Seven Simple Rules
For Creating a Classic Steak House
What makes the Prime Rib the Prime Rib? When its admirers sing its praises, they always say how good they feel there, and how consistent their experience has remained over the years. I found reviews of the Prime Rib from 1966 and 1982, and either one could be reprinted almost verbatim today. The excitement remains, the feeling that you’re someplace. Only the prices have changed, in keeping with the times. Here’s what makes this wonderful restaurant work, year in year out:
Swank. The shiny black walls, the leopard-pattern carpet, the piano player, joined on weekends by a bass player. It’s all been there since the beginning. In 1965, when it opened, the Prime Rib evoked for its customers a bygone era of Manhattan supper clubs. Now, the restaurant evokes a ’60s Playboy Club swank, and that’s why we adore it. The mad crush near the bar of middle-aged people (the men in code-enforced jackets, the women in glittering black) clamoring for their 8 o’clock tables, preening and kissing, are out of a Jack Lemmon movie: “Gee, Miss Kubelik, you sure are cute.”
Science. Here’s Prime Rib founder C. Nicholas BeLer, in a review I found at the Enoch Pratt Free Library dated 1966, source unknown, explaining the Prime Rib method: “Modern chefs must be technicians; they must know temperature control, heat control, accurate measurements and controlled roasting and broiling time. Such care assures the same perfection every time the dish is prepared and served. A guest is entitled to the same high quality, no matter how seldom he visits a fine restaurant.” The same promise of consistency is made, of course, by McDonald’s, and the satisfaction in getting just what you want is the same at both ends of the culinary spectrum.
Steak. The Prime Rib doesn’t say much about its meat. The roast prime rib ($38.95) is “selected from the finest grain-fed steer,” the New York strip steak ($31.95), “the finest available.” But reticence feels right when the evidence of quality is so overwhelming. The kitchen doesn’t broil beef in butter, a dubious, if not gross, practice at other steak houses; healthy, rich, marbleized meat speaks for itself. I prefer, really, the compact filet mignon ($32.95) to the prime rib, which can come across as a New Yorker cartoon sight gag—too much meat for one person. The nicest touch: the freshly shaved horseradish that adds balance both to the plating and the palate.
Seafood. I’d wager that over the years, the percentage of patrons forgoing meat entrées in favor of seafood has doubled and redoubled. Seventy-five percent of diners at our table did—crab cakes ($31.95), a stellar recipe, assembled from gorgeous crabmeat; a simply rendered fillet of flounder ($26), baked with lemon butter and white wine, its interior alabaster flesh rendered wholesomely sweet; and a salmon ($27), blackened with “low-salt Cajun seasoning.”
Service. Things I’ve never heard said at the Prime Rib: “Where’s our waiter?,” “I didn’t order this,” “I wonder what’s taking so long,” “Could we have some more bread?” Or, on the other end: “My name is Steve, and I’ll be your waiter,” “How’s everything, folks?,” “Is the steak good? I don’t eat meat.” The waiters are professionals. They’ve seen everything, and if you try to outsmart them you’ll be sorry.
Sauce. Everybody’s drunk here. Merry and slurry, like in a John Cheever story before things go bad. The quietly alarming threesome seated next to us at last paid their check and left, and when their table had been cleaned and reset, they came back and sat down. They didn’t want to leave. At the bar sits an enormous vat of vodka, filled with sliced pineapple—the cocktail it dispenses you gulp like a long-distance runner in need of water.
Sides. The only area where the charm wears off. Broccoli, spinach, asparagus, and string beans know no seasons here, and you wonder where they come from. The potatoes—mashed, baked, stuffed, fried, au gratin—still satisfy, though I’d love to see the sales reports for the Prime Rib’s famous Greenberg potato skins ($6.95) over the past two carb-crazed years. The vegetable preparations have grown stale, but not so the salads, which succeed with expert dressing. And just one other thing that operates below the standards the Prime Rib sets for itself so well: the big box of Bigelow tea bags brought tableside for your consideration. Some things should change.