If you step into Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills with the expectation of an old-school dining experience, you will not be disappointed. Walls are adorned with a mash-up of Asian art and portraits of European nobility. A large bouquet of roses sits atop the hostess stand. The idea of sipping a martini at the bar — with its red leather, wood paneling and gleaming lamps — seems right.
As you wait for your dinner guests, an octogenarian shuffles by, her hands gripping a walker. The strains of "Happy Birthday" drift in from the main dining room.
There are very few surprises at this meat-centric restaurant — and that is part of its charm.
"My grandfather [Richard N. Frank] said you need salt or sugar or fat to taste good," says Ryan Wilson, vice president and executive chef of the Lawry's restaurant group, and great-grandson of Lawrence Frank, who helped start the empire that now includes Five Crowns in Corona del Mar, Tam O'Shanter in Los Feliz and Lawry's locations in Chicago, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore. "We've got that in spades."
Do they ever. The menu lists several cuts of prime rib, all of which come with mashed potatoes, the Famous Original Spinning Bowl Salad, Yorkshire pudding and whipped cream horseradish. At Lawry's, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, the present is faithful to the past — which is key to its longevity.
The prime rib is served from a striking stainless steel cart (weighing in at about 700 pounds) pushed by a member of the restaurant staff who will open the dome with a flourish and ask, "What cut would you like?" and "How would like that done?" It's a long-established ceremony, and during a recent weeknight dinner, conversations at nearby tables stopped when the dome was opened, all eyes on the gleaming apparatus that prompted comparisons to an Airstream trailer.
Lawry’s will celebrate its 80th anniversary with an afternoon featuring four of L.A.’s most iconic chefs. Nancy Silverton, Jon Shook, Vinny Dotolo and Sang Yoon will reinvent classic elements of a Lawry’s meal for a one-of-a-kind lunch benefiting the Midnight Mission. Lunch will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by L.A. Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold. 80 Years of Lawry's, May 12, 12-2:30 p.m., 100 La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills. Tickets, $150, can be purchased at lafoodbowl.com.
Wilson suggests that customers "want to be dazzled," and Lawry's delivers in a manner that may bring back memories of long-ago dinners with grandparents and cousins, everyone dressed to the nines.
Richard R. Frank, chief executive and president of Lawry's restaurants (and Wilson's uncle), laughs when he recalls meals from his childhood in the 1960s. "It seemed big and dramatic," he says.
And comfortable. The tables at each booth pull out so parties can easily be seated. Customers can chat with friends across the table without yelling. A phalanx of employees regularly stop by to check on your desire for cocktails, creamed spinach, potato toppings, wine preferences and dessert selections.
Will the retro experience continue to appeal to Southern Californians?
"Our guests have changed," says Wilson, who started cooking as a kid and has worked in various kitchens in the Lawry's empire and at restaurants such as La Toque in Napa and Quince in San Francisco. "We see more diversity, but we don't see as many people driving as far as they used to. Traffic has impacted our business."
In the last few decades, a few new items have been added to the Lawry's menu — a rib-eye steak, salmon, the chef's daily vegetarian special — but change has been approached carefully.
"We're going to be adding a couple of new steaks," Wilson says. "We're not looking at changing the core sides. But we're going to be adding some more side dishes that reflect some seasonality. We want to give people options about how to customize their meals but not create an emotional divorce."
It seems unlikely that customers hope for a dissolution. Most are here for a slab of meat and a swimming pool of potatoes — and in an era of calorie counts and portion control, that combination is practically transgressive.
Upon occasion, you might encounter a celebrity, or a celebrity chef, at Lawry's. Frank is happy to point out that Thomas Keller brought his staff to the restaurant when he opened the Beverly Hills Bouchon in 2009 and "he was here two days before he closed it in December. That's a greater tribute than anything I can say."
Lawry’s fun facts
Pounds of meat the Lawry's Restaurants serve each year: 750,000
Most requested cut of meat at Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills: The 10-ounce Lawry Cut
Number of pounds of creamed spinach and creamed corn served each month: 1,000 pounds of creamed spinach and 1,500 pounds of creamed corn
Most popular steak sauce at the restaurant: Brandy Green Peppercorn
Most popular dessert: Warm Chocolate Fantasy Cake (served with Double Rainbow vanilla ice cream)
Most requested cocktail: Moscow Mule
Size of the dining room: The main dining room hosts 200 people; the entire restaurant, 400.
Longest serving waiter or waitress: Patricia Thomas has worked at Lawry's for 39 years.