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Free Range

The Prime Rib

Midtown institution hasn’t changed a bit

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

The Prime Rib

1101 N. Calvert St., [410] 539-1804,

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“Everything must change,” goes the old jazz standard of the same name. And yet, at the Prime Rib, it would seem that nothing has changed since the restaurant’s doors opened in 1965. Not the glossy black walls and black leather banquettes. Not the Plexiglass-topped grand piano that looks ready for a sequined and mascara-ed Liza Minnelli to sidle up next to it. Not the feathery flower displays, the leopard print carpet, the jazz trio, or the tuxedo-clad staff. Not even the crowd: a mix of well-heeled old Baltimore, families with impeccably behaved children, and the occasional dressed-up young couple. And certainly not the menu, brimming with beef and larded with preparations like Rockefeller, Casino, and Imperial. There may not be many things in life you can be sure of, as another lyric in “Everything Must Change” points out, but you can be sure of the Prime Rib.

Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your perspective. If you relish clubby glamour, if traditional steakhouse food appeals more to you than farm-to-table fare, and if you are not the type to worry about price, then you will also relish the Prime Rib’s old-fashioned cosmopolitan charm. There are those, however, who will pronounce the restaurant dated, unimaginative, overpriced, and resting on its laurels, and those accusations are not without some merit. Loving the Prime Rib is a little bit like loving the late Elizabeth Taylor. There’s no disputing its well-founded iconic status, but whether the attraction lasts as times change is a very personal thing.

Still, it’s hard to argue with a staff that greets familiar patrons by name, calls women “madame,” and asks a youngster in a blue blazer if he’s going to go back in the kitchen and carve prime rib like he did on his last visit (what a memory that will make). These kinds of courtesies make less polished waiters—the one who dismisses a request to move a table after a diner gets bumped repeatedly in the restaurant’s tight quarters or who removes stained and spotted chargers from a place setting with a shrug and a reassurance that no food will be served on them, rather than an apology—stand out. And outside of a handful of the city’s local, homestyle dining rooms, places like the Peppermill or Perring Place, it’s hard to find a menu that has so much of what used to be in every formal Baltimore restaurant: Crab Imperial, Oysters Rockefeller, and shrimp cocktail, along with the monstrous prime rib. Like the couple next to us enthused, it’s a kick, albeit an expensive one, to go old-school every now and then.

In the now distant past, the Prime Rib included a potato and salad with its entrées, making an elegant meal a little bit more of an affordable treat. Today, eating here is an investment, and while the food is utterly and entirely respectable, with a new business-casual dress code and a plethora of other fine-dining establishments in the city, dinner here can feel a little tired. A plateful of house salad with green goddess dressing ($9.95), for example, lacks the dressing’s classic punch of anchovy and scallions and the grassy essence of tarragon. It’s not even green, more a pale cream. A classic plate of flounder stuffed with crab Imperial ($37.95) seems an afterthought, with the Imperial a mayonnaise-laden, undercooked mound of crab under the slender fillet. Fish may not be a priority at a steakhouse, but if it’s on the menu, do your best by it, especially in an era where even some steakhouse patrons might not actually eat steak.

But the Prime Rib certainly offers pleasures too. Oysters Rockefeller ($16.95), plump, little gray balloons under a mossy coat of spinach, arrive nearly too hot to eat. They are rich, though not obscenely so. Greenberg potato skins ($9.95), once a fad and now mostly relegated to the apps list at inexpensive chains, remind you why these were such a good idea in the first place. It is impossible not to pile them high with sour cream. Even the split cut of prime rib ($33.95) is generous and juicy to a fault, and should always, always be served as it is here, buried under a corsage-sized chiffonade of fresh horseradish.

Desserts are still distinctly old-fashioned (crème brûlée seems a radically modern concession among the cheesecake, apple pie a la mode, and hot fudge sundaes), and the Prime Rib’s wine list is one part of the restaurant that seems to hew to current tastes, focusing heavily on New World wines rather than Old World classics, though this still feels like a place to be drinking Champagne cocktails, martinis, and Manhattans.

And this, of course, is the main part of the restaurant’s appeal, that feeling of a bygone era coupled with reliability and consistency. The Prime Rib may foster nostalgia, but it also does what it always did: allow everyone who walks through its doors a chance to experience the classic drama of a real night out. Is there more interesting and more affordable food served in Baltimore? Absolutely. But is there a more elegant link to Baltimore’s past? Not a chance.

The Prime Rib is open for dinner seven days a week.

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