Cheapskating with Victor: Slumming at the Prime Rib

The last time I visited the Prime Rib – this is going back a couple of years – I went with a friend and the meal was all wrong: an overcooked, under-seasoned steak, dried up oysters, chalky mashed potatoes, and a benign, expensive shrimp cocktail. The only thing that saved the night was getting pretty tipsy on their formidable martinis amidst the black-lacquer and gold, animal-and-floral printed room that looked like an interior designer circa 1982 threw up all over it.

Monday night, I bumped into the same friend, who was itching for something to do. And my wife was hosting her book club, which is basically my wife, our two toddlers, several of my wife’s girlfriends, and their toddlers, all destroying my house, using my utilities, drinking my beer, wine, and booze, and leaving the dishes for me to do the next morning, all under the premise of getting together to talk about The Happiness Project. Point is, I needed to kill a few hours.

I wanted to head to Stella for their Monday night $29-per-couple special, even though I’m pretty sure Stephen Starr wasn’t thinking of we two thirtysomething straight guys as a “couple”. Alas, neither of us is a student, nor has student ID, which is apparently required. My friend suggested we hit Chinatown, but I pretty much loathe Chinatown (with a few exceptions). I may be a cheapskate but I don’t fetishize greasy Chinese food.

Then I remembered that Prime Rib has been offering a daily $35 prix-fixe menu (you have to know to ask for it) and that Sunday through Tuesday, the restaurant allows you to BYO, corkage-free, which got my Cheapskating radar up. So we put aside our foul memories of a meal past and set off with a bottle of red and white in search of a high-value (if not cheap) meal, in our utterly unfancy, relatively disheveled attire, which a colleague suggested via text might get us the “stink-eye” at the stodgy steakhouse.

But there was no stink-eye, even though the staff was tuxedoed and the clientele, most of which had a good twenty to forty years on us, suited and dressed beyond the “business casual” suggested by the restaurant. Of course, we were well below that mark.

The maitre d didn’t exactly give us prime seating on the plush see-and-be-seen floor, though we were on the same level as Ed Snider (at least I’m 99% sure it was Ed) and other important (looking) people, who seemed to be having a relaxing evening as the sounds of the live pianist floated by. Our table was formally set – albeit with beat-to-hell gold-rimmed China and run-of-the-mill glassware – and festooned with fresh Gerber daisies (the see-and-be-seen tables, which we had full view of from our balcony table, get roses), candles, and fanned linen napkins atop linen tablecloths. No polyester here.

We informed our friendly server that we’d be opting for the $35 prix-fixe menu, which he brought along with the regular menus. He opened our wine, but my friend objected to the plebian glasses. “Could we get something sexier?” he asked. The waiter didn’t blink and came back quickly with something a bit more sophisticated. Not to be outdone, and testing the waiter’s tolerance level, I asked if he could decant our red. Keep in mind that we’re severely underdressed and that we’ve essentially already notified him of our intent to get out of there as cheaply as possible. To his credit, he decanted with a smile.

A full forty minutes after arrival our first tastes appeared, save for the warm but unmemorable bread. This was a pacing that would continue throughout the meal, though we couldn’t decide if service was slow, or if it was just meant to be relaxing.

For our first course, we actually ordered off of the regular menu, because we just had to retry the $18-for-four shrimp cocktail and the $17-for six oysters, which the waiter described as “mids from Long Island.” (The shrimp is not available on the prix fixe; the oysters are, but how do you divide three oysters?). The gigantor tiger shrimp were as unmemorable as before; the fact that there was no flavor in the boil explained the problem. We were given a choice of mignonette or cocktail sauce for the oysters, and, to further test the waiter’s mettle, I requested both.

Unlike our last visit, the oysters were plump and the shells filled with liquor. But $17 for six standard bivalves that they’re probably picking up for 40-cents each is a bit much. Keep in mind that a couple of blocks away at the Oyster House, you have a choice of five to eight different varieties (as opposed to the Prime Rib’s one option), and the most esoteric of the bunch are $17, with others available for as little as $13.

For our second course, which came from the $35 menu, we chose clams casino (3 pieces) and a Caesar. Though pedestrian in presentation, the casino was a satisfying combo of chopped clams, smoky slices of thick bacon and a balanced tomato sauce. The salad was enjoyable, but instead of cheese, garlic, and anchovy, all I got was a slight sweetness and vinegar flavors.

Next course. The four New Zealand lamb chops were a hit, and we ate them down to the bone. We had a choice of mint jelly or mango chutney, and again, asked for and received both. The prime rib was just adequate, and as the namesake dish of the restaurant, should have been better, $35 menu or not.

After we each took a bite of our family-style sides – the metallic, mealy mashed potatoes and overcooked green beans, which were dressed with some jar-like tomato mixture – we requested them switched out for the textbook creamed spinach and crispy steak fries, and our server was happy to make us so. Why they don’t offer a cheap-as-dirt baked potato on the prix fixe, I have no idea.

For dessert, we split an excellent slice of key lime pie with fresh Chantilly for dessert – my cohort called the crust “extraordinary” – and packed up the chocolate cake to go, but I left it at our nightcap spot, so I can’t tell you firsthand how it was. I’m told that the bartender’s girlfriend didn’t care for it, for what that’s worth.

Our check came to $113.40, thanks to the shrimp and oysters. That’s not a cheap night out at all, though with the BYO, the impressive, unflinching service, the grand (though cheesy) décor, and the steakhouse menu, it could be an extremely high-value, fancy date night out, if only the food would hit the mark.

I added a 20-percent tip*, and my friend whispered that he’d slip the waiter $10 more if he’d get us a cab. Just as he asked, the server opened the signed check (undoubtedly seeing the not excessive though not exactly unfair tip), and suggested we’d do better getting one ourselves.

We walked.

*CORRECTION: @KarenLeePA, you’re right, 20% would have been a bit on the low side. I just checked my receipt, and I actually left a $27 tip, which works out to about an extra $5 on the tip, or about 24%.

You might know Victor Fiorillo from his spirited writing in the magazine, his encyclopedic Weekender newsletter and his controversial Faker’s Mark investigation. But what you might not know about Victor is that he is pathologically frugal. And not just in the generally thrifty way we all like to think we are: this is a 36-year-old man who clips coupons and then sends emails bragging about how much he saved at the supermarket; who can tell you where to get dinner for four on the Main Line for less than $20 and who can sniff out an opportunity for a free meal from a mile down the road. This is someone who doesn’t just look for a deal: he glories in his tightwad stature. So for all of you who don’t mind saving a buck, Foobooz has put his talents to work for you.

  • KarenLeePA

    I have to comment on the tip. “Special” prix-fixe meals are priced below what they would charge ala carte. Given that it was a special, the substitutions, BYO, and requests for “both”, a 20% tip is far from adequate. Being miserly shouldn’t be uncouth. I only hope that others don’t follow your example. Here’s a tip: if you can’t afford to tip properly at an upscale place, don’t go. And please brush up on tip etiquette.

  • rechill

    24% is on the low side? Not very cheapskate.

  • Snake

    I’ve been underwhelmed every visit to Prime Rib and when you’re getting a prix fixe, you’re going to get poor value anyway.

    Shoulda gone back to the deli a few blocks up.

  • Rich

    After having the server do extra service, and complimentary wine service you should have left 30% on the low side.

  • Tex

    @ KarenLeePA: Why should the fact that the restaurant decides to price as a special entitle the server to a greater percentage as a tip? That fact alone doesn’t make additional work for him or her.

  • Tom Cardella

    Victor–Different strokes for different folks, but you lost all credibility with me when you complained about the prime rib–the best anywhere and worth the $35 itself. Also, wonder where you’ve been cheapskate dining where either the ambience or the stem ware is better? Your “testing” of the wait staff is sophmoric. Yeah, we like the prime Rib where you can actually hold a conversation while a piano is playing IT NEVER ENTERED MY MIND, something you obviously feel is “stodgy.”

  • booberry

    I hope I have never have the pleasure of waiting on you.

  • http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6815/9/9 Douglas H. King

    We are puzzled to see that Mr. Fiorillo did not enjoy his meals on 2/28/2011, and 6/25/2008. We hope that he takes heed of the evidence in last August’s BMC: Ear, Nose and Throat disorders (http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6815/9/9) with regards to the loss of taste functionality in chronic smokers. It is difficult to appreciate a meal when one leaves the table to smoke 3-4 times during dinner. Addressing this issue would not only help legitimize his food criticism, but also benefit his health at large. We are also confident that his inability to find flavor in the prime rib is not shared amongst the thousands of Zagat Surveyors (http://www.zagat.com/r/n/prime-rib-philadelphia/reviews#name-anchor) who have placed us as the top steakhouse for food and service in the City of Philadelphia (27 and 26 points respectively, out of 30).

    Sincerely,
    Douglas H. King
    Manager
    The Prime Rib of Philadelphia

  • M G Davis

    I find it interesting how people go into a restaurant with the mindset that they are not going to like the meal and then go out of their way to pick things apart. I find these people obnoxious and arrogant. What do they think it costs to operate a first class restaurant? Do they think the “cheesy” decoations are free? Is the piano player working for tips? When I go into a restaurant and I know the meal is at a special price, I go out of my way to tip the amount that the meal should have been. I am sure the Prime Rib and other similar restaurants would much prefer that Victor frequent the drive-thru at Checkers and have them critique the uneven placement of the pickles.

    I love the Prime Rib. When I want to go out for a special evening, that is one of the places I like to go. The service and the food are superb.

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