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RESTAURANTS : IN ITS PRIME : At Lawry's, Meat and Potatoes Are More Than a Huge Meal-- They Are One Big Show

June 20, 1993|Ruth Reichl

The Donner party," blares the loudspeaker, "the Donner party, please." Startled, we stop eating warm potato chips and look up. "The Donner party!" says the voice, impatient now.

On the fourth call, a group begins to encircle the hostess, who leads her little band off to begin their dining adventure.

Eating at Lawry's the Prime Rib has always been an adventure; having someone called Donner go in just ahead of you merely underlines this fact. The adventure begins in the bar, where you prepare yourself for the onslaught by knocking back a couple of drinks. If you're imprudent, you will forget the amount of food included in the adventure and indulge in potato chips, honey-crusted peanuts and those little meatballs speared with toothpicks.

When your name is finally called, you will walk down three little steps. Should you neglect to notice them, the hostess will point them out. "See these three steps? They are very important. Our customers didn't mind when we moved the restaurant from across the street last month, but they wanted to know that they'd still have to walk down three steps to get to the dining room.

"Nothing has changed," she says of the move, made because the restaurant outgrew its old location. She gestures grandly, her arms taking in an enormous space decorated in excruciatingly good taste. In the blink of an eye you travel through time and space, noting references to French royalty, Roman senators and English aristocrats. Then your waitress pulls up in a prim little uniform. On her head is a little handkerchief of a hat. "Oh, honey," she says disarmingly, "I've worked here 30 years. Can I get you a drink?"

Before she leaves, she will ask you to choose your dinner. This is new. It used to be that you came to The Prime Rib to eat prime rib, but Lawry's now offers fish for those who insist upon it. The waitress will indicate that only a fool would want a piece of fish here, but she will turn out to be wrong.

When the waitress returns, you know that the edible part of the adventure is about to begin. She has with her a bowl on ice. In the bowl are lettuces, shredded beets, croutons and cottony cherry tomatoes. Spinning the bowl with one hand, she picks up a bottle of salad dressing with the other and, reaching as high as she can, pours a thick, sweet ribbon of dressing onto the greens. Then she holds out a little cotton parcel. "Take one," she urges, indicating the chilled salad forks nestled in the napkin. A sweet salad and a cold fork are an adventure unto themselves.

When you finish your salad, your waitress will reappear and stand, silently, next to your table. What is she doing here? And then you see that there are waitresses standing expectantly next to tables all over the dining room. They are waiting for the cart.

"Ours is the oldest cart in the restaurant," whispers the waitress reverently when it wheels up. "Isn't it gorgeous? It's original, from the '40s."

It is gorgeous--an amazing metallic contraption that looks like something out of Buck Rogers in the 21st Century. When it arrives, the doors open and the lights go up on the main event: massive hunks of steaming meat.

You have a choice of four cuts, but recent research has revealed the best deal to be the Diamond Jim Brady, a thick rib bone with enough meat to feed anyone with an average appetite for at least a couple of days. For $5 less, you can get the English cut, three measly slivers of meat that taste wonderful. Forget about tomorrow.

The waitress stands guard as massive amounts of mashed potatoes are ladled onto your plate, along with a large scoop of horseradish blended into whipped cream. Later she will unmold a little Yorkshire pudding onto the plate, too. None are memorable. At one time the prime rib came with creamed spinach, but now the spinach will set you back $2.25--I'd pass. I'd pass on the creamed corn and buttered peas, too. Do not pass, however, on the huge baked potato ($2.75), if only so you get to see the show.

First, the waitress stabs the huge potato open and smashes in a fistful of butter. Then, with a sort of manic joy, she scoops in bacon, chives and sour cream. "This sour cream," she confides happily, mashing away, "it's pretty new. Everybody wanted sour cream on their mashed potatoes, but Lawrence L. Frank, the founder of the restaurant, didn't think sour cream enhanced the flavor of the meat."

The potato is wonderful. So, surprisingly, is the Norwegian salmon, a fat slab of fish that arrives sitting on a bright green bed of fresh spinach that puts that creamed spinach to shame. There are even a couple of pieces of beautifully cooked asparagus.

Do you want dessert? Why not? It will be very big and very sweet.

In the 54 years that Los Angeles has been coming here, the city has changed. We pull up to the door in smaller cars, and we get out wearing smaller clothes. And when we go to eat elsewhere, we eat smaller meals. But when we walk into The Prime Rib, we know what to expect: a big adventure in eating that never changes.

Lawry's the Prime Rib, 100 N. La Cienega Blvd., Beverly Hills; (310) 652-2827. Open for dinner nightly. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Dinner for two, food only, $36-$60.

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