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In my 50 years as a restaurateur, I’ve seen the public’s interest in wine grow from practically zilch to what amounts to a love affair. I’m proud to say Lawry’s has played a part in that. We have not only gone along with the burgeoning love of the grape, we’ve helped it along, and even pioneered some of the trends.
Our company didn’t begin seriously incorporating wine into its offerings until the early 1960s. In fact, we did not serve alcohol at all until 1938, when my family opened the original Lawry’s The Prime Rib. The emphasis then, and through the 1940s and ’50s, was on hard liquor. Our guests, like most Americans of the time, were uneducated about and disinterested in wine.
I decided to try to simplify the process and make our guests feel more comfortable by adapting the European practice of serving “table wine”
In the early 1960s, I opened a fanciful Southern European-themed restaurant in Beverly Hills called the Mediterrania. By then, the average American had a modicum of experience with wine, at least to the extent of knowing whether they preferred red or white. Most, however, rarely ordered wine in restaurants, feeling intimidated by wine lists and at a loss to choose one label over another.
I decided to try to simplify the process and make our guests feel more comfortable by adapting the European practice of serving “table wine” (akin to what would later become known in American restaurants as “house wine”). We narrowed our offerings to a good-quality California red, white and rose, which we served in specially designed carafes. Because the wines had been selected by the restaurant, our guests felt reassured they would be good.
To make the ordering fun, rather than foreboding, we served our wine from a cart outfitted with a hurdy-gurdy (a mechanical musical instrument) imported from Sicily. Our “wine girl” would crank it up and push the merrily playing cart around from table to table, pouring carafes to guests’ orders. It was a huge success!
In the restaurant business, one is able to be original for only about six minutes. Word spreads quickly about any successful new idea, and it is picked up instantly. That was certainly the case with our carafes; in what seemed like the blink of an eye, restaurants from coast to coast were offering carafes of red, white and rose, and people began to view wine as a good accompaniment to dining out.
In the early 1980s, Lawry’s helped start a trend that continues popular today, by being among the first to offer premium wines by the glass.
Soon after, we began helping the public learn about wine through weekly classes and tastings at Lawry’s California Center. The classes were such a hit, we also began offering wine dinners in our restaurants, where guests could sample vintages, meet and talk with winemakers, and enjoy gourmet meals that complimented the wines being poured. (Although Lawry’s California Centers and its classes are no more, wine dinners are still going strong in all of our restaurants, and I urge you to try one.)
In the early 1980s, Lawry’s helped start a trend that continues popular today, by being among the first to offer premium wines by the glass. Americans had grown far more knowledgeable and discriminating about wine, and we wanted to make our finest as accessible as possible.
Serving by the glass enables guests to more easily explore new wines, and is a great alternative to having to purchase and consume an entire bottle in one sitting. Guests across the country have taken to the idea.
Our restaurants are always adding exciting wines to their lists and thinking up ways to enhance your enjoyment of them. So come join us, taste what’s new and raise a glass! Salute!
From the desk of Richard N. Frank