Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar has brought comfortably luxurious steakhouse dining back to Manhattan, and Tommy Bahama is rolling out its island cuisine and resort-minded ambiance in white-tablecloth settings from New York City to Waikiki to Tokyo. In both, the food and restaurant become a natural extension of the designer brand.
“The restaurant really is the brand in 3-D,” explains Rob Goldberg, executive vice president of marketing for Tommy Bahama. “What I like is that the restaurant instantly gives the consumer an understanding of who Tommy Bahama is. [Guests] can see what is important to us, our aesthetic, and everything in the restaurant brings the brand to life—from the music to the plateware to servers’ uniforms and all the materials and color palette.”
That proves particularly useful when trying to convey the personality and emotion of a fictitious character that appears to channel the sophisticated intellect of Hemingway with the vigor and spirit of Jimmy Buffet. Thanks in part to the three-dimensional immersion provided by its restaurants, Goldberg suggests Tommy Bahama has actually come to represent more of a feeling than a person.
A 3-D translation is just as meaningful for bringing the very real persona of the Ralph Lauren brand to life. The legendary designer opened The Polo Bar, his first New York City restaurant, in January 2015, located next door to his flagship store. From the sporting polo mural that greets guests as they enter the front door to the saddle leather and equestrian art inside, the restaurant’s décor and ambiance reflect the lifestyle that has become synonymous with the brand. Similarly, the menu speaks to classical steakhouse fare just as the apparel has always been a nod to the traditional country club set.
The Polo Bar is Lauren’s third restaurant, following RL Restaurant, which opened in Chicago in 1999, and Ralph’s, which opened in Paris in 2010. In talking about his latest restaurant, Lauren has said he wants to offer “vibrant food that people want to return to time and again.” It’s not about inventive, emerging cuisine: It’s all about timeless classics and luxurious comfort—in food, in setting, and in service. Again, The Polo Bar is simply a culinary personification of Lauren’s namesake brand—right down to the servers, who are clad in Ralph Lauren gray flannel trousers, leather wingtips, and silk repp ties.
While servers at Tommy Bahama also don the brand’s signature apparel, the motivation is very much about the restaurant experience, not the retail line. “A number of retailers have announced in the last couple of years that they would like to enter the restaurant business, and I think for a lot of retailers it’s a question of increasing traffic,” Goldberg says. “Our inspiration for Tommy Bahama restaurants wasn’t about how we were going to generate traffic. Ours was: How are we going to fully ensconce our guests in our brand? We think about every single detail, and we really sweat the details in terms of how we present—because we present as one brand. We are not a retail company with a restaurant attached to it. We have a restaurant company, and we treat it as such. We have a culinary director, a vice president of operations, regional managers, executive chefs, and beverage experts.”
In fact, the first Tommy Bahama retail store opened alongside its signature restaurant in Naples, Florida, and that was nearly 20 years ago. Now, Tommy Bahama has 16 restaurants, 140 stores, and a commitment to culinary expertise that equals its commitment to designer fashion.
“I want people to realize we take the food just as serious as [the designers] take the clothing line,” says Don Donley, culinary director for Tommy Bahama. “That’s something I want to make sure people know: We have chefs in our building; we make everything from scratch; we work hard at staying current with the trends. … And, we’re really serious about what we do and who we are.”