On one day a year, Thanksgiving, the Lawry's rolling cart contains turkey as well as prime rib.
For more than a decade I have been celebrating Thanksgiving at, of all places, Lawry's The Prime Rib (100 N. La Cienega Blvd. Beverly Hills (310) 652-2827). It all began 12 years ago when I invited 38 people to a holiday dinner and realized that my small apartment and kitchen could not handle that load. So I reserved a private room at the venerable eatery and all had a great time. Since then it has become a tradition for me or my friends to dine there on the one day a year when they serve roasted turkey along with their signature prime rib. V.P. Bryan Monfort once told me that during World War II, when prime beef was not available, they served huge 50-pound turkeys from the silver carts until they could resume offering their prime item.
Thursday I joined my dear friend and editor Penny McTaggart and family at her table and consumed vast quantities of...prime rib bones! I'll explain that in a moment, but first an observation from the fairly new (two years) General Manager, Gina Doyle. "We will serve 1,600 dinners today," she told me. "And that isn't even the record... on Mothers Day, we served 2,200 meals!" Gina is a stunning woman with a remarkable career, having started as a server at Lawry's several years ago, and then left to become the managing partner at the Darden-owned Capital Grille. But when Lawry's came calling and offered to make her their first female general manager, "I couldn't resist that opportunity and the challenge." The previous GM, Todd Johnson, a buddy for many years, has been recruited by the parent company to manage the Chicago restaurant. I recently visited another venue that the company operates, the 90-year old Tam O'Shanter in Atwater Village. This Thanksgiving marked another milestone in my long relationship with Lawry's. The first male waiter in their history served us! I was greeted with, "Mr. Weston, you won't remember, but I waited on you at L'Ermitage Hotel several years ago when you came to review David Myer's cooking there." Joe Mercado smiled as he said that and added, "I had hair on my head then." Oh, my life has a way of rebounding in unexpected ways. Incidentally, he is a terrific server.
Waiter Joe dressing the salad from up high. He is the first male waiter at Lawry's.
Back to the prime rib bones. As Thanksgiving approaches each year and my Pavilion's Market offers frozen turkeys at about 10 dollars a bird (when you buy at least $25 worth of other groceries), I always buy two or three birds and experiment with different ways to cook them. This year was no exception. I defrosted one bird and then microwaved it for 30 minutes to tighten the meat, splattered it with olive oil and spices, scorched it in a 450 degree oven for about an hour and a half... and it was a magnificent golden brown when I gave it (minus a few pieces for me and my cat) to my delighted neighbors. The second bird was done even more radically. I am a huge fan, as my Huffington readers well know, of all things Chinese food-wise... and they make an art of steaming chickens until they are silken soft, meltingly tender. So when I read Jacques Pepin's article in the New York Times this month about steaming a turkey for 30-40 minutes and then roasting it on a very hot oven for an hour or so, I concurred and did so. Just wonderful, a delicious and unique treat which feline Pyewacket and I consumed over the course of several pre-Thanksgiving nights.
Gina Doyle is the first female general manager at Lawry's
So I was turkeyed-out by the big day, and I have an inordinate craving for the juicy, browned prime rib bones that are in great supply from the silver carts at Lawry's (which the management allows me to have in place of the usual massive Diamond Jim Brady cut ($52). Remember the classic saying, the sweetest meat is that closest to the bone? It's true. Food critics have recently been playing an online game of what would constitute your last meal on earth -- after a favorite Chinese dish, I always end with a singular Lawry's meal: the Spinning Salad, the 2 ½ inch thick Diamond Jim Brady Cut of Roast Beef, with a giant baked potato stuffed with butter, chives, sour cream and real bacon bits, sitting alongside a dollop of creamed spinach and creamed corn, finishing with a C.C. Brown's Chocolate Fudge Sundae. I didn't plan on this Thanksgiving being my last meal... but I knew it would still be my dream meal. I told my McTaggart/Rapoport table of the Halloween party my ex and I had once attended after borrowing a carver's tall white toque and a female server's uniform from Bryan, and how we won the prize for best costume.
Kids posing in front of the silver cart.
Lawry's Marketing Director Rich Cope recently said, "Every night we have people from all over the world who tell us, 'We forgot how delicious a slab of juicy prime rib can be, drenched with au jus, served with Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes.'" My guess is that Lawry's is the most successful restaurant in Los Angeles, confirmed by a trade journal that noted they served 350,000 people last year. Now celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, Rich estimated that some 15 million guests have enjoyed dinner here since they opened in 1938. The two original owners opened their doors at this location on the east side of La Cienega Boulevard, the first restaurant serving only one entrée, the roast beef dinner costing all of $1.25. Until then, prime rib was traditionally served at home. By '47, they had outgrown the site and moved to the west side of the boulevard. After 46 years there, they rebuilt the original space into an impressive $8 million structure and, in '93, I watched the ceremony when, in a triumphant procession at high noon, they rolled their massive silver carts across the street to the new building. Here they have prospered mightily. There are 450 seats in this enormous emporium, and I have never been here when they weren't full, serving an average of 800 people a night. I once asked Bryan what percentage of diners was Asian and he were told me, "It's about 30 percent, for we represent a truly great value for them." Is it heresy to serve fish at Lawry's? No, it's a convenience for the eight of their customers who prefer it, and on this evening our server Joe told us the choices. Penny opted for the Sautéed White Fish... although when they introduced their version of "Surf and Turf," a combination of twin broiled Lobster Tails added to your choice from the beef cart for an additional $26, I've been tempted because I do so love lobster. The basic turkey dinner this night was $32, and a combination with turkey and prime rib was $39.
The bar has wood paneling, plenty of comfortable chairs and serves some of the best drinks in town. You give your name to the pleasant hostess (reservations are taken by phone and online), then have a drink and wait for them to call your name. As you are being led to your table, you notice everyone digging into their hearty meals, and your appetite will kick into overdrive as you watch the white-toqued master carver slide up the cover of his silver cart.
I love the cordiality of everyone associated with this place, from the valet parking guys (Lawry's was the first American restaurant to offer valet parking, thanks to Herb Citron) to the charming server in a kitschy brown uniform with white apron and cap who will warmly greet you. This was also the first restaurant in the nation where servers encouraged guests to address them as "Miss so-and-so" corresponding to their nametag.
You begin your dinner with the ritual of the Spinning Salad: chilled forks are offered to all. The salad bowl is placed atop a bed of ice and spun several times to properly chill the greens. The server takes a boat of dressing (Lawry's Vintage Sherry) and then, from an astonishing height, pours it over the spinning romaine and iceberg lettuce mixed with chopped egg, baby spinach, shoestring beets and sourdough croutons; cherry tomatoes are added after. Rich told me that another Lawry's first was the serving of salads before the main course, an idea whose time had obviously come. Now the great moment arrives. When Lawrence Frank and his brother-in-law Walter Van De Kamp, heard of a famous London eatery, Simpson-in-the-Strand, which served joints of beef from a movable 'trolley,' a light went on in their heads and they adapted the idea for their restaurant. Silver serving carts (actually hammered stainless steel) were ordered, costing more than a Cadillac at that time. Today, they cost on the order of $35,000! It takes a dedicated person six months to build one working a 40-hour workweek, tapping a 300-ton hydraulic press similar to the technology used in building aircrafts. Each silver cart weighs up to 600 pounds when loaded with four to six seven-bone standing rib roasts (ranging from rare to medium to well done), mashed potatoes, gravy, creamed spinach and creamed corn, all cradled in boiling water to keep the food hot. The carvers go through a four to six-week training program to learn knife-handling techniques, speed, accuracy and tableside presentation skills before receiving their medallions and can carve Roasted Prime Ribs of Beef off the silver cart for guests. It takes about three to four months of constant practice for a carver to become truly proficient. With impressive solemnity, the imposing carver has glided the silent rolling monster to our table. Yes, they're all men.
"A good carver uses every part of the roast, makes all of his cuts the same width on each side. A good carver knows that the meat is cooked to varying degrees of doneness at different points on the roast, and doesn't blunt his knife by hitting the bone. The meat, it moves," our carver illustrated with a wiggling movement of his hand. "Crispy meat is not easy to cut, and some people insist we cut right down the middle of a standing roast. They know what they want."
The white-gloved server will go through more than 15 to 20 roasts, 150 pounds of prime beef each evening, feeding at least 60 people, working five hours a day, five days a week. We're salivating at the aroma emanating from the deep recesses of the cart as the top is swept open with a grand gesture and a light switches on. I've heard that each of the seven-bone USDA prime beef haunches before me is aged for a minimum of 21 days before being roasted in the old English way, on top of a bed of course rock salt.
Because the Lawrence Frank was in the wholesale meat business, he knew that prime ribs are best seasoned after they were carved. That's why he created a special seasoning salt which still has a place on every table. Lawry's Seasoned Salt was invented in his home kitchen especially for this beef. In later years, under his son Richard's leadership, the salt became America's most popular formulated seasoning, and the small family food products company grew into a world renowned business that was eventually acquired by Thomas J. Lipton.
Our server described the Diamond Jim Brady cut, which is too enormous for most appetites other than a voracious football player -- or mine. It includes the hefty rib, which my late dog always loved. Did I mention that Lawry's was the first restaurant to offer doggie bags? (There's also a $58 Beef Bowl cut, but I've never seen anyone order it.) David Rapoport ordered the traditional Lawry's Cut ($42), the same as served here when they opened. They offer the English Cut ($39), three thin slices deftly carved to enhance the rich beef flavor and offer more surface for the sauce. There's the smaller California Cut ($37) but I've never dined with anyone who settled for it. The cost of the fresh fish selections (usually salmon, whitefish, or halibut) is market price, in the mid-thirties, and you can also order Atlantic Lobster Tails ($48), a trio of broiled tails served with drawn butter and fresh garden vegetables. The cost of the dinner includes the salad and mashed potatoes whipped with milk and butter.
Just as we were about to dig in, the server arrived at the table with Yorkshire Pudding, baked in small skillets until puffy and golden brown. One is never enough, and they'll keep them coming. The baked, monster Idaho Potato ($6) is de rigeur, the 16-ounce russet slow baked at 500 degrees over a hearth for at least an hour. Lawry's was also the first place to offer butter, chives, and bacon with a baked potato, although the founder long thought that sour cream was an abomination with the spud, finally succumbing. Creamed spinach ($6) is also extra, but so subtly seasoned with spices, bacon and onions that it's a taste you won't want to pass up. The ever-helpful server offers whipped cream horseradish, but I asked for some of the real thing to heat up the prepared condiment, a trick reported to have originated here by the late John Belushi.
I always end my meal with a serving of the splendid English Trifle ($8 -- which is on the house if it is your birthday), rum-and-sherry laced cake layered with vanilla custard cream, raspberries and fresh whipped cream and a cup or two of their strong, specially-brewed dark roasted Stella Noche coffee ($3.50). They've augmented their dessert menu, and the Chocolate Pudding ($8) is dark, rich and satisfying, topped with freshly whipped cream and chocolate shavings. But since they have acquired the ownership of 100-year old C.C. Brown's Hot Fudge, inventor of the hot fudge sundae at the legendary Hollywood Boulevard location, I also get 'for the table' a sundae ($8), a memorable dish prepared tableside with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, roasted almonds, whipped cream and a small pitcher of hot fudge from their original formula.
There's a deep and fairly priced wine and beer list, (sorry to report no Justin wine or Laetitia wine on it, but I will ask them to correct this) as well as many coffee drinks. Don't be surprised if you see celebrities dining here, ie. Denzel Washington and Magic Johnson recently, for it's a regular stop for stars. The Beverly Hills venue hosts the Lawry's Beef Bowl since 1956, and has served more than 22,800 players and coaches bound for Rose Bowl glory. I was delighted to hear that Lawry's Catering is now available for home parties or events, weddings and such. Imagine a dinner party with the spinning salad, silver cart and carver. They'll tailor a menu to every need -- a tailgate party, Thanksgiving dinner, summer BBQ, whatever. Wow! Rich Cope tells me that Lawry's has locations in Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong. They also own and operate Five Crowns (Corona del Mar), Tam O'Shanter (L.A.), and Lawry's Carvery, a gourmet fast food restaurant with locations in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza and in downtown Los Angeles at LA LIVE.
There are very few things in this world that never change, and if they do it's usually not for the better. So we can all relish the knowledge that as LAWRY'S THE PRIME RIB celebrates its 75th anniversary, it has remained true to its tradition and will only get better, more satisfying and more fulfilling.
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