harford polo grounds New York hottest restaurant
The line for New York’s hottest restaurant reaches all the way to Chicago.
The Polo Bar, Ralph Lauren’s place in Midtown Manhattan has “opened to a universally warm reception,” The New York Times wrote last month. “Almost immediately thereafter it became the kind of hot place where even knowing the secret email is no guarantee of booking a table any time soon or even a seat at the bar.”
But only one Big Apple journalist that I could find, New York magazine food critic Adam Platt, acknowledged the concept’s roots: “Much of the look of the New York operation, and a good deal of the cooking expertise, derives” from Chicago’s RL, Lauren’s restaurant tucked behind his eponymous Michigan Avenue store.
RL’s operators, Gibsons Restaurant Group, oversee food and service at The Polo Bar. This is the same team behind Gibsons Bar Steakhouse and Hugo’s Frog Bar, epitomes of classic, Chicago dining.
The Polo Bar is the company’s first foray outside of Chicago, Gibsons co owner Steve Lombardo said. This is not a talking point the public relations people at Ralph Lauren HQ are eager to broadcast. One had the gall to suggest that it was against corporate policy for Rich Varnes, RL’s general manager who helped launch The Polo Bar, to talk to the press.
(WBEZ once spotted Varnes taking a call from gossip columnist “Michael Sneed’s office,” which was hitting him up for names of celebrities who had dined at RL.)
If only Ralph Lauren’s publicists provided the same warm service as RL’s waiters.
In stories less than a month apart, the New York Post’s Page Six declared “A Listers flock to Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar” and “Power set flocks to Ralph Lauren’s new restaurant.”
Repetitive but not exaggerated, given the New Yorker wrote: “It’s more like a club, with an elusive membership structure: to get on the list for dinner after five fifteen or before nine thirty, you simply have to be somebody.”
Matthew Broderick apparently gets no notice as the paparazzi chase Rihanna and Naomi Campbell, the magazine claimed.
“It’s probably the best opening of any restaurant we’ve ever opened, in terms of who we hired and how they performed from the get go,” Lombardo said,
although he was careful to credit Lauren for hand picking the menu and ambience.
Lombardo, Varnes, and Gregg Horan, Gibsons’ director of operations, traveled to New York to complete Ralph Lauren’s customer service training for retail employees before beginning their hiring search. Lombardo sounded genuine when he said he had learned a lot about customer service from the world’s largest fashion brand.
The rankings are based on a private, annual poll conducted by Elite Traveler, a “private jet lifestyle publication.” Elite’s announcement comes two months.”He has an unbelievable HR operation that really gets his sensibilities across,” Lombardo said.
So are the two restaurants identical expressions of Lauren’s sensibilities?
Here’s the official line: “Each restaurant is a unique extension of the Ralph Lauren brand and tells a different story inspired by the culture of the city, the architecture of the space and different elements of classic American cuisine,” a company spokeswoman said in an email.
Looking at photos side by side, the light fixtures look the same and the wood ceilings very similar. Lamps on tables look nearly identical. Paintings are arranged in the same 19th century salon style: everywhere, wall to wall. The leather booths are the same beyond slightly differing brown tones.
The corner booth with the best people watching in town? Same.
Impeccable service? From all accounts, same.
RL’s dominant color is a warm, regal blue, the Polo Bar’s green. There are many more paintings of horses at The Polo Bar, but RL has a few horses on its walls too.
The main differences are that while there is a “rail car sized bar” at ground level in both locations, The Polo Bar’s dining room is downstairs. “The Polo Bar Runs New York’s Toughest (and Most Irritating) Door Policy,” Grub Street wrote after two hostesses armed with iPads stood outside in a New York January blocking access to anyone without a reservation.
The Polo Bar also serves warm, cheese crusted popovers instead of bread, which Chicagoan Neal Zucker enthusiastically endorsed.
“It feels just like being at the one in Chicago,” said Zucker, who owns a Chicago window washing company and says he dines out for every meal. “At RL, you don’t see the outdoors either. It’s not an exact carbon copy,
but it has a very similar flavor and style of service.”