Ralph's Coffee and Bar in Regent Street

    How designer cafés are cashing in on Instagram obsession

    14 February 2017

    The club sandwich at Ralph’s – the newly opened restaurant-bar annex to Ralph Lauren’s Regent Street flagship – is actually very good. But it could be made of crushed up penny loafers for all the diners here care. With iPhones raised to the table, candles manouvered like lighting rigs and menus nudged into frame, the clientele view the food as little more than an inconvenience. Much more interesting, if the press coverage that accompanied it’s opening is to be believed, is what it’s sitting on it – those gleaming white plates (and soup bowls and side dishes) adorned, in cricket-outfield green, with two words: ‘RALPH’S, LONDON.’

    Mr Lauren is the master of creating brands where once was none. (Witness the Polo pony playing happily across the once-blank breasts of three generations where other logos are considered gauche.) But this latest touch may be his niftiest yet.

    Everything at Ralph’s Coffee & Bar is designed to look good in a smartphone photograph. Yes, the stark green on white and the prep school hoop on the plates – but also the tumblers engraved with the gallivanting pony and the toile-clad espresso cups and the cocktail stirrers fashioned into tiny polo mallets. Ralph Lauren, it should be said, is not the first fashion house to seize upon this trick. Roberto Cavalli opened Cavalli Miami in 2002, with plates in a signature animal print; Chanel, Bulgari, Versace, D&G have all got in on the act to varying degrees of adornment; and so too have Burberry, who opened the lightly-checked Thomas’s just off Regent Street in November last year. But Ralph Lauren’s high-profile swerve into this territory is a striking sign of the times. And it’s all Instagram’s fault.

    The simple fact is, whatever you think of the handsome food, this well-appointed establishment isn’t really about eating – it’s about trawling for social media heat. It’s no coincidence that the rise of Instagram correlates to the increase in the number of restaurant openings in London in the past half decade. The two phenomenons were made for each other: the app’s square frame looks particularly pleasing with a round dish in it, while the sort of person who would coo “you MUST go to this little place in Barons Court” can now signal their cosmopolitan adventurism in high definition and to hundreds of friends who might, with much less facial effort, pretend to care.

    No wonder Ralph Lauren has added another motif-drenched establishment to its portfolio. At Ralph’s, millennials can now have their cake and eat it, and they’ll take a picture of the plate once they’re finished, too. It won’t be long before every fashion house worth its salt shaker realises that you can advertise for free if you simply put your name near some food. Expect Fendi pizza boxes, Givenchy oyster forks and Paul Smith fish and chip papers before the year is through. Down on Regent Street, the word is out: dining is now more fashionable than fashion.