Courtesy of Jessica Barraco
I step into Lawry’s Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard for the first time in six years; the very same place I spent most family celebrations and birthdays before my mom passed away. The only establishment where my mother was a waitress. The place she felt was her home away from home. Although when my mother worked there in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was called The Westside Broiler, it served matching cuisine and grew into the famous restaurant, Lawry’s, that we all know of today. If you haven’t dined there before, you might have seen Lawry’s Seasoning Salt in your local grocery store (it goes great on French fries) or been to one of their other restaurants, such as Five Crowns in Corona Del Mar, California.
Had I come to Lawry’s to eat the delectable prime rib, carved table-side (my choice is the English cut, sliced thin)? Or to savor the flaky, buttery traditional English side, Yorkshire pudding? To indulge in doughnuts or vanilla bean ice cream? I can’t say that I wasn’t planning on eating all of the above, but that wasn’t my main purpose for reserving a table at Lawry’s that Thursday night. I had made a reservation with my mom’s past.
I was still marveling at the spaciousness of the restaurant. The sheer size of it is remarkable. The dining room has incredibly high ceilings; ones that you would expect in a performing arts center, not a restaurant. I was suddenly interrupted with “Miss Barraco, your table is ready.” I was then introduced to the reception staff: “This is Jessica. Her mother used to work here many years ago, so please take good care of her.” Everyone beamed and waved at me. Nowhere else could you possibly get better service. It was the place where my mom learned that the customer was always right (even if they were lying or exaggerating, or if it was their own piece of hair found in their salad). I expected this type of greeting, and had already struck up a conversation with a bartender who worked with my mom over 40 years ago. He heard I was in the restaurant, and came over to my table to say hello. The man stared at me for a good few seconds. “No kidding! I have pictures of Dianne and me. Your mama! Wow. We used to go party — you know, out dancing, everything.” He kept giggling to himself. “She was crazy, you know. Lots of fun!”
Waitresses wear English maiden outfits there, with poofy sleeves and half-bonnets. There’s something comforting about this; the restaurant hasn’t felt pressure to modernize itself after all this time.
When my mom was a waitress there, the restaurant drew a very famous Hollywood crowd: Mohammad Ali, Stevie Wonder, the cast of Dallas, and Rock Hudson, to name a few. Hudson took a special affinity toward my mom (perhaps it was because she spun the best Famous Original Spinning Bowl Salad), and even as she worked during her years in cancer treatments, she and Hudson became friends. When my mom came home from the hospital after her first cancer surgery, she returned to red roses and a note from Hudson. Legend has it that when my grandmother opened the door to receive them she squealed in excitement, like a teenage fan-girl.
Even after our family moved out of the Los Angeles area, my mom would still have to go to her doctors at Cedars-Sinai in LA. She would always stop by Lawry’s to visit and see her old manager. She considered him to be a great friend and confidante, and it was evident she never wanted to totally disengage from the Lawry’s group.
I grew up in Orange County and spent birthdays going to the closest Lawry’s establishment to our home: Five Crowns. I loved to see the staff in the funny costumes, to have my favorite dessert (vanilla bean crème brûlée) and, of course, Yorkshire pudding. My mom loved the creamed spinach and whipped cream horseradish, although she wouldn’t allow herself to indulge in too much of either of it. Sometimes, she would tell the waitress she used to work at Lawry’s, and that would grant us a private tour of the kitchen. It’s a real thrill when you are nine to see a massive kitchen in action.
At home, we didn’t eat French fries or corn on the cob without it being doused in a generous helping of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt. When Lawry’s Carvery (the casual version of the restaurant) opened up in our local mall, I remember desperately wanting to tell my mom. “Mom, now people can go shopping and then get Lawry’s! All in a day,” I’d say. I wasn’t sure if she would be happy or disgusted. I know she felt Lawry’s was supposed to be savored, not rushed through on a sad, beige tray.Lawry’s feels like an extended member of my family. The former and current staff who helped me get to know my mother better by telling me their memories with her went on to influence my investigative memoir about her, The Butterfly Groove: A Mother’s Mystery, A Daughter’s Journey, which was published last week.
Back at dinner, I hear a loud noise reverberate throughout the restaurant; it sounded like a gong. “What was that?” I ask my mom’s old manager as I interviewed him for my book. “It’s a tradition: it means a fresh pot of coffee was made,” he said. “I think I could use a cup with this vanilla bean crème brûlée,” I say with a smile.
Lawry’s feels like an extended member of my family. The former and current staff who helped me get to know my mother better by telling me their memories with her went on to influence my investigative memoir about her, The Butterfly Groove: A Mother’s Mystery, A Daughter’s Journey, which was published last week. They have so many memories of her at the restaurant: some good (eating lukewarm prime rib dinners in the walk-in refrigerator after shifts, late-night drinks at the bar), and some not so good (being held at gunpoint in the back room — everyone was OK). It seems as though if Lawry’s could talk, it would have a real mouthful.