The go-to steak house in town for elegance, quality of service and beef — especially prime rib — a great and convivial bar, top-notch bartenders who know their sports and a couple of flat screens to watch a game is The Prime Rib
By Theodore N. Beitchman
Walk into the Prime Rib, and it hits you like a thunderbolt.
While most Philly restaurants reflect the Millennial culture of flash and dash, lights, cell phone cameras and action, the lights-are-low Rib is a throwback to a time when you had to be properly dressed and well-behaved to dine out.
When Martinis and cigars were the orders of the day and night.
When there were more pin-stripe-suited men and pearls-wearing women than in any other joint in town.
And in the case of the Prime Rib, located in the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel at 17th and Locust Sts., that wasn’t that long ago!
There’s a well-known steak house on just about every other corner in Center City, and Philly is lucky to have all the national names to choose from. They all have something they makes them unique:
The Palm has the cartoons on the wall, the noise and the tradition of being the first in town — 1988; Ruth’s Chris has the butter — unless you nix it, their steaks arrive sizzling in butter; Del Frisco’s has its size, which matters — 30,000 square feet!
But the go-to steak house in town for elegance, quality of service and beef — especially prime rib — a great and convivial bar, top-notch bartenders who know their sports and a couple of flat screens to watch a game is The Prime Rib.
It was 1974, and Garth Weldon was a politics-loving newly minted Duke grad hungry for a job in his hometown of Washington, D.C., preferably on Capitol Hill.
So he sent a letter seeking advice to Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor whose paper had just brought President Richard Nixon down over the Watergate scandal, and who was soon to be a hero to young journos everywhere because of Jason Robards’ dead-on portrayal of him in “All the President’s Men.”
“He sent me a letter in return,” Weldon says now, “but he had no leads.”
So in 1976 Garth gravitated instead to what was becoming a cottage industry in the district — restaurants.
A couple of new restaurants had opened on Gucci Gulch — K Street, where the lobbyists roam — Romeo and Juliet and the Prime Rib, a steak emporium whose original location opened in Baltimore in 1965.
“I started as a busboy,” he says proudly during an interview at the Philly Prime Rib. “And I worked my way up gradually to manager when I heard that we were looking to open a third spot in another town.”
The K Street Rib had attracted lots of Philly types like Sen. Arlen Specter, a well-known devotee of an ice-cold Martini, and South Philly Rep. Tom Foglietta.
“So Buzz Beler [the Rib’s founder] and I came up to Philly to scout a third location,” Weldon remembers.
“We looked on west Market Street, but there was no pedestrian action after 6 p. m.. And we looked at the space that is now the Capitol Grille at Broad and Chestnut, which was then a restaurant called Heritage.”
Then, Buzz and Garth realized that proximity to Rittenhouse Square was vital for their up-scale menu.
“We liked being on Rittenhouse,” Garth says, referring to the location at 17th and Locust St., in the Radisson Warwick Hotel.
“It was the space that had been occupied by Elan, Polo Bay, the Newport Bar and Melange.”
The Prime Rib occupies a large, easily accessible space, “and we did a $1.5 million fit-out with help from the landlord, Bill Frankel.”
When Garth and his brother Jolly opened the Prime Rib in Philly in January 1998, it automatically became the place to be. And then-Mayor Ed Rendell made sure that he was seen there often, as he did with all new restaurants, adding the cache of power.
“At first we had to bring the food up from Baltimore,” Weldon says now with a laugh, remembering those days before the kitchen was fully up and running.
“And our location was the right one for us. We wanted people to be able to walk, not just drive, and there are so many people living on or around Rittenhouse Square who walk right over.”
Along the way in the almost 18 years since the Prime Rib opened, Weldon has had to navigate the ebbs and flows of the rapidly growing Philly dining industry.
The hospitality community got sold a bill of goods when the Republican Convention came here in 2000 — restaurateurs thought they would have a bonanza, but as always happens national political conventions host a spate of corporate parties that keep delegates, press and lobbyists in house, rather than dining out.
Then, a few years later, the city government passed legislation banning smoking in restaurants, and Weldon, like every other restaurant owner, had to adjust.
“We had a state of the art smoke eater,” he says, pointing to the ceiling over the bar where the eater had been. “And at first we took a hit but we adjusted like every other restaurant did.”
Then there was the one-two punch of the collapsing local real estate market in 2007 and the near-Depression of 2008 that killed Le Bec-Fin, which could never adjust to the notion that diners were not apt to spend $135 on a prix fixe dinner!
But like a good basketball coach or restaurant owner, Weldon called an audible and adjusted.
“As soon as smoking was banned, I decided to do the Happy Hour specials,” Weldon says now after he lost 20 percent of his business right after smoking was banned.. “We needed to create another reason to come to the Rib.”
Half-price on selected drinks, beer and wine jump-started the Happy Hour from 5-to-7 p.m., especially among the fixed income set.
“And we were the only steak house in town to participate in the original Restaurant Week,” referring to the Center City District-sponsored program that encourages prix fixe prices.
“That’s 500-to-600 reservations a night,” he points out, “and even though our margins are thinner we get a lot of people in who have never been here before.”
Garth added a live pianist Sunday through Thursday, and a pianist and bassist Friday and Saturday from 6:30-to-10:30 p.m., which an especially welcome touch in a town where there is precious little live jazz.
The bar menu is very reasonably priced for burgers, prime rib sandwiches, salads and slider, and the Prix Fixe menu get you a four-course meal for only $45.
It’s no wonder that the Prime Rib has become a Philly tradition for lots of folks who want a quality steak, a substantial drink and great service in an atmosphere of understated elegance.
Garth Weldon and his crew of servers, bartenders and support staff wouldn’t have it any other way!
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