Recession shuns the Prime Rib

Jacques Kelly

April 06, 1992|By Jacques Kelly

It's Saturday night and there's not an unoccupied spot on the Prime Rib restaurant's leopard skin carpeting.

A bartender mixes a Manhattan. A combo -- drums, piano, bass -- between the dining room and bar entertains with "Fly Me to the Moon." No petal is out of place in a white snapdragon and Queen Anne's lace flower arrangement.

Visiting judges sit on black patent-leather chairs around a table under a 1920s French art deco poster. The talk at the bar centers on Belmont Park horse racing. Standing patrons wonder if they'll ever be seated. The conversation level never drops.

Manager Ken Hadel keeps order amid the bustle.

"Between 8 and 9, it gets real crazy," Mr. Hadel says. "We're in turmoil but it doesn't show. It's the high-tension part of the evening."

There's no recession in sight here, where the tab for drinks and dinner runs more than $100 a couple.

Many people say the decor reminds them of restaurants in New York or Chicago. But the Prime Rib is on Chase Street, just off Calvert, at the side of the Horizon House apartment building in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood.

"I wanted my restaurant to look like a sleek 1930s movie set," says C. Peter BeLer, the Prime Rib's co-owner, who is known as "Buzz." "I wanted it to shimmer in black and white, like the old movies I used to watch at the Aurora on North Avenue."

Mr. BeLer, a big man with silvery white hair, looks every bit the Thoroughbred race horse owner he is. Born in Baltimore, he lived in Hampden, later on North Avenue and on 33rd Street, where he used to park cars behind his family's home near the old stadium. He now lives in Georgetown and commutes by rail to his Baltimore restaurant.

A good table at his establishment may just be the most sought-after prize in Baltimore on a Saturday night. And amazingly, it has been that way since Buzz and his brother, C. Nicholas BeLer, opened Oct. 19, 1965.

"Restaurants are in my blood," Buzz BeLer says. His family was involved with the old North Inn, at 3 E. North Ave. The North Inn was a very popular gathering place in the years before World War II.

Mr. BeLer says he learned many hard-and-fast rules of restaurant science along North Avenue, which then had the old Oriole Cafeteria, Harry Hasslinger's seafood house, Tuttle's Hall, and George Doebereiner's famous bakery.

Patrons return to the Prime Rib for its large portions of beef and seafood, well-made bar drinks and such house specialties as Greenberg potato skins. Many regulars know the menu by heart. And a few hearty eaters know to end their meal with bourbon-laced bread pudding hot from the oven.

Despite their success, the BeLers are closed for lunch. It's strictly dinner.

The Prime Rib is little changed from 1965, except for an outside dining porch that has been enclosed for year-round service. The inside look is dark but inviting. The restaurant seats about 135.

The Prime Rib was designed by the late James E. Peterson, a Baltimore decorator. Buzz BeLer credits a 1960s visit to New York's Hampshire House on Central Park South with the inspiration for his popular bar.

"We even measured the bar in New York to copy it here," the owner said. "It was used in the movie 'Come Blow Your Horn' with Frank Sinatra."

The black patent-leather chairs, the indirect lighting, the luminous LeDuc paintings and 1930s Vanity Fair magazine covers complete the look, which is also reproduced in the Prime Rib's K Street N.W. Washington version. The BeLer brothers opened this second successful restaurant in 1976.

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