C. Peter “Buzz” Beler, whose out-of-the-way East Chase Street restaurant, the Prime Rib, came to define a certain 1930s sophistication and was known for generous slabs of its namesake dish, signature fried Greenberg potato skins, steak au poivre prepared “bleu,” as the French say, and precisely chilled bluepoints so large they ought to be renamed Titanics, died Oct. 23 in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 90.
A cause of death was not available, according to family members.
“Buzz was one of the last great restaurateurs of the Old School,” said John Klaus, co-manager of the Prime Rib, where he has worked for 35 years.
“He hearkened back to another era of fine dining. Today, we live in a world of email, computers and cellphones, and Buzz wanted his restaurant to be a pause and a throwback in time, and a place for great food and conversation,” said Mr. Klaus, a Canton resident. “It was very important to him that he create that ambience in Baltimore.”
Constantine Peter Beler, who was known as “Buzz,” was the son of Peter Beler and his wife, Cleo Hariklea “Hattie” Beler, who owned and operated the North Inn Restaurant from 1928 to 1951 at North Avenue and Charles Street, a major streetcar transfer point, and where in his youth Mr. Beler began learning the restaurant business.
“Restaurants are in my blood,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 2005.
Born in Baltimore, Mr. Beler was raised at 308 W. 30th St. Remington. He attended the McDonogh School earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia, where he was a member of the riding club and developed a lifelong affection for horses.
He earned a law degree from the University of Maryland and served a stint in the Army, After practicing law, he decided to go into the restaurant business with his brother, C. Nicholas Beler, when a little-known restaurant, the Horizon House, in the Horizon House apartment building on North Calvert Street in the Mount Vernon-Belvedere neighborhood, came up for sale.
“I wanted my restaurant to look like a sleek 1930s movie set,” he told The Sun in 1995. “I wanted it to shimmer in black and white, like the old movies I used to catch at the Aurora on North Avenue.”
The brothers found inspiration in what they were trying to create in the early 1960s after visiting New York’s Hampshire House, a classic 1930s Art Deco apartment house on Central Park South that featured a bar that was used in the 1963 film “Come Blow Your Horn.”
To insure absolute accuracy in recreating the bar for their restaurant, which opened on Oct. 19, 1965, they measured it. The restaurant was designed by Baltimore decorator James E. Peterson.
“We always wanted to open a restaurant that we would be comfortable in,” Mr. Beler explained in a Sun interview. “It had a very limited menu, with maybe five items, but it was successful.”
They opened a second Prime Rib on Washington’s K Street in 1976, with Mr. Beler overseeing the operation of the Baltimore edition, while his brother managed the Washington Prime Rib, which quickly found favor with politicians, lawyers, lobbyists and other movers and shakers.
“It had been well-received by the public from the beginning, and became an institution in both Baltimore and Washington,” Mr. Klaus said. “He wanted to create a classic place because he felt people in Baltimore deserved it.”
In 1977, Mr. Beler described the success of the Prime Rib in an Evening Sun interview as attributable to “quality of the product — beef" that also received a big boost from its “New York-style” atmosphere.
“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,” Mr. Beler told Sun reporter Sam Sessa in 2012.
Mr. Beler succeeded in creating a space where standards are maintained such as waiters in tuxedos who serve well-dressed diners who exude nothing but good behavior for a night out on the town. From the beginning the Prime Rib came to define luxury dining in Baltimore.
A pianist played all the jazz standards and could be counted on to play selections from the Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart songbook, as well as such popular tunes as “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Liberace was one celebrity who became a good friend of Mr. Beler’s and whenever in Baltimore, dropped in at Prime Rib. Others were Muhammad Ali and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“Whenever Liberace 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,” Mr. Beler told The Sun in 2012.
“The Prime Rib is a beguiling and classy restaurant. I can’t conceive of more perfect rooms for a dry martini and guiltlessly thick and delicious slabs of meat,” a Sun food critic wrote in 1987.
One regular, a Sun reporter and editor, said he enjoyed the martinis so much that he couldn’t remember whatever he ate there.
If Prime Rib came to define a chic supper club, it also came to define permanence on both its staff and menu.
“We have one waiter who has been here 46 years and some of the guys in the kitchen have been here for 30 years. Buzz was very funny and down-to-earth when it came to people and the staff," Mr. Klaus said.
“He allowed people to succeed and do their job. he expected things of them but he was hands-off. He let us operate freely, and that included decision-making,” he said.
The Prime Rib wasn’t just about USDA prime beef — it was also about perfect center-cut lamb chops, the freshest seafood, crab bisque, oysters Rockefeller and the addictive Greenberg potato skins, named after Teddy Greenberg, a Baltimore wholesale children’s clothing manufacturer.
George W. Johnston, a retired Venable LLP attorney who finds his way to Prime Rib several times a month, prefers to dine at the bar.
“It’s more informal, and the bartenders give you good service,” said Mr. Johnston, a Guilford resident. “I like their fish, especially the Chilean sea bass, and the steak sandwich which you can get at the bar. It’s prime rib and it’s good enough for a man like me with a good appetite. They also offer a first-grade hamburger.”
Dennis Boyle, a lawyer and Odenton resident, shared an interest in thoroughbred horses with Mr. Beler.
“I normally get the prime rib. I like all of their meats, but I’m particular to prime rib because I’m a steak guy,” Mr. Boyle said. “Buzz was a great and an amazing guy, but we talked more about horses than the restaurant.”
Mr. Beler, a former resident of the Watergate Apartments in Washington who later moved to Charlottesville, still visited the Prime Rib weekly.
“We’d come by train once or twice a week,” said Rebecca Dolan, a Charlottesville lawyer who is Mr. Beler’s cousin and trustee. “He loved being in Baltimore and preferred the Baltimore Prime Rib over the one in Washington because it was the original. His last visit was in August.”
When the owner of the venerable and now closed Burke’s Cafe in downtown Baltimore died, Mr. Beler told The Sun in 2008, he had gone there on Sunday evenings to dine on its fried chicken. “It was awfully good,” he said. “It was a very comfortable and relaxing place.”
Ms. Dolan said he also had a penchant for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins. “He thought they were really good,” she said.
Mr. Beler was a member of the Burning Tree Club in Bethesda and Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, New York.
His wife of three years, Dr. Linda Frank, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, died in 2003.
Services are private.
In addition to his cousin, Mr. Beler is survived by a son, Peter Hill Beler, of Northern Virginia. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.