By the time you score a seat at the Polo Bar, fashion mogul Ralph Lauren’s gold-trimmed restaurant adjacent to his Fifth Avenue Polo flagship, you’ll be champing at the bit.
That’s because the reservation process is an absurdly rigorous one, comprised of calling for weeks on end only to be told by the vocal-fried hostess, “We’re booked through May.” That turns out to be wholly untrue, judging by the 10 empty tables within eyeshot on a recent meal, but still, don’t bother stepping up to the pearly gates sans reservation—the white-toothed doorkeepers won’t even let you peep through the branded windows if your name isn’t on the list.
But keep calling, if only to get an eyeful of the beautiful, albeit relentless, space. (The equestrian theme practically bashes you over the head with a polo mallet.) Upstairs, find a long mahogany-toned barroom emblazoned with jockey portraits and 19th-century riding trophies, offering gratis bowls of fried olives to offset the $21 you’ll inevitably pony up for an old-fashioned. A flight down is the brandy-hued dining room, all aged saddle leather and perfectly creased tablecloths, more radiant than a windowless basement has any right to be.
Chef Sepp Stoner’s menu is as classic American as anything Lauren has ever put down a runway, with a premium placed on comfort over luxury—a towering burger loaded with cheddar and crispy bacon ($24), pan-seared Dover sole spritzed with Meyer lemon ($54) and a pounded veal chop, festooned with fennel and arugula ($36).
And for the most part, the food is well prepared and satisfying, with nary a speck of innovation to speak of. Crab cakes ($17) suffer from a pinwheel of flimsy phyllo shreds and dull bell-pepper mustard, but the roasted chicken ($29), served with an überbuttery swath of mashed potatoes, is juicy enough for you to forsake the boat of jus that accompanies it. The corned-beef sandwich ($22), a boyhood favorite of the Bronx-born designer, is a rich take on the deli staple, tender meat and melted Swiss tucked between thick-cut marble rye.
But nothing on the menu is quite as delicious as the grade-A people watching. Mirrors are placed at eye level, ideal for showing off the rich and famous like prized mares. And trust us—gazing upon Rihanna, Tom Hanks or even Lauren himself tearing into Gruyère-laced popovers like the rest of us is worth the migraine-inducing admission.