BY CORDELIA MESEROW
This fall marked Ralph Lauren’s 50th anniversary in the fashion business. The milestone was fêted with properly lavish celebrations. On an overcast night in September, more than 500 guests descended upon Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace to take in a glittering fashion show where the number of runway looks exceeded the designer’s fifty years in business by more than two-fold. Media moguls (Oprah Winfrey), political heavyweights (Hillary Clinton), financial wizards (Steven Schwarzmann), and society darlings (Poppy Delevigne) were all in attendance.
The evening itself was a testament to Ralph’s enduring vision. “I make documentary features about America — he makes dreams about it,” said Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker who was one of the many luminaries at the party. Everything Mr. Lauren has dreamed in the past fifty years has turned to gold – or, more fittingly, perfectly worn chambray. Even his name, Ralph Lauren, is a product of his perfect imagination: he grew up in the Bronx as Ralph Lifshitz. But since starting out at Bloomingdales on 59th street selling ties, Ralph Lauren has had his hand in nearly every corner of the retail market. His name appears on t-shirts, watches, custom suits, ball gowns, sheets, towels, couches, plates and, of course, Polo shirts. He even has his own multi-acre ranch in Telluride, Colorado, dubbed “RRL.” In 1999, Ralph Lauren decided to put his stamp on another product: restaurants. Specifically, RL restaurant here in Chicago.
Since opening at the turn of the new millennium, RL has not faded in luster. Located adjacent to his sprawling Michigan Avenue store, RL restaurant is the apex of Ralph Lauren’s divine vision.
The level at which Mr. Lauren stays true to his brand is truly remarkable. Upon arrival at RL, one immediately enters the world and, what certainly feels like, the home of Ralph Lauren. A warm fire is always burning at the entry-way, and the Oriental rug in front of the fireplace is worn through, “just so.” The periphery of the dining room is lined in clubby chestnut leather banquettes, and the walls are adorned with paintings and photographs, that are so delightfully eclectic (photographs of Playboy bunnies share wall space with an oil painting of a French bulldog) that it appears as if they were placed there by chance, rather than under the watchful eye of a retail and design magnate. Because the dining room also lacks windows, a meal at RL can seem as if it is taking place during any season or any hour, and it becomes easy to lose track of time.
At lunch with my mother at RL.
Before entering the dining room, however, one starts at the bar. Unlike its sister restaurant in New York, the Polo Bar, where the bar is reserved for diners with reservations, the bar at RL is open to everyone. There are several bar stools, next to which are a fabulous array of black and white photographs, including one that features Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Marlon Brando in tuxedos that is my particular favorite. Russell, an RL treasure, makes the stiffest vodka martini in Chicago. Russell has worked at RL since it opened, when he used to have a mane of long hair tied back in a ponytail, as my mother reminds me. Every time I go in and say hello, Russell refers to me and my friends as “the next generation” – he can’t believe that I am now old enough to come visit him at the bar!
Russell is just one of the many members of the RL team that set the dining experience apart. The service at RL is more akin to the hospitality level of a luxury hotel than any restaurant. The maître d’s are gracious and welcoming, and the wait staff equally so. But above all, the service at RL is personal. Dining at RL feels more like you are at a dinner party at the home of a close friend, and that sense of familiarity and graciousness is one of the restaurant’s hallmarks.
The shrimp cocktail at RL – one of the restaurant’s classic appetizers.
The menu at RL is also a product of Ralph Lauren’s vision. Whereas many trendier establishments have embraced multi-ingredient or small plate concepts, RL remains devoted to its simple, classic American fare, just like the rest of the Ralph Lauren brand. The menu is manageable in its length and appropriate in its variety. The hamburger is still one of the best in the city. The Dover sole is heavenly in its bath of lemon and “beurre.” My favorite lunch order recently rotated off the menu, however, the kitchen will still make it for its devotees (an Arugula salad with pine nuts, radishes, and fresh parmesan to which I add grilled salmon – delish!). A recent addition this year is Ralph’s take on a hot dog, which I am incredibly eager to try. I’m sure he hits it out of the park. A meal at RL also requires dessert – only one. The key lime pie. It is so delicious words simply cannot do it justice.
The famous key lime pie.
One of the reasons RL’s food and service remain so consistently top notch is its long-standing partnership with the Gibsons Restaurant Group. Gibsons, aside from being Chicago’s most famous steakhouse, is also the city’s highest grossing restaurant. It is also the anchor of what is cheekily known as the “Viagra Triangle.” Gibsons has an established brand and a heightened level of expertise in the restaurant business, so in 2001, two years after RL opened, Ralph Lauren decided to partner with the Gibsons Group at his first establishment. Gibsons still runs the kitchen at RL today, and, as Ralph Lauren’s dining empire has expanded from Paris to New York, Gibsons has accompanied him; the group runs the kitchens at all of Lauren’s restaurants.
At dinner at the Polo Bar in New York, RL’s sister restaurant.
RL is a place for any occasion, and some of my fondest memories from growing up in Chicago have been at RL. In past years, on Easter and Mother’s Day, my family has often enjoyed a Sunday brunch there. Recently, a former colleague and I began a tradition of having lunch at the restaurant on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. At a friend’s high school graduation luncheon at RL, I tried my first oyster, a food I now love. Christmas 2016 found my mother and me at a corner table for a lunch that lasted nearly four hours, after which I returned less than an hour later to meet friends for drinks at the bar. It’s just that kind of place.
Dining with my mother at RL earlier this year.
In Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly describes Tiffany’s as a place where nothing bad can happen to you. She continues: “If I could find a real-life place that would make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!” If only Holly could have gone to RL…
My brother, Henry, at RL. Cheers!