Agreement Ensures Continued Long-Term Operation of Highlawn Pavilion

Agreement Ensures Continued Long-Term Operation of Highlawn Pavilion
New Extended Lease Established Between Essex County and the Knowles Family

Essex County Landmark Remains Under Operation of Knowles Family – Tuesday, January 29, 2013 .

Agreement Ensures Continued Long-Term Operation of Highlawn Pavilion

New Extended Lease Established Between Essex County and the Knowles Family

(West Orange, NJ: January 28, 2013) – The Knowles family, operators of Highlawn Pavilion, announced today that they have renewed their lease with Essex County, enabling the fine dining and event facility to continue serving its customers well into the future.

“We’re proud to have been selected by Essex County to continue our legacy of service to the community,” said Harry Knowles, patriarch of the Knowles Restaurants family and redeveloper of the previously neglected “Casino” structure that is now Highlawn Pavilion. “We believe that being chosen to continue operating at Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation is recognition that we have achieved and maintained high standards of quality and service for our restaurant patrons and guests who have celebrated their special occasions with us. We’re thrilled to be able to continue to be a dining destination for Essex County residents and beyond, and are excited that we can now look forward to continuing to only get better for years to come.”

Essex County officials chose to accelerate the lease review and bidding process. The County opened its assessment in 2012 in order to ensure that, whatever their ultimate decision, all options were thoroughly explored and a smooth transition would occur. The County’s final decision was to continue the successful operation already in place. 

After learning about the bidding process, many community members, longstanding patrons and friends of the restaurant reached out to the Knowles family expressing their love of Highlawn and their concern for its future. “It was heartening for us to receive so much feedback from the community about all the special times they had with us and their hopes to continue visiting Highlawn, even though we couldn’t say for sure at the time what to expect beyond 2014,” said Kurt Knowles, vice president of Knowles Restaurants and operator of Highlawn Pavilion. “We knew our customers appreciated our dedication to hospitality, but we never expected the outpouring of support we received. I’m glad now to be able to announce to everyone who shared their encouragement that, yes, we will be here for another 20 years, and we have our customers and the County to thank for it.”

“We are pleased to be continuing our relationship with the Knowles family to operate the Highlawn Pavilion in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation. Through our revitalization efforts over the last decade, our parks have become the focal points of the community and places where our residents are proud to spend time,” said Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. “Thirty years ago, the Knowles family redeveloped the Reservation’s old Casino building and has earned the reputation of providing high quality service and a first-class dining experience for their patrons. The natural beauty of Eagle Rock Reservation and the unmatched view of the New York skyline are complemented by this culinary landmark,” he added.

“We’re grateful that Essex County officials were so proactive in exploring options for the property well in advance of our lease expiration,” said Kurt Knowles.  “Knowing already that we will be able to continue operating both as a restaurant and an event facility wellbeyond 2014 enables us to reassure, not only our regular customers, but also those looking to plan weddings and special events with us in the coming years, that we are here to stay.”

“We’ve had a very strong working relationship with the County in the past and we want to extend our thanks to each and every individual who has worked with us to ensure that we will be a good neighbor and a continued fixture in Essex County,” added Kurt Knowles, Jr., Director of Corporate Affairs and grandson of Harry Knowles.“We are confident the County made the best decision with its constituents in mind, and we will continue our dedication to making sure that Highlawn Pavilion remains a quality establishment within the community for the foreseeable future.”

The Knowles family originally began operating the facility in 1984, when Harry Knowles became the first private businessman to partner with Essex County. At the time, he signed a 30-year lease for the opportunity to fully restore and operate the "Casino" building at Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange. 

By the early 1980s, the entire building had become a safety hazard. However, it could not be demolished because of its historic significance, including its use by Thomas Edison as a site for the development of military equipment during World War I. When the tremendous cost of renovating the structure was fully considered, the County Board of Freeholders chose to offer the building to an outside entity for possible restoration and creation of a revenue-generating business. When it was determined that the best possibility could be a restaurant, the Knowles family came forward. This sixth generation restaurant family, and one of the country’s most prominent, took on the challenge at their own expense.

In addition to addressing major structural problems and installing previously non-existent gas, electric and water lines (there had only been one half-inch water line to supply a drinking fountain), the Knowles decided to expand upon the original Florentine styling of the structure. In December 1985, Harry Knowles and his son, Wade Knowles, traveled throughout northern Italy seeking design elements and color schemes to determine the décor.

Appropriate antique furniture, garden pieces and lighting fixtures were found and the central “open kitchen” was designed to reflect some of the oldest restaurants in Milan, Italy.

Since then, Highlawn Pavilion has gone on to win numerous awards and recognitions under the Knowles family’s direction, including "Four Stars" from The Star-Ledger, an "Excellent" from The New York Times, "Most Romantic" and "Best Restaurant" from Suburban Essex magazine, and "Best Chef" from Montclair MagazineNew Jersey Monthly readers voted it “Best North Jersey Restaurant for Business Dining” as well as “Best Date Spot.” Highlawn Pavilion is also a recipient of the DiRoNA Award, placing it among the top one percent of restaurants in North America.

Today, Highlawn Pavilion has evolved into a magnificent setting in which to enjoy world-class culinary creations backlit by the extraordinary skyline of Manhattan and Montclair below. According to Harry Knowles, “The location, the incredible view, the cuisine, the décor, and the overall ambiance has made Highlawn Pavilion a wonderfully unique destination; but what has made it a success, has been our loyal patrons. Our lease renewal has been a powerful reminder of that, and we couldn’t be more grateful to them. Thanks to everyone who has ever passed through our doors.”

About Highlawn Pavilion

Located atop Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, NJ, Highlawn Pavilion’s striking view of Manhattan is only the beginning of an extraordinary dining experience. The impressive grand vistas are matched by its unique brand of New American fare with European flair. Culinary treasures are prepared in its striking exhibition kitchen, which caps the restaurant’s stunning décor.

Highlawn Pavilion’s wood-burning Italian brick oven and char-grill are put to good use to serve both the main dining room as well as the romantic Piano Room with its lively bar and candle-lit tables. Live jazz music is featured Wednesday and Friday, while outdoor dining (lunch and dinner) on the patio overlook, is offered during the warm weather months. With its European design, landscaping and patio umbrellas, the setting is truly reminiscent of continental relaxation.

A History of Highlawn Pavilion

Situated at the top of Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation, the building today known as Highlawn Pavilion, and the property around it, has a storied past.

The overlook upon which Highlawn Pavilion sits began as a natural trap dike formation, a glacially cut area where the Palisades Cliffs move inland to form a trap rock cliff above the Atlantic coastal plain. Because of its value as a strategic overlook, early Americans were able to view a vast area of the intervening countryside. General George Washington set up camp here during the Revolutionary War. From this expansive vantage point he was able to ascertain the movement of British troops by the location of their campfires.

In 1903, Eagle Rock Park was used by Thomas Alva Edison to film part of the first ever motion picture, "The Great Train Robbery."

In 1907, Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, created a preliminary design for the Reservation which was further developed by the Olmsted Firm in the early 1900s.

Between 1909 and 1911, the “Casino” building, now known as Highlawn Pavilion, was constructed for use as a scenic overlook and refreshment stop. The first floor was without windows as an open-air room, thus the Italian word “casino.” The term refers to an Italian-style country dwelling or summer house. As the Reservation became a popular spot where weekenders congregated, the Italian term proved to be an accurate description.

In 1917, while the country was at war with Germany, Thomas Edison was appointed chairman of the Naval Review Board. The “Casino” building and its large lawn area, “Highlawn,” were turned over to Mr. Edison and his team of scientists for secret and guarded development of equipment to aid in the war efforts. Among the research were experiments in sound travel to aid submarines in varied weather conditions, early sonar detection equipment, turbine engine development, and experiments with non-corrosive gunpowder.

In the early 1920s, the Reservation was made more accessible as Automobiles regularly brought picnickers to the summit. Automobile enthusiasts of that period held races up the cobblestone roadway of Eagle Rock Avenue with the finish line in Eagle Rock Park, near where Highlawn is situated today.

After World War I, the building again fell into disrepair. By the 1950s, hope was lost and the building was abandoned. To prevent entry to the completely deteriorated upper level, the stairway was sealed by a cement block wall.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s when the Knowles family signed a lease agreement with Essex County and undertook a massive redevelopment project, with sensitivity to the historical value of the structure, that the fate of the New Jersey landmark changed. Today, the structure is a place of celebration for generations of area families and has become a well-recognized destination for inspired cuisine in a truly unique setting.

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