When the Prime Rib opened in Baltimore in 1965, it was already "old school," borrowing its look and atmosphere from the supper clubs of the 1930s and '40s.
In the half-century since it opened on the first floor of the Horizon House apartment building in Midtown-Belvedere, not too much has changed at the restaurant, but it doesn't feel dated or old-fashioned. Instead, its formality feels classic and even refreshing.
The maitre d' wears a tuxedo. The walls are dark, the linens are crisp and white, and the carpet is, famously, leopard print. A baby grand piano occupies a central spot; most evenings, the notes float through the restaurant.
During a midweek visit, the restaurant was about three-quarters full, its tables occupied by couples, business people and a few groups of friends. The crowd was fairly mature — we didn't spot any faces that looked younger than 30 — but not subdued. The experience, as upscale as the restaurant is, was anything but stuffy.
The bar might deserve some credit for that. Before we were given menus, our waiter asked if we would like a drink. A classic champagne cocktail, with sugar, bitters and a lemon twist, was lovely and large. We also enjoyed a Marseilles, a gin concoction with herbaceous flavors of basil and fennel.
The Prime Rib's menu is stacked with dishes that would be familiar to the restaurant's first diners in 1965. Steaks are steaks, seafood is simple, and sides of potatoes and vegetables are completely recognizable. This is not a kitchen turning out obscure, deconstructed dishes.
The hearts of lettuce salad was a generous wedge with thick slices of red tomato and hunks of bacon, all doused with chunky blue cheese dressing. The presentation was traditional, but there's a reason that salad is still popular: It has to do with the way the ingredients fit together when each one is perfect.
The lettuce was bright green and crisp, the tomatoes late-summer ripe and the bacon teetering on that precipice between chewy and crispy. The dressing was creamy and tangy, with large bits of cheese. It was a simple, straightforward salad, but not an afterthought.
Four oysters, prepared Rockefeller style, drew the only complaint we had about the entire meal: The spinach and cheese topping was slightly underseasoned. Fortunately, the Prime Rib is not the kind of place that shies away from placing salt and pepper shakers on the tables. A quick shake of salt, and the oysters were just right.
The restaurant's specialty is, of course, prime rib. Our slab of meat was juicy and red — a thick slice, prepared just to medium rare. It took up nearly all of the plate; there was just a sliver of space left for a pile of fresh horseradish. The meat was cooked uniformly and beautifully; it was so tender.
Meats are the main attraction at the Prime Rib, but the seafood menu is also robust. An order of crab imperial, a large scoop of lump crabmeat served in a scalloped dish, was sauced with a very light hand. The crab was mixed with just enough imperial sauce to boost its sweet flavor without overpowering it.
Dishes of potato au gratin and creamed spinach — both large enough to share — were steaming hot when they hit the table and remained heated throughout the meal. Creamed-spinach lovers will recognize what a feat this is; the vegetable is notoriously difficult to keep warm.
Both were classically prepared and nicely seasoned. We enjoyed them, but they did not overshadow the main courses.
By the time we made our way to dessert — warm, gooey pecan pie topped with whipped cream — we were sated and edging toward sleepiness. Dinner at the Prime Rib is luxurious in every way, including its length. In between courses, we were allowed time to linger. In a more casual restaurant, this might have felt like a problem, but at the Prime Rib, the languorous pace seemed intentional.
That is due, at least in part, to the seasoned staff; the waiters are adults who have made hospitality their careers and their dedication shows. Our waiter was friendly but not overly familiar; he knew the menu and was an expert at choosing exactly the moment to check in with us.
He operated with the ease of someone who knows he is good at his job and who trusts that everyone around him is equally skilled.
And they are. From the kitchen to the busboys to the man playing piano, the Prime Rib is run by experts who create a dining experience that feels like a throwback, in the very best way.
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Mount Vernon / Midtown