The landmark Prime Rib still evokes the cool of the 1960s

October 15, 2005|By JACQUES KELLY

Has there ever been a slow Saturday night in the last 40 years at the Prime Rib, where even the signature leopard-skin carpeting remains the same since opening night, Oct. 19, 1965?

The cool 1960s came to roost here -- and never left. A bartender mixes a Manhattan. A combo -- drums, piano, bass -- between the dining room and bar launches into "Fly Me to the Moon."

The conversation level never droops. Families, friends, business types sit on black patent-leather chairs around a table under a 1920s French art deco poster. The talk at the bar might just include some political chatter. Standing patrons wonder if they'll ever be seated on a mobbed Saturday night.

And yet, if you drive past the corner of Calvert and Chase streets fast, you'll never notice this Baltimore restaurant landmark. Like so many things here, you almost have to be initiated.

"I wanted my restaurant to look like a sleek 1930s movie set," says C. Peter BeLer, the Prime Rib's owner, 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." The Aurora, now a church, was once a movie theatre where, not long after the Prime Rib opened, some high school friends took me to see a re-release of Casablanca. I'd say both the film and the restaurant are classics.

BeLer, a big man with silvery white hair, looks every bit the thoroughbred race horse owner he is. He was born in Baltimore and he grew up at 308 W. 30th Street in Remington.

He now lives at the Watergate South in Washington, where he has another Prime Rib, on K Street, opened in 1976 and always full of lobbyists, lawyers and a few members of Congress. There's a Philadelphia Rib too.

Come tonight, he'll be at his post in Baltimore, at the bar, not missing a trick.

"I stand at the bar because there's never any room to sit," he said.

"Restaurants are in my blood," BeLer says. His family was involved with the old North Inn, at 3 E. North Ave. Buzz 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.

So what is about the Prime Rib? I always launch into the Greenberg potato skins, which Buzz confided to me were named after Teddy Greenberg, a Baltimore wholesale children's clothing manufacturer and a regular at the restaurant. (In Washington, they're listed as just potato skins, minus Greenberg, because nobody knows the name there.)

"He wanted me to charcoal some potato skins," Buzz said yesterday. "Well, we didn't do just that. My chef deep-fried them, and the skins eventually went on the menu -- and stayed."

The potato skins are an appetizer, always served (and usually consumed) with a sidecar of sour cream and horseradish.

Now about that 40-year old decor. The Prime Rib was designed by James E. Peterson, a Baltimore decorator. Buzz credits a 1960s visit to New York's Hampshire House on Central Park South with his brother Nick for the inspiration for his popular bar. Rita St. Clair, the decorator and herself very much in business today around the corner on Charles Street, supplied the Louis Icart prints for the walls.

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

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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