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December 01, 1996|S. IRENE VIRBILA

Day in and day out, the driveway of L awry's the prime rib on La Cienega's Restaurant Row is choked with cars. On weekend nights, dozens of large parties hover at the wood-paneled bar, in the waiting areas and outside. "It'll be a half-hour wait," the extravagantly dressed hostess in oversized white glasses tells anyone foolish enough not to have made a reservation--which includes us one night recently. Given the crowd, we think she's being wildly optimistic but decide to wait anyway.

Sure enough, 30 minutes later our party is called over the microphone, and the hostess leads us down a few steps into a vast, dimly lit main dining room lined with elaborately framed oil paintings of somebody's English ancestors and booths ample enough to accommodate six or eight comfortably. Nearby, a father and his 10-year-old son bond over beef and mashed potatoes. Across the room, 20 Japanese tourists reverentially confront the huge slabs of prime rib set before them.

Fifty-eight years after the founding of this meat-eater's mecca in 1938, Lawry's the Prime Rib holds its own against Ruth's Chris, Arnie Morton's and the Palm. For one thing, it remains a great value (prime rib dinners with all the fixings start at $18.95). For another, the staff knows how to put on a show. Service is old-school and personable and, though the kitchen may serve 1,200 dinners on a Saturday night, no one is left feeling like just another number. Besides, dining at Lawry's is guaranteed to be a fun--and filling--evening.

Waitresses in their brown dresses with white collars, starched white caps and sensible shoes (the uniform since the very start) look a little like Florence Nightingales administering meat to the famished. After your waitress takes your order, and usually before you have time to devour the basket of warm sourdough and Swedish limpa bread, she's back to perform her spinning salad trick. It sent me into fits of giggles the first time I saw it years ago: The waitress solemnly showed us a virgin bottle of Lawry's famous sunset-orange salad dressing, then poured it in a thin stream from a great height onto the contents of a large salad bowl set spinning over ice. Yes, it's a bit hokey, but I still feel that frisson of anticipation when she ends the ritual with, "Chilled salad forks?"

There are changes afoot, though. The bottle has been replaced by a silver sauce boat held high overhead. And am I imagining it, or do I detect a touch of irony in our waitress' eyes as she performs her salad ballet? Whatever the case, the salad still tastes unexpectedly good: a healthy portion of iceberg lettuce, chopped hard-boiled egg, julienned beets and icy tomatoes cloaked in that slightly sweet dressing.

Next, we prepare for one of the seven prime rib carts to lumber our way. Designed by Lawry's founder Lawrence Frank, the gleaming stainless-steel carts look like miniature Airstream trailers. Each is commanded by a chef wearing a white toque and a saucer-sized gold medal (from the in-house "Royal Order of Carvers") around his neck. Braking beside your table, he flips open the clamshell lid, turns on the light to reveal a mountain of prime rib, then deftly carves it to order, which is no small feat since he's also wearing white gloves.

I've had better prime rib in my life, but at Lawry's, it's the abundance of the feast that appeals. Next to the Diamond Jim Brady cut (about a hand-span high and served on the bone), the California cut (for lighter appetites) looks woefully skimpy but isn't. The even thinner English cut (three slices bathed in natural juices) is the most flavorful. Still, all of the cuts are vastly improved with a dollop of the heady fresh horseradish mixed with whipped cream. Prime rib comes with fluffy mashed potatoes and a miniature skillet of excellent Yorkshire pudding, baked fresh for each order. Not to mention extra sides for the table--sweet creamed corn, creamed spinach or a hefty baked potato with a little sign: "I'm a genuine Idaho potato. There is no need to act discreetly! I've been tubbed! I've been scrubbed! It's quite all right to eat me completely!"

For non-meat-eaters game enough to accompany their carnivorous friends here, Lawry's offers a few seafood entrees. One is a trio of sweet Atlantic lobster tails with drawn butter and a melange of vegetables. (For an extra $12.95, you can add two broiled lobster tails to any prime rib dinner, which is a much better deal.) A special of broiled salmon one night, presented with celery root mashed potatoes, is a pleasant surprise, perfectly cooked and as contemporary a dish as anything served in a trendy bistro.

The restaurant is a favorite with wine lovers, too. Its corkage fee is only $5, so collectors can break out a slew of their older Bordeaux or Cabernets to enjoy with a meal that's straightforward enough to really show off the wine and not compete with it.

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