Can you solve the mystery before dessert?
This year we’ve been celebrating Lawry’s The Prime Rib’s forty-five years in Chicago. Since its opening in 1974, the restaurant has earned a reputation among locals and tourists as a quintessential Windy City dining experience. In light of such enduring popularity, it’s hard to imagine, but, at one time, our shining silver carts might not have come to the great city by Lake Michigan.
My grandfather and restaurant co-founder Lawrence Frank never wanted there to be more than one Lawry’s The Prime Rib. He always felt another one would detract from the uniqueness of the original. On the other hand, my dad, Lawrence’s son Richard N. Frank, thought its uniqueness could be preserved in other cities as long as locations were very carefully selected.
By the 1960s, these differing views were a serious point of contention between father and son. Both men had tapped seemingly endless resources of entrepreneurial energy and creativity to form multiple successful family businesses. By any measure, they each possessed firm track records on which to base opposing visions for the future of Lawry’s The Prime Rib.
In a 2009 oral Lawry’s history, Dad hinted at his inner struggle between being a respectful son and a growth seeking company leader when he said, “I promised my father I would abide by his wishes as long as he was alive, but he knew someday I would open additional prime rib restaurants, and he wasn’t very happy about it.”
Dad kept his promise and, when the time came, an ideal location was found one block from Chicago’s Miracle Mile. Among other incarnations since it was built in the late 1800s, the landmark McCormick Mansion had been an upper crust family home and high society gathering spot, a members-only nightclub, two restaurants and a popular puppet theater. (See “A Colorful History” in the Spring 2014 A La Cart feature story archive.) The building required extensive and complicated remodeling and renovation. Honestly, it was nightmare.
The building required complicated remodeling. Honestly, it was a nightmare
For instance, the structure’s four stories had to be interconnected to make it suitable for Lawry’s special requirements. Even today, it takes someone more than one visit to learn the way through “the back of the house.” To create a beautiful new dining room, we demolished the theater’s stage and covered its sloping floor with a flat one that could handle our massive serving carts. It seemed like a million other details needed to be ironed out. Few knew it, but the project almost bankrupted the company. Fortunately, the restaurant was an immediate hit and became profitable very quickly.
The Grand Opening of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Chicago took place on my father’s 51st birthday, May 5, 1974. It combined all the excitement of this momentous event with the fun of a family reunion. Dad brought my mom, my sister Laurie, her husband Stuart, my sister Susie and me with him for the special occasion. Several members of the extended Frank and Van de Kamp families also traveled from California to celebrate this new chapter in our company history.
The opening night of any restaurant is always challenging, but the special significance of this particular one may have made it even more so. I remember that the place was really busy, and the staff was a little bit overwhelmed. Our immediate family waited until almost all the other guests were seated before we were. By that time, the restaurant had run out of Creamed Spinach and teaspoons among other things. My dad ordered his usual iced tea but was told by the server they were out of it. Thinking he was being clever and solving a problem, he ordered a hot tea and a glass of ice. It took the server a few seconds to compose herself and then explained, “Mr. Frank, we’re all out of ice.” Then it sank in that they were out of ice and he was out of luck.
Lawry’s The Prime Rib, Chicago marked a new phase for our company and showed that my grandfather’s unique idea could thrive without diminishing the value of our Beverly Hills flagship restaurant. Without its success we may never have gone on to open Lawry’s in Dallas and Las Vegas or establish licensee partnerships to bring the classic Lawry’s dining experience to seven locations in Asia. I like to think my grandfather would ultimately be pleased with the way subsequent generations have honored his legacy.
From the desk of Richard R. Frank
Lawry's The Prime Rib — Chicago
100 E Ontario St, Chicago, IL 60611