All photos by Liz Barclay (@liz01)
For a guy who made his name behind drum machines and keyboards, orchestrating beats for some of the biggest artists of the past decade (Jay Z, Eminem, Kanye West) to use as their musical soap box, Just Blaze is a talker. Get him going about just about anything—Hoboken real estate, the evolution of slasher flicks, secret Japanese beef restaurants—and he’s got something smart to say about the subject. This gift of gab makes him great dinner company in general, but especially so when you’re eating at a restaurant that taps into one of his most enduring obsessions besides music: Polo Ralph Lauren.
Those who follow the DJ and producer’s active social media feeds know the depths of his love affair with the brand, which spans nearly two decades and has resulted in a collection of vintage garments that he says he could trade “for a small house.” He’s been known to have Instagram showdowns with other so-called “Lo Heads” like Smoke Dza and Dallas Penn, and last year, during an incident dubbed #PoloGate when a surprise 65% discount code circulated on the Internet, Just famously went on an epic spending spree that included 12 polos, five leather jackets, four dog sweaters, and an objet d’art (and that was just the tip of the iceberg).
We figured there was no better person to dine with at the much-hyped Polo Bar, a new restaurant around the corner from Ralph Lauren Fifth Avenue. While the place evokes the a fever dream of country living—all dark wood, fireplaces, and polo mallets—Just showed up on a freezing winter evening in his own vision of Polo nostalgia, including a toggle shawl-neck sweater and navy anorak from Polo’s circa-2010 Olympic collection. We also invited Complex Senior Editor Russ Bengtson (outfitted, appropriately, in a handsome Blue Label flannel with a shooting patch), who shares Just Blaze’s passion for sneaker and style history.
Over crab cakes, steaks, and Old-Fashioneds, we discussed the challenges of translating a clothing brand to a dining experience, strip-club eating, and what it’s like to be a VIP Polo customer. We knew the place was already an insta-hit with upper-crust New Yorkers who like soft leather under their butts and kale Caesar salads on their plates, but we wondered what a bonafide Ralph obsessive would make of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start with first impressions. How does the restaurant fit in with the Ralph Lauren brand as you know it?
Just Blaze: Menu aside, the restaurant is pretty much what I expected. It has that country-club vibe and it ties in, decor-wise, with his retail locations. If you go to, say, the Rhinelander Mansion, there are certain rooms that look exactly like this. This aesthetic works with the more traditional brand. But the sections [of the store] where they sell Black Label are a bit more modern. Now that [Ralph Lauren] has branched out into different lines, they’ve become very good at selling you the mood behind each line. A lot of brands don’t understand that you’re not just selling your clothing, you’re selling a lifestyle. Like, let’s say we go to the mansion and look at the more traditional clothing. It would look a lot like this restaurant: country club, traditional, old-money. A lot of it is aspirational; it makes people wish that they could afford to live like that. It’s almost like you go to the Polo Store, put on a costume, and go to a restaurant and pretend that you live like that.
Russ Bengtson: To me, there’s almost a disconnect between the sport of polo and the brand. Sure, the little guy on the logo is holding the mallet, but what percentage of people who wear Polo can actually tell you what polo is, or what the rules are?
[Ralph] sells you the lifestyle and, once you buy into that, then you buy everything that goes along with that.
Just Blaze: I’ve learned more about the sport from understanding the clothing than I have from actually paying attention to the sport itself. When you talk to people in retail or at corporate about certain clothing designs, they’ll tell you, “Oh, well this number is actually significant because it relates to this position,” or, “This logo is actually derivative of this championship team.” Again, it goes back to the aspirational thing. For Ralph Lauren, all of this was aspirational. He didn’t grow up like this. He grew up in the Bronx. He was inspired by photos and magazines that portrayed this kind of lifestyle. I can picture him standing outside a window of some storefront—just this kid from the Bronx—fantasizing about it. That’s the thing: He sells you the lifestyle and, once you buy into that, then you buy the accessories and everything that goes along with that, whether you actually live it or aspire to live it. (Pointing at table setting.) For example, these are great glasses. I kind of want to steal them for my house. Don’t tell anybody if I stuff this into my pocket.
When #PoloGate happened, you talked about how you didn’t just pick up a ton of clothing, but you also bought houseware stuff. Was any of it in this style?
Just Blaze: No, it was more of the modern—skull and crossbones, collegiate-type of stuff. I feel like when you do this look, you need to commit. It’s not an accent thing—this is your look. I also don’t feel like this is the kind of look that you can do as a room in a home; this is the look of your entire house. Some of his other lines, houseware-wise, just made more sense [for me] than going the route that he took with this restaurant. I did consider this direction, but this look also would have been a lot more expensive to pull off—not even just the accessories, but in terms of the actual wood and the fixtures and things like that. Forget about it.
Russ Bengtson: I know that when you buy Ferraris, you eventually get to a point where, whenever a new one comes out, they offer it to you first. Is there a similar thing with Polo? If you spend enough, do you get some sort of special treatment?
I feel like this restaurant is the kind of place where Ralph Lauren wished he could’ve eaten when he was a kid.
Just Blaze: To be honest, I think that what happened with PoloGate was kind of the equivalent of that. I’m pretty sure that they looked at my purchase history and decided to give me whatever I wanted because they knew that I was beyond a regular costumer. There’s no other explanation for me to have gotten the things that I got.
Let’s get back to the idea of Ralph Lauren as an aspirational brand, and how that’s conveyed in the context of a restaurant.
Russ Bengtson: Michael Jordan has a restaurant too, but if you go to the one in Chicago, it’s more of a Planet Hollywood/ESPN Zone vibe. It doesn’t make you feel like Michael Jordan, it makes you feel like a Michael Jordan fan.
Just Blaze: I feel like this restaurant is the kind of place where Ralph Lauren wished he could’ve eaten when he was a kid, which is a much smarter way to do it.
It seems like the more traditional aspects of the brand translate naturally into a restaurant, since they have those country club roots. Could it work with other lines, though? What would Polo Sport the restaurant look like?
Just Blaze: There would probably be splashes of orange and green here and there. It could be cool, but I think they would be smart enough to do it in the right place. They wouldn’t do that kind of restaurant in New York City, but they might do it somewhere like Colorado, Vermont, Northern California, or Aspen.
Have you been to any other restaurants attached to a clothing brand?
Just Blaze: The only other one I’ve been to is the Ralph Lauren one in Chicago.
Does the one in Chicago version look similar?
Just Blaze: It looks a little bit more like a study, but it has the same overall aesthetic. I think it was modeled specifically to mimic a library. It was a couple of years ago, but I remember bookcases being around. Like, if this restaurant were the dining room of your mansion, the Chicago one would be your library.
Russ Bengtson: I feel it’s hard to find a general-interest restaurant these days.
Just Blaze: Yeah, everything seems to be targeted and specialized. Like, “All we serve here is food from East of Sicily.”
How do you feel about the food here so far?
Just Blaze: I’ve never had a crab cake like this before. It reminds me of the first time that I ever went to dinner at a fancy restaurant. I went to dinner with Tommy Hilfiger’s sister at the height of Tommy’s run, so mid- to late-’90s. His sister invited me to dinner at this place near Columbus Circle. It was fancy and upscale, and I’d never had fancy food before. I don’t come from money. We had well-to-do friends but, you know, I wasn’t used to that. Anyway, they had lamb chops on the menu and I’m picturing my mother’s lamb chops, which are like steaks, but lamb. So they bring out the lamb chops and it’s just a little bowl with meat in it—I thought it was some kind of appetizer or something, but that was it. Those were the lamb chops. They were like some kind of meat lollipop or something, but I had to act like I knew what was going on. No one else was making an issue out of it, so I knew that I couldn’t make an issue out of it, either. I had to act like I was with the program. Like, “Thank you Betsy. Thank you.” But the crab cakes [at that dinner] were a lot like these. They were less like a crab cake and more like a hashbrown.
This was more like a Polo Sport crab cake.
Just Blaze: The sport was finding the crab in the crab cake.
It’s interesting—the restaurant is closest in spirit to a steakhouse, and the steaks get top billing on the menu. But they don’t have the traditional accoutrement, and certain things are a little outside of that box. It’s more of a country-club grill menu. How do you like the steaks?
Just Blaze: The steak is amazing. It’s heavy, but it’s steak, you know? You know where else has really good steak? Penthouse. Penthouse has its own strip club. I went there for a meeting once not knowing what it was. There’s a main floor and they have, like, mezzanine seating, so you’re sitting above everything and looking down on it. They do it pretty tastefully. They don’t have titties in your face or girls trying to give you lap dances when you’re eating. But you can look down for entertainment, or you can just have your conversation. But it just fucked me up because I think I’m going to a restaurant, then I see a girl sitting next to me wearing nipple tassles. Like, “Wait? Am I in the right place? Oh shit. I am.”
When we sat down, they handed us separate vegetarian menus in addition to the regular one. What did you think of that?
Just Blaze: I think they could’ve just had a vegetarian section. They didn’t need a whole vegetarian menu. Maybe they thought it wouldn’t go with the brand if they did it all together. If you’re thinking about a time period where places like this were more common, there was no such thing as a vegetarian menu. I guess they’re going for an old-world aesthetic while still giving you new-world options.
Russ Bengtson: It’s kind of like how people are very big on the source of their food now. Everyone wants to make sure that their food is being ethically raised.
If you asked 25 people what the Polo restaurant would look like, you’d get 25 very similar answers and they would all add up to this.
Just Blaze: The mentality used be, “Well, this is what it is.” You didn’t wonder where it came from or how it was raised, whether it was farm-raised or grass-fed or whatever. Things like that weren’t even a thought back in the day. It was just steak. It was just salmon. It wasn’t FDA-grade, pasture-raised, non-factory farm meat.
It’s interesting how trends in food and trends in fashion can be very different. This decor is something that people will always respond to, but their dietary needs and the general interest in certain foods changes more quickly over time.
Just Blaze: You’re right. There are all kind of food fads right now—you know, Cronuts and shit like that. I don’t even know what a Cronut is, but I know that it’s the in thing. Or, like, the frozen-yogurt madness. It was like Red Mango and Pinkberry were at war.
Do you think that they chose midtown for this location because it’s kind of classically New York?
Just Blaze: Most of the clientele that they’re going for is going to be in this area. They’re not really going for the cool downtown thing. So anywhere from, like, here to where the mansion would make sense as a location. I would expect it to be up on 61st or something, but I feel like this is a good medium between the downtown crowd and the uptown crowd.
Russ Bengston: I feel like if you asked 25 people what the Polo restaurant would look like, you’d get 25 very similar answers and they would all add up to this.
Just Blaze: Yeah. I kind of feel weird asking for a takeout box right now.
There are certain high-end restaurants that are associated with rap music and they get shout-outs in lyrics all the time—places like Nobu. Have you seen a shift in those places over time with changing trends? Do you have to go to those places a lot to do business?
Just Blaze: I couldn’t tell you because I stopped being social a long time ago. In terms of making deals, I think it’s less about meeting in restaurants and more like, “You know what it is that I do. Just have my check ready.”
If you were into business meals, would you hold them here?
Just Blaze: I don’t think I would have a choice. I would get so much flack. People would be like, “You’re not taking us to the Polo Bar?” I don’t have a choice. I might talk to the manager about getting a regular table.
That’s probably an option. A lot of the power lunch-type restaurant have seating charts, and you have to be of a certain status to get the best tables. For example, at Michael’s in midtown, there used to be a specific table where only Oscar de la Renta or Bette Midler could sit. Where you sat in a restaurant used to be a huge marker of celebrity.
Just Blaze: Now I think it’s more about being able to even get in. A lot of places are on that “you have to know somebody to get in” shit.
Any final thoughts on this experience?
Just Blaze: Closing words? I’m sorry to all my friends who thought that I was taking them here so we could come here for the first time together. They were actually upset when they found out I was coming. I apologize to all of you. I guess this is exactly what I expected, and I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Very well done. Very tastefully done. They conveyed the aesthetic of the brand from top to bottom. I’m going to come back and have some of that other steak [the New York strip]. That looked mean.
Will we be going to the Supreme restaurant 30 years in the future?
Just Blaze: Yeah, but you’ll have to line up for four hours before they open. That would have to be the best food ever for me to stand in line like that.