From Sun Magazine: Q&A; with Prime Rib owner Buzz Beler

In the more than 45 years since the Prime Rib opened, precious little has changed at the iconic midtown restaurant.

Walking in is like stepping into a bygone era: Well-dressed diners carve into steaks the size of dinner plates while waiters in suits top off their wine glasses. The walls are black with gold trim; on them hang paintings, posters and framed covers of Vogue from the early 1930s. And who could miss that swinging '60s leopard print carpet?

The Prime Rib has been around long enough to see its style fall in and out of fashion. Lately, the TV series "Mad Men" has helped spark a renewed interest in the food and fashion of the time. When the Cordish Cos. wanted a steakhouse for its new Maryland Live Casino, the company turned to Prime Rib owner Constantine Peter "Buzz" Beler — the new location will debut this fall.

Formerly a lawyer, Beler and his brother, Nick, opened the Prime Rib in October 19, 1965, and other locations in Washington and Philadelphia followed. Though Nick died in 1995, Buzz still runs the Washington Prime Rib and oversees the other locations.

Where did you get the idea for this place?

They were building this building here, and [Nick] found it, and said "Buzz, let's open a restaurant." Initially he wanted to do designer English-type themes, like the Eager House. Center Stage had just opened on Preston Street, and at the time I was dating the costume designer. She said, "What do you want to do that for? Why don't you go to New York and do something different?" I agreed with her.

We went up there, looked around and stumbled on something we liked. It looked something like this.

What kind of decor did you want when you opened the Prime Rib?

We wanted a Manhattan-looking spot. Swanky. Leopard print carpet, black paneled walls, lithographs, paintings, posters. You see that Alice Soulie poster? He was a transvestite dancer, but he was beautiful.

Did you ever have leopard print carpet in your house?

Oh yeah. I had it in my apartment upstairs.

You're opening a Prime Rib in the Maryland Live Casino this year, right?

It's a joint venture. He's going to follow all my specifications. It's going to look like the Prime Rib. The food is going to be the same recipes — the same purveyors.

If Cordish Cos. wanted to put a Prime Rib in any of their other locations, are you open to that?

Absolutely. I'd like to see them do that.

Tell me about some of your more memorable diners.

Liberace was a good friend of mine. Whenever he performed in the area, he would come here after the show, and I'd stay open late for him. We would stay here until 4 or 5 in the morning.

Did Liberace ever play the piano there?

I never asked him to, and he never would play it anyway. He'd been playing it all night.

One time, I had bought this black velvet shirt, but it was too small for me. So I said, "I got a shirt I want to give you — you'd love it." I went upstairs and got it, because I was living here at the time. He went in the men's room, took his shirt off and put it on. He loved it.

Muhammad Ali came here a lot, because he had these stores [Muhammad Ali Rotisserie Chicken]. He got on the piano one night, believe it or not, and played.

Any good?

He was not bad. Not bad. Anyway, he was here one night with a party of about 18, and a customer here spotted Joe Frazier in the back — party of five. She went over to Frazier, and said, "Muhammad Ali is here." So they came over. The next thing you know, they were arm-in-arm, and the parties joined. We had Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, who had fought in the ring, together. They had a great time.

Anybody else?

Arnold Schwarzenegger came in, and in those days we required jackets. This was before he became [California] governor. He tried to put [a house jacket] on, but his biceps were so big, the jacket wouldn't fit on him. We said, "Come on in, forget about it."

This place hasn't changed much at all since it opened.

We have consistency. That's our modus operandi. You come back in 10 years later, 20 years later, and you get the same prime rib. I don't care who's in the kitchen. It's consistent.

If a restaurant is going to be good at one thing, what should it be?

The National Restaurant Association did a study as to what is more important — location, price, food, service, couple other things. Believe it or not, service was the most important. I learned early on, you can take a gentleman and make him a waiter, but you can never make a waiter a gentleman.

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