June 15, 1938 — opening night of a unique new restaurant on La Cienega Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Imagine the very first diners in those pre-Internet days. Maybe they had heard the owners were the same as those who owned Van de Kamps Bakeries. Perhaps the rumor that someone had the “crazy” idea to base an entire menu around one entrée had reached their ears. Or could they simply have been drawn to the otherwise unassuming building by the bright neon lights displaying the distinctive name, Lawry’s The Prime Rib?
No matter what brought them there, they certainly would have been taken by the tantalizing aroma of roast beef the second they walked through the door. As a smiling uniformed server led them to their booth, they may have wondered why the aisles were so unusually wide. Even if they did, nothing would have prepared them for the sight of the majestic domed shining silver cart ceremoniously wheeled to the table by a carver dressed in a starched white chef’s outfit, toque and all.
For eighty years since that night, our serving cart has been an authentic icon of Lawry’s The Prime Rib. This never surprised founder Lawrence Frank. He was convinced his idea to offer hand-carved Prime Rib tableside from the unique silver cart he designed would succeed and be unforgettable. Taking the English Sheffield Roast Beef Cart, a single metal tray and folding lid on a four-legged walnut wood base, as his inspiration, he designed a rolling 600-pound stainless steel cart that housed several standing ribs and side dishes. The cart’s sleek lines epitomized the trendy Late Art Deco style of the day. The earliest carts took 640 man-hours to build and one cost as much as a new Cadillac, which is still true today. In a 1963 interview, Lawrence proudly described it as a “new way to present prime ribs of beef” in what was “unquestionably the largest cart of its kind ever built.”
People called the first cart a “blimp” because the bulging top was made of welded metal strips. It was quickly discovered that the welds holding the strips together separated from the cart’s prolonged heat. To solve the problem, the manufacturers evolved an even more beautiful lid made from a single piece of pressed stainless steel. The bottom half of the cart housed a small drawer filled with charcoal to heat the water beneath the warming pan holding the beef and side dishes. Except for replacing the charcoal with a canned heat product and a couple of minor internal changes to make more room, the carts have remained unchanged ever since.
The carts, manufactured in Los Angeles, were built to last. After fifty-four years, the ones in Beverly Hills were rebuilt in 1992, but many still have their original handles, castors and domes. The carts in Chicago go back to 1974. The Lawry’s The Prime Rib locations in the U.S. have twenty-four in all: seven in Beverly Hills and Las Vegas, six in Chicago and four in Dallas. Each of our seven licensed restaurants in Asia has purchased four carts from us. These newer models are made in Las Vegas. Using today’s standard kitchen appliance fabrication techniques, single pieces of stainless steel are cut, bent to shape, welded, ground and polished. Wheels and handles are aluminum cast in proprietary molds.
The preparation of the carts for dinner follows a set routine. One to two hours before the restaurant doors open, the cart’s water bath is filled and electrically pre-heated to close to boiling. Fifteen or twenty minutes before service, the heater is unplugged and the cooking fuel is put in place. Only then does each carver stock his cart with prime rib roasts, au jus, gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and creamed corn, all of which are freshly resupplied throughout the night. Finally, he sharpens his knife and it’s “show time.”
Seeing the gleaming carts in one of our dining rooms for the first time is genuinely memorable. Some are rolling toward a group of expectant diners as both servers and returnees explain the ritual to neophytes. Some are stopped, lid open, beside a table where carvers deftly apply their skills. It’s a scene that has been repeated thousands of times since that opening eight decades ago. As we celebrate our eightieth anniversary this year, we also celebrate our most ingenious and enduring icon, one that’s at the heart of Lawry’s classic prime rib experience, our shining Silver Cart.