Lunch at Ralph’s

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Enjoying a coffee next door to Ralph's Coffee on Madison Avenue and 72nd street. Photo: JH.

Friday, February 23, 2024. Fair weather yesterday in New York, in the mid- to upper-40s, with some in-and-out sunshine, and the town in midday: was very very busy. To put it mildly.

In the morning I made a date with JH to meet for lunch. He and I have been working partners on the NYSD for two and a half decades and we have never worked in the same building together. Or even nearby. Although we communicate almost always daily; and it’s the Site. The wonders of electronics.

We made this date one of our occasional face-to-face meetings; and finally decided to go to Via Quadronno, a VERY popular sandwich spot on East 73rd (between Fifth and Madison). It’s a nice walk for JH since he lives a number of blocks directly north, whereas I live eight blocks city-wide and ten blocks north. I drove rather than bus it, or taxi. Cheaper and faster. Ha on me.

In the mood for cappuccinos and paninis we stopped at Via Quadronno on 73rd and Madison Avenue. Alas, there were no free tables inside so we had to change our plans. There’s also an interesting story behind this little gem on Madison Avenue, which we will tell when we return for lunch.

Traffic in New York during the business day is out of control. That is a fact, not an exaggeration. The number of driving lanes has been cut and reduced up to 30 to 50% everywhere. Slashed, really; a bad idea or at least dopey if you don’t have a temper.

This was done by an idealist with an attempt to make it safer for the pedestrian. What they made is a traffic madhouse where the cars can barely move a block a light. They’ve also removed so many lanes for motorized vehicles (cars/trucks/motorcycles) that they’ve cut the space for travel in half. Which is fine when there’s little or no traffic. And in fact that is so when evening comes or when there’s a terrible storm.

Madison Avenue in the 70s at 12:45 p.m., Thursday. The yellow cab in the middle of the road is in the only moving lane. The FedEx truck on the right is double parked. The near car on the left is also double-parked.  The bicycles, not pictured, don’t bother with the bike lanes unless it’s the only way to keep up the speed on the mainly motorized bikes.

JH got to our destination first and while I was driving around looking (in vain) for a parking space or a garage that wasn’t filled, I called him to report my in-city travel excuse for the delay. He told me there were also no available seats at that moment where he was waiting. Conferring about where we might go instead, he suggested the “coffee shop” at Ralph Lauren’s store on 72nd and Madison — where there was a garage in one of the apartment buildings just across the street.

The southwest side corners of that block belong to Ralph Lauren. Right around the corner in the same building, he installed a kind of “coffee shop” – by which I mean it’s not a plain old coffee shop because it’s Ralph Lauren’s and that means style frankly. That’s always been his ace since he first started his luxury necktie business in the early 1960s. Top price $5. For a necktie, that was “up” there; Brooks Bros. ties back then were $3. Of course 15 cents was the price of a subway token.

Looking across at the Ralph Lauren’s men’s shop on the northeast corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. The mansion was built by a 19th century real estate heiress Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo, completed in 1897 and never lived in by Mrs. Waldo or any relative. By the mid-20th century it became retail stores plus two large and palatial apartments on the upper floors. However, Ralph Lauren turned it into a 20,000 square foot flagship store. His business on that corner grew to the point where his children and his women’s division stores cover the entire eastern side of Madison Avenue between 71st and 72nd. In this photograph the entire mansion is covered in decorative scaffolding à la Paris, so it now looks like a piece of art, too!

Here’s the Ralph Lauren Women’s Flagship store on the southwest corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. The mansion was built in 2010 but looks as though it has been there since the 19th century. In 1893, a widow by the name of Ruth Brown hired McKim, Mead & White to design a house on this very spot. Mrs. Brown’s town house was finished in 1894, but she never occupied it. She sold it in 1895 to Alva Vanderbilt, who was recently divorced from William K. Vanderbilt II, when the neighborhood was becoming one of the “swellest in town.” As many in the nabe (and many a tourist) know, there is a “coffee shop” (Ralph’s) just inside the front door. And it is, indeed, a “coffee shop” — although the term seems inadequate because it’s so chic (if that’s possible for a retail outfit’s coffee shop). But it’s got some of that Lauren merchandising chic, or genius. And the coffee is very good and so’s the service; and then there are the four floors of Mr. Lauren’s merchandise.

A closeup of the front entry. The staff of the shop, waitresses, are also elegant in their presence — with their pleasant personalities and efficient service. They all look like models but do their work very seriously.

So I was naturally curious about what Ralph’s coffee shop was like. It’s just inside the entrance on the right with very small, round tables and chairs on either side of the room. I’d first heard that in the warm weather the customers are outside having their coffee and bagel (bay-zjell). 8:30 am!

With its classic limestone building entrance you walk into the small lobby next to a large extended room with high ceilings and a beautiful green print wall covering and the  small tables for two and chairs against the walls.  Just beyond this room is as you enter the building is also  another room that I never entered but it looked like an entrance to the main shop (the women’s store).

The entryway to Ralph’s, just inside the 72nd street doors. The woman is looking over the coffee shops’ items you can take home. The salon/shop is just to the right of the life sized Polo Bear.
And here it is. In the mirror you can see a reflection of the other side of the room which is identical except for those sitting there, including me — the tiny white head in the lower left hand corner of the mirror frame.

The waitresses and waiters are in specially designed aprons and uniforms using the green and white in the wall covering. There are three choices on the small menu card on the small table. I chose the “ham and cheese” — a very thin but perfectly cut strip of each on a white roll. Very neat, very precise. I noticed that at the other tables everyone was just having their coffee.

We finished our little munchin’ luncheon, we paid the bill and  got up from the table. The place was busy. While there are so many shops along the avenue that appear to be very quiet, Ralph’s had traffic – and just enough – not crowded, but busy. It was a pleasure to see.

My cappuccino (excellent) came with the “ham and cheese” — a perfect version of a “ham and cheese.” If you’re dying for one but are on a strict diet to avoid a ham and cheese sandwich, this one’s for you.
This is the Cruller JH ordered, which he explained as a light airy, fluted, ring-shaped baked (fried?) doughnut. And great with the cappuccino to wash it down.

Ralph Lauren has been at it for more than five decades. What is most interesting about him and his business is that it’s never gotten tired or faded. It’s still as fresh and classy, and casual, and stylish, as if he’d just opened up in business. And you leave his premises feeling like it’s been a nice experience in your day; a treat.

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