There was a lot of buzz last year when Ralph Lauren opened his eponymous Paris restaurant, Ralphs, but let’s not forget that Mr. Lauren’s been doing food for over a decade. The RL Restaurant in Chicago opened in 1999 attached to the Michigan Ave. flagship, and earlier this week I settled into a banquet for a lovely lunch like only Ralph can provide.
Strolling down the busy-as-can-be Michigan Avenue, it would be easy enough to walk right by the largest member of the Ralph Lauren flagship-Mansion family. But you’d be missing out. Duck in, and when you’re done exploring the four floors of menswear, womenswear, made-to-measure, home decor, and vintage collections (which almost always include some really amazing 20s and 30s watches and cufflinks), pop next door for a restorative drink and bite. If you don’t have a reservation in the dining room, a sales associate can usually call down and have a bartender try to hold you a place in the no-reservations bar while you walk down.
If you do plan ahead, or are among the lucky few to get a table in the dining room without a reservation, you’ll find yourself either cozying up in a plush banquet or studded-leather chair. Both are redolent of a luxurious gentleman’s club tempered with just the right soupçon of American diner kitsch. The walls feature the usual Ralph Lauren mix of oil paintings of horses alongside stark black-and-white photographs of Bugatti and beautiful women. A mahogany ceiling and warm dome lights casts a welcoming glow on the inky blue walls, and create a feeling at once homey and luxurious.
As with the rest of what he does, Mr. Lauren has taken simple, comforting food and made it feel unbeatable. The service might be the best of any restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining at, and I was so relaxed I had my camera sitting right next to me and didn’t take a single picture (hence the lack of photos here).
You can also always slide a club chair up to the fireplace in the bar and enjoy the same menu and service as the main dining room. With the walls of books, ability to watch the bar-men at work, and warming fire in the cold Chicago winters, I might even prefer this to the dining room.
The menu is diverse, but I find myself ordering almost the same thing every time. It just seems the quintessential Ralph Lauren meal. Start with a Manhattan and a bowl of the lobster bisque, the texture of which I can’t even begin to describe here. Then the discretely superior RL Burger. Yes, it’s a hamburger, but it’s a really good hamburger. After the uniquely American classics, finish with a macchiato and a crème brûlée for a touch of France and Italy, and you’re good to go.
Photo Credit: Walker House