Last week marked the official end of the 2017 holiday season, and with it passed one of L.A.’s most exclusive annual food events: Lawry’s Beef Bowl. It’s so exclusive, in fact, you may have never heard of it.
Since 1956, Lawry’s The Prime Rib, the iconic chophouse on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, has invited the two NCAA football teams competing in that year’s Rose Bowl to indulge in an epic meal a few days before the big game, celebrating elite athletic accomplishments with a legendary Southern California meal: the “signature” chilled spinning salad, thick-cut prime rib, creamed corn, mashed potatoes, a river of brown gravy, and apple pie á la mode (everyone manages to save room, somehow).
The annual guest list? Two full rosters of linemen, receivers, running backs, and tackles (the Oklahoma Sooners and Georgia Bulldogs this year; the teams dine on separate nights) plus coaching staff, athletic personnel, Tournament of Roses officials, and a select group of California highway patrolmen (who not only escort the teams from their practice facility to Lawry’s, but also throw on bowties to walk arm in arm with the Tournament of Roses Queen and her princesses to their rib-slicing table).
Lawry’s founder and Pasadena native, the late Richard N. Frank, once described the Beef Bowl as “the greatest meal in America,” and given how much pageantry the event involves, he might be onto something.
On an unseasonably warm late-December day, valets dressed in black-and-white referee uniforms shuttle cars as a marching band tunes its instruments behind a backdrop of afternoon traffic along La Cienega’s Restaurant Row. Red and black Georgia balloons grace the entrance (the day before it was the Sooners’ red and white), as inside the restaurant waiters, managers, and chefs put the finishing touches on the dining room.
The marching band lets loose outside, signaling to waitresses dressed in old-school brown-and-white dresses and chefs wearing comically tall white toques that their guests have arrived. They rush toward the entrance, clapping with vigor as they line a medium-rare-red carpet leading out toward the street. A police motorcycle escort speeds into view trailed by a lineup of colossal buses; the band begins playing Georgia’s fight song, “Glory,” as every vehicle comes to a stop in the middle of La Cienega. Doors pop open, allowing a stream of players and coaches—all dressed in casual clothes emblazoned with the school’s insignia—to stride triumphantly toward the evening’s meaty dream dinner.
Like most fine-dining meals, the Beef Bowl begins with bread, warm, crusty sourdough with spreadable butter for days. To drink, only the finest pitchers of Coke and Sprite for these student athletes, who despite looking exhausted from the pre-Rose Bowl grind, are in good spirits, posing for a gaggle of photographers moving in circles around them. Nearby, a blond reporter from ABC7 talks excitedly into a microphone, interviewing Lawry’s employees as she passes the outer booths of the room, which quickly fill up with Tournament of Roses invitees in cocktail attire. The lights dim and a spotlight hits the hastily assembled stage; a booming, disembodied voice welcomes everyone and directs attention to a retractable screen where a short montage of the history of the Rose Bowl plays. In it, Keith Jackson’s voice reminds tonight’s team that “the whole world will be watching.” The young athletes don’t seem remotely struck by this. One of the biggest moments of their lives is just two days away, yet the sourdough breadbasket and butter has rightfully consumed their attention.
And then it’s spinning salad time as a team captain is asked on stage to lead the simultaneous ceremonial pouring of the dressings into chilled rotating bowls of romaine, iceberg, and baby spinach. While the crowd enjoys the julienned beets, and chopped egg combo, images of Desmond Howard, Ronnie Lott, Keyshawn Johnson, and other great Rose Bowl players from the past flash on the retractable screen. This is mostly ignored as everyone’s busy crushing drenched croutons between their teeth while Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts out of every speaker. Once salad plates are wiped clean, anticipation builds for the main event. Players scan the room, hungry for protein, as they text and Instagram and toss around the miniature game-day footballs that decorate each table.
As the men in tall white hats wheel Lawry’s antique silver prime rib carts into the room, an intoxicating gamey aroma fills the space. The rosy prime rib is cut into thick slabs, piled onto plates, and devoured. Seconds are ordered, speeches are made, more highlights are played, and out comes the apple pie to delighted faces in every direction. In total, nearly 500 pounds of prime rib are wolfed down before the evening concludes.
After both events have concluded, Lawry’s chefs unofficially tally up the damage (officially, Lawry’s does not consider the event a competition and thus doesn’t declare a winner). But according to that ABC7 reporter, the Georgia Bulldogs eeked out a win over the Oklahoma Sooners, putting away more pounds of beef than their storied rivals. On New Year’s Day, history repeats itself as the Bulldogs win the Rose Bowl in a double-overtime instant classic. Maybe, just maybe, it was that extra helping of prime rib that pushed them over the goal line.
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