The Prime Rib is a restaurant living in the past. It's a restaurant Donald Draper of Mad Men, the cable TV show set in Manhattan in the '60s, would enjoy - a place where wheeler-dealers took their beautiful wives, ate prime steaks and drank chilled martinis. The service, by tuxedoed waiters, is top-notch. That goes almost without saying.
Since it opened in 1965, the Prime Rib has been Baltimore's answer to the New York supper club. Reviewers - including me - have swooned over the leopard-print carpeting, the black walls, the sensuous, gilt-framed paintings, the baby grand. It's often said that the atmosphere is as important as the food at the Prime Rib.
These days it feels a little dated.
Was it always so dark you stumbled as you were led to your seat? Was the live piano music, not to mention the party in the next room, always so loud? And isn't it time to refurbish the ladies' room?
Don't get me wrong. It's still a comfortable, swanky place to be. But the Prime Rib has aged, as its loyal regulars have.
Here's the surprise, though. The Prime Rib has changed in one respect: The food is better.
It always had fabulous beef, so you could count on an enormous, rosy rare slice of prime rib, as flavorful as it was tender, with a delicate edge of crisp fat to set it off. You could count on getting the best dry-aged steak in town, broiled exactly as you ordered it (although the chef would have a heart attack if you ordered it well done). The wine list, of course, is excellent but traditional. It's a place where the martini list is probably just as important.
But these days, you can get good beef at half a dozen steakhouses around town. What the Prime Rib's kitchen does now, which it didn't always do, is create an almost perfect supporting cast for that beef.
Start with the warm, poppy seed-covered loaf of bread and whipped butter. Or with the appetizers, which are very simple - sometimes just a small version of an entree, like the barbecued baby ribs, one pan-fried soft crab or a fat, golden, flavorful lump crab cake. Of course, these cost as much as an entree at another restaurant, but if you couldn't afford it, you wouldn't be here.
Who knew that large, plump bluepoints would be so good fixed Casino-style, with a crisp curl of salty bacon and just a bit of perfectly seasoned, buttery crumbs? Yes, there is a silky lobster bisque; but there is also a simple, smoky roasted-tomato soup that won't immediately harden your arteries.
Salads are more elaborate than you might expect at a steakhouse, where the iceberg wedge is often the norm. They include a couple of composed salads like the hearts of palm arranged with a summer tomato wedge, hard-boiled egg half, olives and sweet peppers.
Side dishes are all a la carte. The most famous of them is the Greenberg potato skins, baked, fried and prepared without the usual blanket of cheese and bacon so you can appreciate the potato itself. (You can dip them in sour cream on the side.)
The two must-haves, though, are the creamed spinach, made with chicken broth as well as cream so it's lighter than many versions and absolutely delicious, and the artichoke hearts with stems, grilled with olive oil - my personal favorite. Potatoes au gratin made with cheddar are a fine comfort-food version of a classic.
If you base the reputation of your restaurant on the quality of the ingredients rather than elaborate dishes you create from them, there's no margin for error. The fish must be absolutely fresh, because there's no sauce to disguise the fact that it isn't. You have to be very sure of your thick, white fillet of Chilean sea bass if you grill it with just olive oil and lemon, or serve its tomato, onion and caper sauce on the side. The faith is justified. The Prime Rib has always been known for its seafood as well as its beef, and I'd be interested to know these days what proportion of orders is not steak or prime rib.
Of course, a nonbeef entree could be a rack of tender, meaty lamb chops, baked with butter and a little garlic and arranged with both mango chutney and green mint jelly. (Green mint jelly. Now there's a condiment from the past.) Or if you can stand the scorn of your fellow meat eaters, try the best chopped sirloin you've ever had, served with sauteed onions.
Desserts are extravagant but not overwhelming. The bread pudding, warm, moist and bourbon-scented, will always be my first choice. (Easy on the whipped cream there, fella.) The cloudlike chocolate mousse pie is a close second, although I would leave off the decorative drizzle of what seems to be Hershey's syrup. After that there are well-done classics: a Key lime pie, a cheesecake and even a hot-fudge sundae.
This isn't the most imaginative cuisine, and it isn't trying to be. Once that would have bothered me more than it does now. You eat at the Prime Rib when you're bored with frilly food. I'm pretty sure that there's not a temperamental chef in the kitchen, outraged because someone wants the sauce on the side. The customer is always right at old-fashioned restaurants like the Prime Rib.
The Prime Rib
Where: : 1101 N. Calvert St., Baltimore,
Contact: : 410-539-1804, ThePrimeRib.com.
Hours: : Open nightly for dinner (closed Mondays in the summer).
Appetizers: : $7.95-$16.95, entrees: $22.95-$42.95.
Food: : **** (4 stars)
Service: : *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)
Atmosphere: : ** 1/2 (2 1/2 stars)
[Outstanding: **** Good: *** Fair or uneven: ** Poor: *]