In 1938, Lawry’s the Prime Rib opened its original restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard on the edge of Beverly Hills. Fields of mustard grew along the street, which is now referred to as Restaurant Row, and the price of dinner — a thick-cut roast prime rib of beef au jus — was $1.25.
On June 11, the original Lawry’s (also the birthplace of Lawry’s seasoned salt) celebrates its 75th anniversary by offering prime rib at the same 1938 price: From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the first 1,000 customers pay $1.25 for the “Lawry cut” prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, mashed potatoes and a “Spinning Bowl” salad.
All proceeds from the event will be donated to AbilityFirst, a nonprofit organization benefiting adults and children with disabilities. (Guests also can donate part of their savings to the charity.)
Lawry’s, where slabs of prime rib are cut and served from a cart table-side, was the vision of Lawrence Frank and his brother-in-law, Walter Van de Kamp, who already had established the Van de Kamp’s bakery empire and Tam O’Shanter Inn. The Frank and Van de Kamp families still own Lawry’s, partly inspired by an English restaurant, Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, known for serving large cuts of meat from trolleys.
Frank had not visited Simpson’s prior to opening his own restaurant, said his grandson, Lawry’s Chief Executive Richard Frank. And that was fortunate, he said, because Simpson’s meat-cutting carts weren’t more than chafing dishes, “not impressive at all.” Meanwhile, Lawrence Frank came up with his own design — a gleaming Art Deco cart on wheels, 5 feet long and weighing 700 pounds. It’s the same design used today.
Much about Lawry’s has remained the same over the last several decades. Except in 1938 the Spinning Bowl salad — prepared by a server who spins a stainless bowl over ice in front of diners — “might not have had croutons,” said Frank.
Lawry’s opened with a full menu, but within six months every entree but prime rib had been taken off. There was the thick-cut prime rib and, for 50 cents more, the Diamond Jim Brady extra-thick cut. You could get prime rib steak with julienne potatoes, cold prime rib and prime rib hash with a fried or poached egg. The prime rib sandwich came on toasted French bread or rye. For dessert, there was apple pie with American cheese, fruit Jell-O or a quarter of a fresh pineapple served “Hawaiian style.”
According to the restaurant’s history, Lawry’s also was a pioneer of valet parking and the “doggy bag.”
By the mid-1940s, Lawry’s had outgrown its home in a former grocery store and moved across the street to where the Stinking Rose is currently located. The restaurant moved back across the street again in 1993 to the original property (which it owns) but in a newly constructed building with an expanded kitchen. During both moves, drivers on La Cienega might have witnessed the spectacle of a parade of Lawry’s employees rolling their carts across the street, aided by traffic police.
Many of its servers have been working in the restaurant for more than 30 years, wearing the same uniform, also known as the “Brown Gown.” Every employee in the company, no matter his or her title, refers to one another as “co-worker.” “People are very protective of the culture here,” Frank said.
Today, the Lawry’s on La Cienega is the most-booked reservation on Open Table in Los Angeles and Orange County. There are Lawry’s restaurants in Las Vegas; Chicago; Dallas; Singapore; Hong Kong; Taipei, Taiwan; and Tokyo and Osaka, Japan.
The key to its success? “We’re open to change, absolutely,” Frank said, “but fortunately we haven’t had to make many over time. My feeling has always been, as long as the restaurant is as popular as it’s ever been, why change?”