Few L.A. restaurants can match the history, grandeur, and enduring popularity of Lawry’s The Prime Rib, a restaurant with tableside service that opened on La Cienega Boulevard’s Restaurant Row in 1938. Ryan Wilson, a Bay Area native and co-founder Lawrence L. Frank’s great grandson, first joined the company at Five Crowns in Corona del Mar. He rose through the ranks to lead kitchens at Tam O’Shanter in Atwater Village, Lawry’s Carvery at L.A. Live and Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Shanghai and Osaka. Wilson worked as Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Lawry’s Restaurants, Inc. before becoming their Chief Marketing + Strategy Officer. To ensure Lawry’s flagship L.A. restaurant never feels stale, he and COO Tiffany Stith recently refreshing Lawry’s The Prime Rib menu, making sure to keep beloved classics. I interviewed Wilson by e-mail to get his insights on the family business and his continually evolving role.
Josh Lurie: What’s your very first memory of Lawry’s The Prime Rib?
Ryan Wilson: My first memory of Lawry’s was the 1993 crossing from the location across the street. We closed down La Cienega Boulevard to walk the carts across the street. There was much fanfare and I remember the image of my grandfather Richard Frank walking across the street next to Walter Eckstein our Executive Chef at the time. I grew up in the Bay Area so I was not a regular visitor.
JL: Was it a given that you’d join the family business, or did you consider other careers?
RW: No, in fact my grandfather encouraged me to leave the restaurant business at a time when I was deeply enthralled with professional cooking and being a chef. After college, I was considering a career in Ski Resort Management as I was a passionate skier growing up, but a series of bad skiing accidents necessitated a departure from mountain living.
JL: What have been some of the biggest challenges that Lawry’s The Prime Rib has faced over the years?
RW: We are always challenged by securing enough quality beef to meet our volume and our standards. But more specific to operating our restaurants today, recruiting and retaining great coworkers from senior management to dishwashers is probably our most pressing concern.
JL: How does Lawry’s balance staying flexible to meet changing dining preferences with staying true to a timeless concept?
RW: Frankly, this was one of the goals and drivers of making the menu changes that we launched in June. We will always keep the classic Lawry’s experience center stage and somewhat sacred, but by adding a number of other menu items that are lighter, more vegetable forward while still being delicious, we think that our concept will allow for different uses and guest experiences.
JL: What are the criteria for new dishes that make Lawry’s menu? How do they complement the classics?
RW: We don’t have strict criteria, but I always want new items to have a timelessness and approachability while still reflecting some measure of seasonality.
JL: If you were to construct a dream dinner featuring Lawry’s dishes (old and new), which dishes would you choose? Also, who else would join you at the table?
Frankly, there is not much I would change to the Classic Lawry’s meal of our Spinning Bowl Salad and Lawry’s cut of Prime rib with spinach and Yorkshire pudding. I would keep my dream dinner simple and nostalgic and invite my wife Nicole and grandparents, Richard and Mary Alice Frank, who passed away a few years ago.