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Bar review

At the Prime Rib, a charming relic lives on

At the Prime Rib's bar, cocktails are pricey, but you're paying for the experience.

In these breathless times of instant information, it is nice to be reminded that some of the most useful tips still come the old-fashioned way: face-to-face conversation.

Earlier this winter, over an unhurried dinner in a Mid-Town Belvedere hotel, I met a middle-aged couple that had developed a weekly routine of bar-hopping worthy of a bon vivant. Sundays, they said, were not complete without a trip to the Prime Rib.

Based on the Prime Rib’s reputation as one of the most consistent steakhouses in the city, I had long been intrigued. Yet on my mental list of bars to see, it always hovered in the middle, perpetually getting knocked down a peg for newer, more attention-grabbing entries into the scene.

Taking the couple’s recommendation as a sign it was time to experience the Prime Rib, I finally went on a recent Sunday night and left with an understanding as to why this restaurant — opened in 1965 and seemingly proud to be stuck there — endures so well. If you’re willing to pay the price, the Prime Rib offers romanticized escapism via old-school sophistication, red meat and heavy pours. The experience satisfied this first-timer on nearly every level.

Why go on a Sunday? The Prime Rib has half-priced bottles of select wine, which makes it possible to get a merlot or chardonnay for under $25. I passed this time, as I intended to try cocktails, too.

After walking through a few narrow hallways and doors (the stroll from parking garage to restaurant felt like the tracking shot in “Goodfellas“ of Henry Hill entering the Copacabana), I walked into the Prime Rib, and seemingly, out of a time machine.

Here, you not only pay for food and drink, but ambience. On paper, the vintage design — heavily inspired by Manhattan supper clubs of the ’40s — sounds stuffy and dated, but in person, it’s much more charming. Each detail, from the vase of towering white lilies behind the bar to the famous leopard-print carpet, added to a sum greater than its parts. The place still knows how to create a memorable setting.

For a customer mere months away from age 30, the Prime Rib also achieves something harder to pinpoint, but no less captivating: It made me nostalgic for a time I never experienced.

Tuxedo-wearing staff members taking my order as live, elegant piano playing fills the room? It is far from my status quo, which made it even more refreshing. I also count the ’60s period piece “Mad Men“ as my favorite TV show — “Wire” fans, bring on the hate mail — so I’m probably predisposed to enjoy an outing like the Prime Rib.

Goodwill from ambience can only carry an establishment so far, but the Prime Rib’s bar kept the positive vibes flowing with classic cocktails. It offers a menu of spirits — divided by small-batch bourbon, rye whiskey, blended scotch, single-malt scotch and tequila — which patrons can choose as pours or the bases of cocktails.

My old fashioned ($15) — made with Blanton’s single-barrel bourbon, muddled Luxardo cherries, simple syrup, two dashes of bitters and an orange slice — packed a serious alcoholic wallop. (I mind this less with pricier cocktails to a degree; my mantra: get your money’s worth.) I used the plastic stirrer to incorporate the fruits’ sweetness better, and after a couple sips, the old fashioned landed on the equilibrium I hoped.

A traditional tequila sunrise ($20) — consisting of Don Julio 1942 tequila, orange juice and grenadine — had a similar issue, requiring a few sips past the booze-heavy front-end before reaching the bright balance of citrus and spirit. It worked well, but a straightforward cocktail at that price is hard to justify.

As I took a steak knife to a medium-rare slice of prime rib, I asked the bartender for a tip with pairing it with wine. Perhaps preoccupied with other guests at the bar, he was short on reasoning, but recommended the house cabernet (Geyser Peak’s Walking Tree cabernet sauvignon, Alexander Valley, $12). Overall, our server was more attentive than informative — no overwrought narratives about sourcing or history here — which felt true to the restaurant’s spirit.

As my meal came to a close, a couple of regulars to my right struck a conversation. The woman noted my age, saying something to the effect of, “We don’t usually see younger folks in here.” On this night, the evidence — a full bar of a dozen patrons or so — backed her up.

I wasn’t sure if it had more to do with reputation (the Prime Rib still asks men to wear jackets on Saturday nights) or price (between food, drink and tip, it all adds up quickly). Maybe if they knew about the bar menu and its less expensive food items, available from 5 p.m. until close daily, they would give it a try. Maybe they view steakhouses, in general, as antiquated. Who knows?

I left trying to answer a simpler question: Is it worth the money?

Ultimately, that depends on the budget and the type of experience you seek, but on this trip, the timeless Prime Rib proved it is still worth the time.

wesley.case@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog 

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The Prime Rib

Back story: The Prime Rib opened in Baltimore in 1965. (It predates the Philadelphia and Washington versions.) Since then, it has largely stayed the same, serving meat-and-potatoes dishes and classic cocktails in a luxurious setting. Recommended attire is business casual, and a jacket is requested for men on Saturday nights.

Parking: Complimentary valet

Signature drink: The Prime Rib offers 30 types of whiskey, scotch and bourbon, along with nine tequilas. An old fashioned with Blanton’s bourbon costs $15. There are also 20 bottles of beer ($5-$6.50).

Where: 1101 N. Calvert St., Mid-Town Belvedere

Contact: 410-539-1804; theprimerib.com

Open: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday

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