From The Archives: Tom Sietsema's First Review for The Washington Post

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, August 20, 2000; 12:00 AM

In honor of Tom Sietsema's 10th Annual Dining Guide, we took a look back through the archives to find this review, his first for The Washington Post.

The double doors of Washington's most formal steakhouse open with a single, practiced sweep as I step from K Street onto leopard-print carpet.

Two tuxedoed gatekeepers usher me into a dining room that pulses with testosterone, save for its silk-shaded table lamps and sumptuous floral displays. The gentle pop! of a champagne cork being eased from its bottle hints of a deal sealed, an anniversary toasted. Waiting at the bar for my guests to arrive, I follow the lead of the silver-haired suits around me, order a martini and contemplate the Louis Icart lithographs of scantily clad women on the gilt-edged black walls. The bartender's jokes are met with laughter that sounds as if it's been seasoned with decades of smoke and gin.

For my first review in this magazine, I'm in a festive mood, and nostalgia has drawn me back to the dean of the city's steakhouses. To those who already know it, the Prime Rib is more than a restaurant. It is a ritual, an event, a celebration of a time when real men didn't even know what quiche was, let alone eat it. There are no female servers to be seen; no other downtown dining destination is so resolutely pre-Steinem. Newcomers might be surprised by the reminder, nearly extinct in Washington, that follows a call for a reservation: "Jackets and ties are required for gentlemen." Casual Friday would never occur to the Prime Rib.

The area steak boom shows no signs of slowing; this fall will see at least half a dozen new bastions of beef stampeding onto the scene. Maybe one of the upstarts will get the formula right. So far, none of the current contenders excels at everything you'd hope for from a first-class purveyor: routinely fabulous meat, impeccable service, side dishes of distinction and a wine list to match. Instead, each tempts us on individual merits. I'd be one happy hedonist if I could compose a meal from Morton's golden hash browns, Sam & Harry's creamed spinach, the Capital Grille's porterhouse, Smith & Wollensky's coconut cake and the Palm's VIP scene. To coax the best from Washington's steakhouses takes knowing what to order.

And so it is that I gravitate to the Prime Rib for the opportunity to indulge in its signature attraction. The best protein on the menu is the prime rib itself, showing up as thick as the White Pages and as rosy as you request. Rimmed with a little fat for flavor, it has a beefy, mineral quality that keeps me digging in for more. The only improvement one could make has been thought of: Alongside the slab of meat sits a mound of grated horseradish, a pinch of which adds some electricity to the eating.

No other meat on the menu can match the prime rib. Not the wan veal chop. Not the rack of lamb, which is textbook-correct but lacks personality. Some rave about the tender filet mignon, gilded with melted butter, and I have to confess I tackled more of it than I had intended. But I'm partial to meat served on the bone, because it has more flavor. The popularity of soft meat only makes me wonder why so many diners are afraid to chew their food.

The appetizers embrace the usual steakhouse staples. Four big, fat, tender shrimp drape over the rim of a cocktail glass, poised to take a dip in a sinus-clearing cocktail sauce. Oysters on the half shell are a little scrawny this time of year, though these are perfectly shucked and clean-tasting. Caesar salad comes out punching with a tangy dressing (and if you request anchovies, you'll get about a school of them). But the tomatoes in the onion-and-tomato salad are vapid and cottony. The best of the beginnings are also the richest: the velvety, thick lobster bisque and the creamy crab cakes, gently shaped from lump crab meat.

It's a surprise, then, to encounter the Prime Rib's crab imperial, another longtime reason to visit this restaurant. Traditionally, the recipe calls for crab to be blended with mayonnaise, dry mustard and sherry, among other enhancers, then baked in a little casserole. My first reunion with that classic, at lunch, was marred by less than pristine seafood; at dinner, the dish, though generous with the main ingredient, amounted to not much more than dry and vaguely seasoned lump crab meat. For $28, I want it done right.

The dapper staff is mostly briskly efficient and refreshingly honest about what's good on the menu. When we're considering the cottage potatoes one night, our waiter dismisses the idea with a terse shake of his head. How about the french fries, then? "They're like McDonald's," he responds. (Actually, when I try them at a later meal, I decide that the fast-food joint has this place beat.) We settle on the mashed potatoes and discover what silk must taste like when it's crossed with butter. A vegetarian could make a fine little repast of the side dishes, including sauteed corn, bright green broccoli, lightly creamed spinach and string beans tossed with diced tomato and onion, though the asparagus is watery and the baked potato boring.

The Prime Rib pays more attention to its desserts than most steakhouses do, and as long as you're indulging yourself, you might as well loosen your belt for the tangy Key lime pie or the nut-packed pecan pie.

As befits the theme, this restaurant serves up a wine list that favors reds, especially cabernet sauvignon, the selection of which includes such stellar labels as Araujo, Dalla Valle and Opus One. Happily for those who aren't dining with Dan Snyder, there is a page of "30 Under $30" to mull over.

The Prime Rib refers to itself as "the civilized steak house," a promise it frequently delivers. But not always. One evening I look up from my $32.95 New York strip steak to see a busboy toting a big plastic bag of trash past my table. At lunch, a loopy waiter takes our order and returns less than five minutes later, ready to offer dessert.

Even at its off moments, though, the Prime Rib has the competition beat as far as comfort is concerned, from the leather chairs to the live piano, even at lunch. There are more delicious places to go for the classic steak experience, but none are as handsome, or as steeped in tradition, as this address, where the pampering starts right at the door.

The Prime Rib -- 2020 K St. NW. 202-466-8811.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company