Several years ago, while opening the OCEANAIRE in Washington D.C., Joanne and I occasionally splurged and went to our favorite D.C. steakhouse, right downtown on K Street: THE PRIME RIB. It had a different feel than the other D.C. steakhouses like The Palm, Morton’s, Ruth’s Chris, The Capital Grille, and the now-defunct Sam & Harry’s.
The Prime Rib had a sense of luxury and sophistication that evoked a different era. This place was “Old School” the day it opened. Think New York supper clubs of the 1940s, with dark polished walls, grand floral arrangements, plush leopard patterned carpet, and a tuxedoed staff of ADULT, POLISHED WAITERS. Guests are treated to live music from a bassist and pianist softly teasing out De-Lovely Cole Porter tunes from a Steinway grand piano. Tables are adorned with crisp white linen tablecloths, and the place is typically packed with politicians, powerful lobbyists and the moneyed elite.
First, let me clear up a potential point of confusion. The Prime Rib has nothing to do with “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants. There are three Prime Rib locations. The first opened in 1965 in Baltimore. D.C. followed in 1976, and Philadelphia came sometime later. “Lawry’s The Prime Rib” restaurants have locations in Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas.
On a steakhouse fact finding trip last week, we revisited The Prime Rib. I started to worry that it wouldn’t be quite the same. What if they’d changed the décor? Or replaced the musicians with a DJ? Or, God forbid, added Avocado Toast to the menu?
How “Old School” is The Prime Rib? Well, men are still required to wear a dinner jacket. Hell, I don’t even own a suit. Walking in wearing my Duluth Trading Company “free swingin’” flannel shirt and faded jeans, I thought I might be in trouble. But no worries: I was immediately stopped in the vestibule and politely guided to a small room stocked with about 50 black dinner jackets in all sizes. My 13-year-old grandson was also fitted with one.
Well, we couldn’t have been more pleased. Other than the prices, nothing – and I mean, NOTHING – had changed. It still felt as we remembered it. In its heart and soul, The Prime Rib is still a steakhouse, and as swanky as ever. STEAKS are STEAKS here, and MARTINIS are MARTINIS.
Here’s what is remarkable about The Prime Rib: While it’s definitely a time capsule, it doesn’t feel dated. Despite the fact that you have to wear a dinner jacket, the restaurant doesn’t feel frumpy (maybe because it’s meticulously maintained. Nothing is worn, nothing frayed). And though our waiter had worked there for several DECADES (he’d told us he’d been with the company since 1973), service was hardly fossilized.
This is the kind of restaurant where the service is utterly attentive and absolutely unobtrusive. Want your cocktail refreshed? Here’s what you do. Catch your waiter’s eye (easy to do because he’ll be watching your table from a discreet distance). Look down to your empty glass. And look back at the server. Before you know it, you’ve got yourself a fresh martini.
Yeah, dinner here can empty your wallet, but with service like that, you don’t even care.
Tom Seitsema, restaurant critic of the Washington Post, wrote, “No matter your age, you are likely to be the youngest diner in the place.” That’s not quite true, but guests certainly skew older. The advantage of that: You can actually carry on a conversation here. Not only that, we dined in a room adjacent to the one with the pianist, and we could still hear the music.
Okay, great retro vibe, fantastic service…but what about the food? ZAGAT rates it a whopping 4.6!!!!!
Our server told us that the menu is virtually unchanged since they opened, with the exception of a rotating list of nightly specials and market offerings. Which means they’ve had 50 years to get the prime rib right, to perfect the Oysters Rockefeller, and cook your steak precisely to order.
Get the bone-in filet, like I did, and it will be seared to a perfect caramelized finish. Masterfully sourced, pristinely fresh, perfectly prepared seafood (Dover Sole, of course) always delights. And naturally, your 2½-inch thick slab of roasted, medium rare Prime Rib – served with a “nest” of sinus-clearing freshly grated horseradish – is as good as it gets.
Let’s move on…
No surprises; nothing tricked up among the appetizers. My oyster-loving 13-year-old grandson started with a platter of eight big, briny, fat raw oysters – and when I say, big, I mean the largest Blue Points I’ve ever seen, so enormous he had to cut them in half to eat them. Not be outdone, our 11-year-old granddaughter wolfed down her own platter of 4 hot gigantic. cheesy and gooey Oysters Rockefeller. (My grandkids don’t look a lot like me, but boy can they eat like me.)
Clams Casino? Check. Escargot? Yup. And, of course, Lump Crab Cakes, held together only by love, not bread crumbs.
Salads are crisp and freshly made, not overly dressed, and served up on ice-cold plates with nary a spec of brown lettuce in sight.
Classic baked Lump Crab Imperial, as well as the crusty deep-fried Soft Shell Crab could have been either apps or mains. We shared both as appetizers.
On to the main event……Check out the Flintstonian hunk of Prime Rib that my friend, John, ate. He’s 6’ 4” and took half home. By the way, they’ll also grill your Prime Rib as a steak if you wish.
My filet was as simple and delicious as I’ve ever had at MANNY’S. But you can “Oscar” it as well. It’ll come topped with grilled asparagus, lump crab meat (not snow crab or Jonah crab, LUMP crab), drizzled with Hollandaise. Wretched excess? You bet!
Our friend and Parasole colleague, Tim, being Greek, couldn’t help himself and had to have the Baby Lamb Chops. Check out the supper club ramekin of Smucker’s Mint Jelly that accompanied them…right out of the jar.
Sides, while not quite Manny’s-sized (but then, whose are?), were equally good and large enough to share.
I guess that I did notice one change, after all. The Seafood classification section on the menu seems to occupy more real estate than I recall. And I’m glad that it does, as my daughter and Joanne both raved about the classic preparation of their buttery Dover Sole à la Meuniere. Grandson John attacked and devoured his Flounder stuffed with Lump Crab.
Desserts were best-of-breed renditions of the classics – Crème Brulée, Pecan Pie, Blueberry Pie, Key Lime Pie and Hot Fudge Sundaes.
From the food to the service and ambiance, the Prime Rib shows no signs of slowing down, but you have to wonder, Will its clientele age out of existence? Will a new generation of owners try to update the concept and instead just screw it up? Do yourself a favor and visit The Prime Rib while you can – because it’s at the top of its game: both a spectacular steakhouse by contemporary standards and a thrilling journey back in time.
Like Esquire Magazine says, “At The Prime Rib, it’s always 1965.”