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September 7 2019
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William Poll devotee Diana Vreeland. Not pictured: the lunch she ordered every day from the shop.

To call William Poll a purveyor of delicacies is almost an insult. Sure, the grocery–cum–catering shop on Manhattan’s Upper East Side can sell you caviar and blini, as well as prepare you beef Wellington and pâté en croûte. They’ve been making those for almost a century, earning their place as something of a second kitchen for families in the neighborhood. But what they’ve really come to be known for among the comestible cognoscenti are the sort of Waspy dishes that withstand trends (and recessions): turkey-and-Swiss-cheese sandwiches, baked potato thins with watercress dip, chicken potpie, angel food cake, coq au vin, cole slaw, and black-and-white cookies.

Stop by the shop any Friday morning and, if you can make your way through the phalanx of double-parked S.U.V.’s and William Poll delivery trucks and not get trampled by the drivers scurrying in and out of the shop, you’ll see one of the city’s most curious pre-weekend rituals: those drivers are all fetching William Poll white-paper shopping bags, each bulging with tinned dishes, and each bearing what looks to be a six-digit secret code. In a way, they are: they’re the tail numbers for planes. The drivers are fetching food for private flights out of New York’s airports.

Among the comestible cognoscenti William Poll is known for Waspy dishes that withstand trends (and recessions).

Not many people know this—because not many people are billionaires—but the typical catered fare offered on most private planes is maybe a few steps up from what you’d be served in a supermax prison. Which begs the question: If you have the money to fly private, should you settle for slop? Where fans of William Poll are concerned, the answer is not just a vigorous no—it is an indulgent no. Recently, a customer was about to fly with three friends on a seven-hour flight to Morocco. But first he ordered 16 bags of food from William Poll. Think of William Poll as your source for comfort food at 40,000 feet—and maybe, too, once you’ve touched down.

Brothers Stanley and James Poll with their mother, Christine, in the shop.

This is not to say that you have to be a billionaire to enjoy William Poll. Their dishes are no more expensive than what you’d order at any other shop or restaurant in New York. Founded in 1921, the store got started selling groceries and canned goods by the case to the private chefs of Park Avenue residents. The owners imported hothouse grapes from Belgium and goose fat from Germany, and they candled every egg, to ensure that a chicken embryo wasn’t inside.

The store’s reputation grew quickly among New Yorkers of a certain set. Diana Vreeland’s office had a sheet of instructions insisting that her lunch “ALWAYS” (their caps) be ordered from Poll’s (served not on a plate but in the container it came packaged in); Dominick Dunne ate their chicken-salad-and-bacon sandwiches at every opportunity; Nora Ephron went for the cucumber tea sandwiches without crusts; Yul Brynner, when he was renting Henry Fonda’s town house around the corner, would strut into the shop singing to its owner, “Good morning, Mr. Poll.” And that’s not even to mention the countless other New Yorkers—from Jackie Onassis to Barry Diller to Lauren Bacall to Robert De Niro—whom the store has at one point or another counted as customers.

Nora Ephron came for the cucumber tea sandwiches without crusts.

The shop is now in the hands of Stanley Poll, the jovial 80-year-old son of the founder, William. Like his father and mother, Christine (who trained with James Beard), he’s known to multiple generations of families in the neighborhood. You can find him in the store every day. Especially Fridays. That’s when what he calls the store’s “Swiss watch–like” efficiency is on full display, as he and his employees, all of whom have worked at Poll’s for at least 20 years, work to prepare orders that will carry customers through the weekend. Stanley isn’t just known to his customers; he knows them: where they work, where they live, what their kids like for dessert, where they just went on vacation, and so forth.

William Poll tempting a customer with caviar.

He also possesses a level of discretion that would make a lawyer blush—though he always speaks to you like a friend, not a lawyer. One recent Friday afternoon, Stanley took an order over the phone in his office on the second floor of the shop. With his characteristic charm, he wrote down the customer’s requests in a fluent shorthand that left no doubts that the store’s organization is a consequence of some sort of trickle-down effect. Instantly after hanging up the phone, he was on the intercom to the kitchen: “Rush order, for Mr. X. Delivery. Come get the slip, please.” You’d think that this would get old for Stanley. But, as he puts it, “I’d be bored to tears without it.” And even if he wouldn’t be, Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for Air Mail

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