At Ralph Lauren's New York restaurant, comfort food is on the menu
Between Fifth and Madison Avenues, around the corner from the new Polo Ralph Lauren store in New York, a smartly dressed man stands under a dark green awning holding a clipboard. When anyone approaches he checks his list. This isn't a new nightclub, it's a restaurant, but if your name's not down you're not getting in.
The Polo Bar is Ralph Lauren's third restaurant following RL in Chicago and Ralph's in Paris. It's open for dinner only (for the time being) and is reservation only, no walk-ins, even for the bar.
Inside is wood and leather with an open fireplace in the ground floor bar and glowing lighting throughout. Equestrian paintings and polo paraphernalia cover every available space on the hunter green walls. Based over two floors with the restaurant in the basement, it feels like a grand home - like the Ralph Lauren flagship stores around the world (including the recently opened one in Hong Kong at Lee Gardens Two in Causeway Bay).
Lauren says the restaurant is inspired by his love of the city's classic eateries (apparently his first date with his wife, Ricky, was at New York steakhouse, Keens) and gathering around the table with family and friends.
It is an extension of the Ralph Lauren brand. The restaurant sits within the vast building which houses the new and first ever dedicated Ralph Lauren Polo store. Some of the tableware is available to buy, the coffee is brewed especially for Ralph Lauren (there's a coffee bar in the new Polo store next door). The waiting staff wear Ralph Lauren (ladies, if you bought the tartan silk dress from the autumn-winter 2014/15 Polo collection, don't wear it here).
"I don't want to be the hot restaurant," says Lauren. "I want to be the restaurant you want to go to twice a week."
And he dines there regularly. The evening I visited he had a table with a bird's eye view of the restaurant. I saw Lauren and Ricky take a while to leave as so many diners wanted to shake his hand and speak to him as if he was a movie star.
Lauren says he wants The Polo Bar to serve the kind of food everyone wants to eat. He is not intending the chef to be a star: "It's not about a fancy chef."
The chef's name is notably absent from the press release. He is Sepp Stoner, previously of David Burke Kitchen, and he does a good job of producing what Lauren intended.
There are no tasting menus or foams here. Instead, there are clubby East Coast classics. Yorkshire puddings are served in lieu of bread. There's a large meat selection with several steaks and a signature burger. Where possible, the beef is sourced from Lauren's own ranch in Colorado.
He says the reason he opened Ralph's restaurant in Paris was that he couldn't find a decent hamburger there. This time around he reputedly lamented the lack of a good Reuben sandwich in New York. There's a Ralph's Corned Beef Sandwich on the menu at The Polo Bar.
There's also an impressive choice of salads, fish and seafood. Vegetarians can choose from a dedicated menu. There's a smattering of American produce: salted Vermont butter, Oregon blue cheese and Berkshire bacon.
The ice cream, made with Ralph Lauren coffee, is gently highlighted by our waiter - personable and informative and looking like he stepped out of the pages of a Ralph Lauren brochure. I can't decide between the two chocolate desserts on offer so he suggests the old-fashioned five-layer chocolate cake. I can attest to it being an absolute winner.
Despite the booking policy, the atmosphere is convivial. The diners are diverse in age: on the table on one side of me are two thirtysomething men with their dates; on the other an older man with his grown-up family.
It's not a stretch to think of a Ralph Lauren restaurant opening in Hong Kong. There's already a discreet bar (for customers only) inside the menswear flagship in Prince's Building. Regular patrons drop in for an espresso before work or opt for something stronger while having tailoring fittings.
The company declined to comment on whether there are plans to open a full service restaurant here. But perhaps if Mr Lauren misses a particular American comfort food when he's in town that will change.