West Orange, NJ - Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr. (seated on left) and Harry Knowles (seated right), proprietor of Knowles Restaurants, participate in the ceremonial signing of a new long-term lease for the Highlawn Pavilion to continue operating in the old Casino Building in Essex County Eagle Rock Reservation. The new agreement takes effect in September 2014 and is for 20 years with two five-year extensions. The County first entered into a relationship with the Knowles family in 1984 to preserve and redevelop the historic structure into a fine dining restaurant. Watching the signing are (from left) Wade Knowles, Freeholder Carol Clark, Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Freeholder Brendan Gill, Kurt and Leslie Knowles,former Governor Brendan Byrne and Freeholder Gerald Owens. Credits: Glen Frieson
January 30, 2013 at 9:06 PM
WEST ORANGE, NJ –The Knowles family, operators of Highlawn Pavilion, renewed their lease with Essex County. The original 30-year lease was set to expire in October 2014. The new lease provides for an additional 20 years of operation beginning in 2014, with two additional five-year options.
“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.
“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.”
Harry Knowles became the first private businessman to partner with Essex County in 1984. 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.
According to Keith Sly, Public Relations Director for Knowles Restaurants:
"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."
The Highlawn Pavilion has won numerous awards and recognitions with the Knowles family at the helm, including "Four Stars" from The Star-Ledger, an "Excellent" fromThe New York Times, "Most Romantic" and "Best Restaurant" from Suburban Essex magazine, and "Best Chef" fromMontclair Magazine. New 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.