Poll concurs with that assessment, but allows that he has mellowed with time.
“I’ve changed for the better,” he says. “I’m older now and don’t have the financial burden and pressure of building this place anymore. That was tremendous. Occasional mishaps do happen, but I assess them differently than I did maybe five years ago. I don’t consider myself more tolerant, but I’ve become more understanding without compromising my principles.”
But despite his success with the Boathouse, Poll has had to navigate some choppy waters in recent years. In 2007 the city controller’s office conducted an audit of the company’s books and said it found the restaurant had employed inconsistent financial practices that included underreporting revenues and offering free meals to some customers and charging them to the city. The company continued to operate its contract with the city, but denied the allegations of financial mismanagement and paid more than $300,000 to compensate for the alleged discrepancy.
Then, in 2009, Poll successfully won the bid to take over the operating contract of Tavern on the Green, also located in New York’s Central Park, adjacent to the famous Sheep Meadow. Operated first by flamboyant showman Warner LeRoy and then his daughter, Jennifer, after his death in 2001, the restaurant, which at one time was New York City’s most famous and highest grossing with revenue of as much as $29 million a year, had fallen prey to financial trouble and disrepair.
Poll, who had always said it was his dream to take over Tavern’s operations, secured the financial backing to renovate and breathe new life into the space, but immediately ran into disagreements with Local 6, the powerful union that represented its 400-plus employees. Negotiations between the two finally broke down last year, and Poll walked away from the contract to operate the facility. The city then turned Tavern, temporarily, into a visitor’s center and food court, which continues today.
Poll says the loss of Tavern is, perhaps, one of his biggest business disappointments to date.
“I’m sorry for the way things turned out, but I’m probably not sorry I went after it,” he says. "What did I learn? The good guy doesn’t always finish first.”
Nevertheless, residual troubles continue to plague the veteran restaurateur, including a lawsuit filed in June by several Boathouse employees alleging sexual harassment by members of its management.
Spokesman Joe O’Donnell responded to the claims in a written statement.
“All employees are aware of the Boathouse's zero tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment,” the statement says. “Furthermore, the Boathouse employee handbook clearly instructs any employee who feels that he/she has been harassed, sexually or otherwise, to immediately inform a supervisor, the general manager or Dean Poll. No one on the Boathouse management team has been informed about any such complaints. If and when the EEOC notifies the Boathouse of a charge, the Boathouse will conduct an appropriate investigation and respond to the charge accordingly.”
After the filing of the harassment suit, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who has wide support from Local 6, called on the city to terminate Poll’s operating contract at the Boathouse. At press time, the contract remained in place.
Despite this latest wrinkle, Poll says he takes comfort in the beauty of and the operations at the Boathouse, a place he says he loves to come to every day.
“The Boathouse really is a great place,” he says. “I enjoy coming to work and to the park. I meet nice people constantly and have a great staff that is a pleasure to work with. Even those who may disagree with management have respect for the place. There is no place like it anywhere in New York. I sometimes sit here and forget I’m in the middle of Manhattan.”