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
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 »
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
On a sweltering Thursday smack on the dot of noon, I’m relieved to duck into the cool confines of RL to meet the gossip columnist Ann Gerber for lunch. Even as a busboy pulls out my chair and places the leather-bound menu on the table in front of me, Gerber demands to know if I’m dieting. “Oh, I guess I should be,” I say guiltily, banishing any thought of ordering the lobster club. “Well, I am, and I think we should split the Dover sole with the butter sauce on the side and a bowl of Brussels sprouts,” she tells me. (A note about the food: The Dover sole in question is $41, and prices at RL are generally high, with most main plates at lunch and dinner priced between $21 and $46. When RL opened in 1999, Chicago’s dining editor, Penny Pollack, called the original menu “mainstream Italian but done quite well.” After the management switch and a shift to what the restaurant has dubbed “American city club” cuisine, Pollack reevaluated and was unimpressed. Today, she says, the food under the longtime chef, Ryan Pitts, is “fine—they use top-notch ingredients, but we’ve found that these are often buried under sauces and other types of questionable pairings.” On the other hand, in his most recent review—seven years ago—for the Chicago Tribune, Phil Vettel gave RL three stars out of five.)
Gerber once wrote for the Sun-Times but was fired in 1989 after she published a gauzily disguised rumor about Oprah Winfrey and Stedman Graham that drew the talk queen’s ire. “Yes, it was gossip,” Gerber says testily. “That’s what I was hired to print.” Since then, she’s been with the neighborhood newspaper Skyline (“News of Lincoln Park, Old Town, River North and Gold Coast”), and she knows about the circle that takes its meals at RL—knows too much, some of that crowd might say.
As much as RL is a draw for the city’s CEO, MVP, MD, and FLOTUS types (though Michelle Obama hasn’t dined there since the campaign), it’s also the turf of the ladies who lunch. After our sole arrives, Gerber passes me a slip of Skyline stationery bearing a handwritten breakdown of the two most recognizable cliques, the Lunch Bunch and the Goddesses. These self-named lunch clubs have been around for 15 and 20 years, respectively; Gerber explains they’re really just groups of friends who like to keep in touch. Almost every name is recognizable from the invitation lists of the charity events on whose host committees these women often sit: the author Sherrill Bodine; the philanthropists Averill Leviton, Gretchen Jordan, and Mamie Walton (widow of Julius, the “carpet tycoon of Chicago”); the PAWS founder Paula Fasseas; the former TV anchor Mary Ann Childers; and at least 15 others.
Gerber’s name appears on both lists. “The groups meet for lunch at least once a month, mostly at RL,” she says. “We take turns hosting, and the hostess sends out the invitation and picks up the check.” For one Lunch Bunch summit at RL, Gerber brought her own candelabra and silk table runner, a story offered up by Childers when she stops by our table to, as she says, “pay homage to the queen.” The two compare notes over why they pick RL more often than not. “I do think when people come in here, they absorb the atmosphere and they become smarter and wittier,” Gerber says, and Childers nods. “They’re instantly more chic.”
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It would be misleading, though, to insist that everyone who sits down to a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato bisque at RL exudes elegance. As stated on RL’s website, the dress code is “smart business casual,” but the restaurant is, after all, within spitting distance of a Victoria’s Secret flagship, a Disney store, and an American Girl Place. My first lunch there, some seven years ago, was at the invitation of a regular who’s widely known as a philanthropist and man about town but who was unable to comment for this story due to his connections to the Ralph Lauren company. At the time, my host said tourists were just as welcome as anyone, but he sometimes wished they would dress up more. “Here they come in their Bermuda shorts and baseball caps, and, you know, this is not a Burger King. It’s an upscale restaurant,” I remember him whispering. Gerber tells me the late, great society doyenne Nancy Klimley, a supporter of the Joffrey Ballet and other Chicago causes, once boycotted RL for a time because “not only had things gotten so loud—she was soft-spoken—but the out-of-towners were so badly dressed. She did eventually come back, though.” The tourists must have read the memo, because only once in a string of recent visits did I see a group so casually attired—white sneakers and a “When You Wish Upon a Star” T-shirt at a Friday night dinner—that they seemed out of place. Still, it’s almost certain they received the same treatment as any glam blond in head-to-toe Escada would.
“The first thing that comes to mind about RL is that they treat everyone equally,” says Sunny Chico, the president of SPC Consulting and wife of the former Chicago Public Schools board chief Gery Chico. “I’ve never noticed anyone getting special treatment because they were famous.” Being a local, some say, counts for more at RL than being a celebrity. Sean Eshaghy, the next-generation regular and a longtime Gold Coaster who owns Brendel’s European Laundry, reports seeing major stars wait for tables while regulars are led straight back, and Gerber remembers once watching Vince Vaughn stand patiently in the cramped bar for 20 minutes. “I wouldn’t do that if I were him, but to each his own,” she says with a shrug.
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It’s inevitable in any conversation about RL that the matter of tables will arise. Anyone can call for a reservation or walk in and put a name on the waiting list, but there’s always the risk of being seated in what Gerber calls Siberia: the tables closest to the back hallway, with its two unusable but picturesque pay phones and a wood-paneled elevator that descends to the bathrooms. Regulars know exactly where they want to be, and that’s where they usually sit. Les Coney—who entertains everyone from top Mesirow clients to friends like Stedman Graham, Juanita Jordan, and James Bell, the president of Boeing—likes a freestanding four-top at the front of the room, directly behind the hostess stand. “Some people would rather sit in a corner, but I like to sit out so I can see who’s who,” he says. Linda Johnson Rice, when dining with just one other person, asks for a booth in the northeast corner. Neal Zucker most often sits at table 42, a four-top on the aisle, but he has told Varnes that he’s not picky. At that long-ago first lunch, my host directed me to the banquette seat at “his” table, number 21, in the northwest corner near the front, where the event planner Zarada Gowenlock also holds court. “The best thing about this table, Miss Amalie, is that we can see everyone in the room,” he confided. “And everyone in the room can see us! But don’t look now.”
And then there’s the table everyone wants: Oprah’s booth, officially table 68. Richard and Maggie Daley, Victor Skrebneski, Ariel Investments’ Mellody Hobson, Michelle Obama, the former White House social secretary Desirée Rogers, and scores of visiting celebrities prefer the semi-private banquette in the southeast corner, where diners can look out into the room while remaining partially hidden themselves. “Oh, sure. She sits there, and so does everyone else,” Gerber says. “But let me tell you: I call it the Seduction Seat. It’s the kind of table where you can grope.”
The Sun-Times columnist and Fox entertainment reporter Bill Zwecker and his partner, the Baird & Warner agent Tom Gorman, also like 68. “The only time we get bumped is when Oprah Winfrey herself reserves it, since that’s the only table she’ll take,” Zwecker says.
With so many honchos claiming 68 as their own, what about the issue of overlap? “It’s certainly the most requested table,” Varnes confirms. “I suppose it would be comparable to Booth One at the old Pump Room.” He concedes that Oprah gets first dibs. She once closed the whole place on a cold February afternoon to tape a book club special, later calling RL her favorite restaurant on national television, and she’s dined at 68 with Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Tom Hanks, and a long list of other celebrity guests. “We owe her a debt of gratitude for all her support, and we’ll miss her greatly when the show ends next year,” Varnes says. Beyond that, he remains mum on managing the restaurant’s musical chairs, saying only, “We’ve had our fair share of nervous moments over who sits where, but we will do whatever we need to do in order to make everyone happy in the end.”
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In the August 2010 issue of Town & Country, an editor-at-large, Pamela Fiori, related her firsthand report on the opening of “Monsieur Ralph’s” new store on the Left Bank in Paris, where Lauren was feted for three days last April and presented with the Legion of Honor by Nicolas Sarkozy. On the second night of the celebration, a black-tie gathering of A listers filled the tables at Ralph’s, RL’s long-planned sister restaurant, where Parisians are now reportedly falling all over themselves for the $35 burgers of Colorado grass-fed beef with steak fries. By all accounts, reservations at Ralph’s are nearly impossible to come by—that is, unless you’re a regular at RL and Rich Varnes or Hugo Ralli places a call on your behalf.
Ralph’s isn’t managed by Gibsons Restaurant Group, but Chicagoans who’ve tried it say the look and feel are similar. “Not exactly the same, but yes: The brass, the leather, the hunting photos—they’re all there,” says Neal Zucker, who dined at Ralph’s with fellow Chicagoans Marko Iglendza, M. K. Pritzker, and Linda Johnson Rice’s daughter, Alexa, a Wellesley student who was interning at a Parisian art gallery for the summer. Zucker was determined to bring a slice of Saint-Germain back to Ralph’s curious counterparts in the States. “I said to the waiter: ‘I have to ask you something. Could I please take one of these menus home to the manager in Chicago? If you say no, I’m going to steal one.’”
The society blogger Candace Jordan and her husband, Chuck, met the auctioneer Leslie Hindman and the Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed for dinner at Ralph’s on the last night of their July tour of France. “The setting is gorgeous, and I’ll have dreams about those fried olives,” Jordan says, but then adds, “The crowd was well dressed but not as chic as at RL in Chicago.”
Could it be? For once, it seems, our own American in Paris is showing them how it’s done.