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Lawry's The Prime Rib: In L.A., Even the Restaurants are Theatrical

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Lawry's: The ultimate shrine to carnivores.

Photo: Nuno Silva

Courtesy of: Nuno Silva

If you've ever dined at an organic, vegetarian restaurant, think of the Los Angeles institution called Lawry's The Prime Rib, as the exact opposite. Thousands of the faithful who couldn't care less about organic, vegetarian, carrot juice, cholesterol levels, portion size, or PETA, pay regular homage at this ultimate shrine to carnivores. I was determined to approach the place with an open mind, in much the same slightly guilt-ridden way that a monk who has decided to give up his vow of chastity might accept an invitation to Paris Hilton's Valentine's Day bash.

The place is truly awe-inspiring -- the Disneyland of restaurants. But unlike that ride at Disneyland, Lawry's is a Large World After All. The dining rooms are huge and ornate, done up in the traditional English Georgian and Edwardian styles, which is a welcome change of pace from the traditional Denny's style to which I'd grown accustomed. Giant, expensive, classic oil paintings adorn the walls. Actually, the paintings are just hanging on the walls, but when the art is that old and costly, one is required by law to use the word adorn.

Lawry's The Prime Rib was founded in 1938 by Lawrence L. Frank and Walter Van de Kamp, who dreamed of creating a restaurant which would specialize in serving only one dinner entrée. Wisely deciding that squid tartare would probably not capture the hearts and stomachs of California, they settled on the standing ribs of beef they'd been served Sundays in their boyhood homes. Not the exact ribs, of course, since those had already been served and eaten decades ago. It was plain to these men of vision that new ribs would have to be cooked and served.

Every standing rib roast is carefully selected by Lawry's meat experts. The roasts not chosen are then farmed out to lesser restaurants, with many of those roasts requiring therapy to deal with the rejection. The chosen roasts are then dry-aged 14-21 days for natural tenderness, then roasted to perfection on a bed of rock salt. After a dip in the jacuzzi and a pedicure, the roasts are ready to be presented in Lawry's specially designed "silver" serving carts. The carts are actually hammered out of stainless steel, but are referred to as "silver," in much the same way that McDonalds refers to its hamburgers as "meat."

Hooded to keep the roasts warm, the cart rolls silently through the dining room to your table, almost as if sneaking up on you -- stealth steaks. The beef is carved right before your eyes -- sort of like Benihana's, only much slower and if you try to pick up one of these cuts of meat with chopsticks, chances are the most you'd get is a hernia. You get your choice of four cuts of meat, the smallest being the California Cut, named apparently because it could feed everyone in California and still have enough left over for sandwiches for those in Utah and Nevada.

The largest cut available is the Diamond Jim Brady Cut. This monstrosity is described as "an extra thick cut for those with hefty appetites." That's being kind. To be served it, you need to present a signed disclaimer from your cardiologist. This is the meat equivalent of a fraternity guy downing a keg of beer by himself. It can only be described as a size of meat for someone with something to prove. I saw children look at it and burst into tears of terror, as it plainly appears to be sliced from a Tyrannosaurus Rex. No one has ever been served it without exclaiming, "Oh my God!" as it is set down before them. On the positive side, you finish the Diamond Jim Brady Cut, you don't have to eat for the next two years. And each table has been thoughtfully provided with its own crane to hoist you out of your chair when finished.

Even the salads are presented dramatically. They are tossed at tableside in bowls the waitresses spin on a bed of crushed ice. This effectively handled my main complaint about salads I'm served at most restaurants -- they're not sufficiently spun first by servers in Edwardian garb. I'm not exactly sure what the spinning does for the taste, but it certainly must be a thrill for the salad. In fact, I'm pretty sure I heard a spinning cucumber exclaim, "Wheeeeee!..."

As the salad bowls spin, the waitresses hold containers of dressing high overhead and let the dressing pour down onto the spinning salad. Throughout the dining room, one can hear such exclamations as, "Wow, look at that salad spin!," "Look how high up she's pouring that dressing!," and "Excuse me, where are the restrooms -- my buddy Mad Dog just finished his Diamond Jim Brady Cut and isn't feeling so well."

Lawry's The Prime Rib is clearly restaurant as theater. And like all great drama, it moves you. In my case, it moved me to pursue a goal -- to digest the meal by the year 2014.