The Polo Bar is arguably the toughest table in New York.
You’ve heard of it, I’m sure. The burger is legendary.
So is the corned beef sandwich, aka Mr. Lauren’s favorite dish.
The dishes are divine.
But what makes the Polo Bar special is not the food, per se… but its sparkly mix of people – celebs galore! – and its exceptional staff.
Nelly Moudime is the stylish head maître d’…
She’s a conductor, of sorts, who has the hard job of seating the high-powered room just so… where do you place Quentin Tarantino, Julianna Margulies, and Clive Davis on the same night?
It happened; I was there.
The job has made Moudime something of a celebrity herself.
Having her number on speed dial is a little like winning the lottery.
And that got me thinking...
After a long COVID closure, the Polo Bar finally reopened last month… so, I wanted to check in to see how my friend, Nelly, was holding up.
ALINA CHO: You reopened your doors at the Polo Bar on October 12th. When you announced it on Instagram, the reaction was pretty much universal joy.
NELLY MOUDIME: Yeah. That's a good way of putting it. I've worked in amazing restaurants, but I have [never] seen such an overwhelming, excited, pure joy response from [customers]. It's unbelievable.
ALINA CHO: I was telling my friend the other day, it's as if there are no other restaurants open in New York, because everyone wants to be at the Polo Bar.
NELLY MOUDIME: It’s a big reminder that what we are doing is more than food. We're really involved in people’s lives in a deep way. I have this woman [who] stopped me [on the street], we basically cried with each other. She said,
ALINA CHO: Wow.
NELLY MOUDIME: And now, unfortunately [in] the past year, her mother has Alzheimer’s and is almost gone, and she just wanted to share the fact that [the Polo Bar] was her special place with her mother.
ALINA CHO: Gosh, you're going to make me cry.
NELLY MOUDIME: I know, we were both crying in each other’s arms. And I think that's what people are really connecting with.
ALINA CHO: Absolutely. The staff at the Polo Bar is really like a family.
The first thing you ask me, whenever I see you is, "How's the Empress?" — the nickname for my mother.
NELLY MOUDIME: Well, she’s very special, your mother.
ALINA CHO: But there’s also a certain magic in the room, right?
NELLY MOUDIME: You'll get the normal New Yorker next to one of the wealthiest [people] in the universe next to a firefighter. And I feel the restaurant really represents New York.
ALINA CHO: It does. Having said that, yes, there are regular New Yorkers next to masters of the universe, but you also attract major celebrities.
Any stories that have stayed with you?
NELLY MOUDIME: Well, I've always been a fan of Elton John.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
NELLY MOUDIME: I got to meet him at the Polo Bar, he comes in when he's in town. So that to me was very special.
ALINA CHO: I've been there when Oprah was there.
NELLY MOUDIME: I just feel like we're very lucky to be able to have conversations with people [who] have literally changed the world. Of course, Oprah is, as a black woman, she's everything.
NELLY MOUDIME: I was raised in Cameroon, in Douala, on the Central West Coast of Africa.
And I always say that the way I connected with hospitality was through my grandmother. She always had her table set with an extra setting. We didn't know who was coming, but there was always somebody coming.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
NELLY MOUDIME: She was always like,
ALINA CHO: That’s amazing.
NELLY MOUDIME: I moved to Montreal for college and in Montreal, I played the green card lottery. I won my green card and I always wanted to live in New York, so I was like, this is my chance.
ALINA CHO: When did you move to New York?
NELLY MOUDIME: I moved here about 20 years ago.
ALINA CHO: 20 years ago.
NELLY MOUDIME: Yeah. New York has always been very welcoming to me. From the day I moved here. English wasn't my forte. I speak French. So, I moved here not knowing anyone. I arrived, I had my little bag with my teddy bears and then another bag. And I remember I got on the train, everything was crazy, couldn't hear anything. And I missed my stop. I finally got out and found my way to the place where I was going, and then my paper bag with my toiletries and my teddy bear broke.
ALINA CHO: Oh, God.
NELLY MOUDIME: And I just started crying. It was very traumatic. And then this cab driver stops and he’s like, "Are you okay?" And I explained in my broken English that I was going somewhere and that my bag broke. He said, "Just come in my car." I know maybe I should not have trusted him, but he seemed like a nice fellow. He brought me to where I was going, and I tried to pay him and he was like, "No, no, I just wanted to make sure that you got here." And I feel like that's always been my relationship with New York, there's always somebody [who] has my back.
ALINA CHO: So, how did you go from your bag falling apart and the cab driver lending a hand to where you are today?
NELLY MOUDIME: Well, I had to survive, right? So, I started to do a couple of jobs. I really loved fashion. Always loved fashion.
ALINA CHO: I know.
NELLY MOUDIME: I interned at a magazine. One day, one of the stylists no showed, and they were like, "Do you want to style this shoot?" So, I said yes, because even if I'm not sure, I'm just going to say yes and do it.
ALINA CHO: Of course.
NELLY MOUDIME: So, it ended up, it was Andre Royo who was on The Wire and was a very, very good actor. We ended up getting along and chatting. I told him that it was tough, I was trying to find different jobs to make some extra money. And he's like, “My wife works for [famed restaurateur], Keith McNally.”
ALINA CHO: Oh my God.
NELLY MOUDIME: And I got a job at Pastis.
ALINA CHO: When it was as hot as it could be.
NELLY MOUDIME: When it was something else. Yeah. That was one of the most magical places.
ALINA CHO: I remember. Those were the Sex and the City days.
NELLY MOUDIME: Yes, exactly.
ALINA CHO: Did you go from there to the Polo Bar?
NELLY MOUDIME: No, I was working with Keith McNally for 12 years. I worked at Pastis, moonlighted at Balthazar, and then I worked at Minetta [Tavern]. So, I went from host to managing partner by the end of my journey with Keith. And at some point, I just needed a change. So, I left, and I wanted to start a consulting company to help restaurants, kind-of helping them find the magic. I worked on a couple of projects.
ALINA CHO: Yes.
NELLY MOUDIME: And after that, I got the call from Ralph's team, and I met with them. I was going to move to LA, but I walked into the Polo Bar, and I was just like, "This is something else."
ALINA CHO: I want to talk about the number of requests you personally get for tables. Sometimes, you don't look at your phone for a while…
NELLY MOUDIME: Yeah. And you get 50 requests — emails, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
ALINA CHO: But it's not just emails. It's DMs…
NELLY MOUDIME: It’s emails, DMs all the time, texts. And then also Facebook. I have to check my [Facebook] Messenger.
ALINA CHO: Oh my God.
NELLY MOUDIME: Thank God I don't have TikTok.
ALINA CHO: Is it safe to say you get hundreds of requests every day?
NELLY MOUDIME: Yes, definitely.
ALINA CHO: Oh my gosh, Nelly.
NELLY MOUDIME: Yeah. Actually, right now, I'm going to go, I already got a couple of texts while we were talking. I'm going to go look at my emails. And it’s going to be something else.
ALINA CHO: Get back to it! See you soon!