The Discreet Charm of RL

From its fumbling start just off the Mag Mile, the first and only American restaurant in the Ralph Lauren empire has evolved into the dining room of choice for Chicago’s local celebrities and society elite. Its secret? To paraphrase Marshall Field: Give the diner what she wants

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RL restaurant on Chicago's Magnificent Mile
Inside the 85-seat RL, where “not a single staff member will roll their eyes at anything you ask.” For more photos, launch the gallery »

 

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Les Coney is late to lunch. He’s late a lot. The executive vice president of Mesirow Financial is always in a meeting that’s running over, and today’s meeting is running over quite a bit. No worries: He shoots a text to his assistant, who picks up the phone and calls RL. There, the hostesses know exactly what to do: greet Coney’s guests by name and whisk them to his usual table. Make sure they have something to drink. Make sure they have something to nibble. Let them check their e-mail in peace so they’ll forget it’s a quarter past noon and Coney’s still racing across town in a cab. That way, when he finally slides into his chair with a smile and a hearty handshake, they’ll hardly realize they’ve been waiting.

There are newer, more expensive places to have lunch in this town and certainly more innovative menus to be sampled. But no one can deny that RL, the clubby 85-seat dining room that’s part of the Ralph Lauren empire and attached to the flagship store on Michigan Avenue, reigns supreme as the power lunch spot in Chicago.

The alchemy of RL’s success is a delicate brew: a few parts dependable food, a few parts unbeatable location, a dollop of cozy members-only ambiance, and a dash of that see-and-be-seen Cruise/Klum/Roberts/Schwarzenegger-spotting reputation. But here’s what really matters: In the manner of five-star hotels and private jet shares the world over, RL has mastered the art of making its most loyal customers feel truly pampered. “Not a single staff member will roll their eyes at anything you ask,” says Linda Johnson Rice, the chair of Johnson Publishing. RL waiters know to have her Diet Coke with lemon fizzing away on her table when she arrives. The busboys know at exactly what point in the meal the entrepreneur Neal Zucker wants a cup of black coffee. The photographer Victor Skrebneski likes to have a basket of hot french fries at the ready, and, he says, “I’m short. The chairs are short legged. So they bring me a giant book [The Ralph Lauren Book, with a black-and-white cover image of the designer in a cowboy hat, pensively chewing a piece of straw] and they put it on the chair. I sit on the book.”

During the holidays, the shades of the tiny lamps that glow on the tables at dinnertime are switched from white to red. Black napkins await those who prefer them to standard white and are deftly tucked into the laps of patrons whose dark clothing might attract lint. Detailed notes of customers’ preferences are kept so regulars never have to ask twice. These are the things that make RL feel like home—and as the restaurant’s managers have learned, there’s nothing Chicagoans love more than coming home.

Challengers have tried to dent RL’s crown. Most recently, the Manhattan import Fred’s opened last year atop the new Barneys New York on Oak Street, and some thought there might be defectors. The Barneys building, after all, is gorgeous, and Fred’s windowed dining room is contemporary and bright. There’s that sleek little patio with the bird’s-eye view down Oak Street, and the menu features the necessary niçoise salads and gourmet hamburgers. Sure enough, during Fred’s first few months, RL regulars—high-rolling lawyers, doctors, politicians, media honchos, business big shots, and the women who wear very, very large diamonds—paraded up Barneys’ mirrored elevators to give the place a try. The consensus? It was no RL.

“Fred’s is still struggling, and it shouldn’t be,” says the Chicago furniture designer Judy Niedermaier, who lives a few blocks south of RL and has lunch or dinner there several times a week, often with Victor Skrebneski, her longtime friend. “Someone needs to come in and take it over. Don’t you agree?”

Take heart, Fred’s, you might still have a chance. Nine years ago, Niedermaier and Skrebneski were having the same kind of conversation about RL. A personal friend of “Ralph’s” for 30 years, Skrebneski had been asked by the designer to “keep an eye on the place” when it opened in May 1999 as the first restaurant in the fashion label’s empire (and, until a little boîte called Ralph’s made a springtime splash in Paris this year, the only one). So starting early on, Skrebneski and Niedermaier popped in to check up on things. They noticed that the service was standoffish, and the upscale Italian-themed menu wasn’t jibing with the all-American Lauren look: jaunty brass railings curving above chestnut leather banquettes, acres of silky wood paneling, and deep navy walls hung with hundreds of photos and paintings in gold and silver frames (the art is the real deal—all part of the Ralph Lauren corporate collection). The clientele didn’t seem all that enthralled.

A New York restaurant group was managing RL at the time, and it just wasn’t tapping into the tastes of the local crowd. “It was a very un-Chicago type of service,” recalls Neal Zucker, whose Corporate Cleaning Services washes the windows of hundreds of the city’s high-rises.

Skrebneski began to think that if anyone could turn RL around, it would be Steve Lombardo and Hugo Ralli, owners of Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse. Since Gibsons opened in 1989, Lombardo and Ralli had steered the steak house to become the Gold Coast’s go-to spot for hobnobbing, people-watching, and consuming monstrous slabs of meat. Along with urging Lauren to do away with the original RL menu in favor of classic American fare, Skrebneski suggested a partnership. Gibsons Restaurant Group took over management of RL in 2001, and one of the first steps was to install Rich Varnes as general manager.

A tall, trim man in his 40s who wears Ralph Lauren suits like he was born in one, Varnes is one of those people about whom no one will utter a malicious word. “He’s a great, great guy who I think has been very good for RL,” says Niedermaier. Varnes has become the face of the restaurant, and he greets every regular by name. (It’s rumored that to stay sharp, the RL staff studies photos of the best customers, clipped from the pages of society magazines and tacked to a bulletin board in the back office.) Varnes is a master at juggling all those egos who think that that table is their table and who prefer the pan-fried perch grilled, actually, and served over chopped Brussels sprouts—with the sauce on the side. Varnes can often be seen bending solicitously over tables around the room, showing off iPhone snapshots of his five-year-old daughter while asking after customers’ families, their winters in Palm Beach, their kitchen renovations, and their social schedules.

A hospitality industry vet who was plucked from management at Gibsons and installed at RL in July 2001, Varnes trains each staff member to be welcoming and personable but never intrusive. “You have to start with hiring employees who truly care about providing great service,” he says. “We want our staff to be able to think for themselves and react quickly to most situations.”

Discretion is key, but certain customers eat at RL day after day, year after year. “Some of the women have lunch, go home for a wardrobe change, and come back to meet their husbands for dinner,” says Sean Eshaghy—at 27, one of RL’s youngest regulars. Personal relationships with the staff are bound to develop. Gifts are routinely presented to favored servers on the occasions of marriages and births, and holiday tips can add up to thousands. When one server’s family was affected by Hurricane Katrina, her RL customers quickly established an aid fund. In turn, when regulars call Varnes with their charity donation requests, his response is always: “How can we help?”

Speaking of discretion, the image and message of the Ralph Lauren brand are controlled as if a matter of national security, and RL falls under the same code of silence. Though technically an employee of Gibsons, Varnes was permitted to speak to Chicago only via a list of questions submitted to and vetted by Ralph Lauren’s corporate PR team in New York. RL’s numbers, we were told, are off-limits. Gross sales for all eight restaurants managed by Gibsons Restaurant Group totaled $80 million last year, but it’s not clear which piece of that pie can be attributed to RL. In 2008, the industry publication Nation’s Restaurant News quoted Hugo Ralli as saying that RL’s annual sales had increased from $1.4 million to more than $7 million since the Gibsons team took over. That’s considered a good take, though only about a third of the gross sales last year for Gibsons Bar & Steakhouse, which may be the busiest restaurant per square foot in the country.

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Photography: Anna Knott; Stylist: Nicole Stege  Hair and Makeup: Lauren Frenden/artists by Timothy Priano  Models: Melanie King and Bob Kaliebe/Grossman & Jack Talent  Wardrobe courtesy of Polo Ralph Lauren

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