R.J.’s for Ribs
R.J.’s for Ribs was one of many restaurants opened in Southern California by a man named Bob Morris who was kind of the Johnny Appleseed of restaurants. Mr. Morris made his fame with Gladstone’s, the venerable seafood eatery out by the beach. Folks who went there when he ran it still talk about how great it was when it was wholly under his control. The current Gladstone’s bears little resemblance to that fine eatery but Morris now owns and operates the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe up in Malibu that more or less combines what was great about the old Gladstone’s with what was great about R.J.’s, which he operated in Beverly Hills at 252 N. Beverly Drive until 2006.
R.J.’s was a fun place with reasonable prices and the emphasis was, of course, on ribs. Whereas most rib joints specialize in pork, Gladstone’s did special things with the largest beef ribs I’d ever seen. Their pork ribs were fine — no complaints there — but the beef ribs were huge and meaty and tender. I usually opted for a combo of beef ribs and chicken. Their chicken was very, very good. Everything there was and so R.J.’s was very successful…and imitated. I’m not sure if Mr. Morris was involved in it but out on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, in a building that’s now a Buca di Beppo, there was a restaurant called Adam’s Ribs that was a near-clone. It was not quite as good but it came close.
Like most Bob Morris restaurants, R.J.’s had…
- A very, very long salad bar with items you usually don’t see in a salad bar. I brought vegetarian friends there and they were very happy to graze while I gnawed on animal flesh.
- Sawdust on the floor. And interesting things on the walls, mainly photos of old Los Angeles. Once, I spotted a photo I liked so much (it was of a fave childhood haunt) that I called Mr. Morris’s office and they gave me the name of the photographer/archivist they got them from. Then I called him and ordered a print.
- The Bob Morris Clam Chowder. Folks raised in New England would sometimes say, “That’s not how clam chowder’s supposed to be. It’s too thick.” And it was thick. But not having been raised in New England, I thought it was the best white clam chowder I ever had. You can still get it at his current establishment.
- Monster-sized desserts. People would order the chocolate cake and be stunned at what they got: A slice big enough to carve up and share with six people, with gobs of whipped cream on the side. It was also unbelievably rich and moist. Once when I was there with one person, we didn’t want to order the cake because we weren’t going home after. The people at the next table heard us and handed us the unconsumed cake they were left with after stuffing themselves. We ate all we could and then handed it off to strangers at yet another table. I have a feeling they weren’t the last in that food chain.
- Decorative “to go” wrappings. It wasn’t just the cake that most folks took home to eat the next day (and maybe the next and the next…) I always took home ribs and/or chicken from my colossal-sized entree. R.J.’s was known for huge portions and few could finish them on the premises. The bus boys were all trained to wrap your overage in gold aluminum foil and then to sculpt the package into a swan or other artistic creation. It was like making balloon animals with your leftovers. I used to challenge them: “Hey, how about an aardvark? Or a puma?”
- New items. I went to R.J.’s about twice a month and there always seemed to be something on the menu that hadn’t been there before. Once, it was something called The 1,000 Year Old Baked Potato. It was a huge potato that was served at your table in a crockery shell. Allegedly, it had been encased like a mummy in a shell of brick that was stamped and numbered, then baked underground in a pit for ten centuries or something. Your server broke open the shell with a little hammer and then served you your potato with a tray of about a dozen condiments including caviar and real, just-cooked bacon bits.
- Other little touches. Coffee was served with a side cup of whipped cream and another of chocolate morsels. The chowder came with a soup mandel, which is kind of like a big Jewish crouton. Sometimes, there was a little appetizer bar of cheese and crackers and other goodies to munch on. and there were always open bins of free peanuts while you waited for your table. On a Friday, Saturday or Sunday evening (sometimes on a weeknight), that could be a long wait.
That was the main downside of R.J.’s, at least at the peak of its popularity: The wait. That was a problem out at the old Gladstone’s, too. An 8 PM reservation meant you started waiting for a table at 8 PM and were fortunate to be seated by, say, 8:45. Even though they provided snacks, it could be frustrating and there was the clear and present feeling that it was deliberate; that they wanted you to spend heavily at the bar before they’d seat you. The bar, like everything else there except the prices, was huge. They’d boast of having 600 different beers or 800 different beers…the number kept changing but it was always believable, given what you saw there. There were as many non-beer alcoholic beverages, as well. Eventually though, you’d get your table and about the time your clam chowder arrived, you’d start feeling it was worth the wait. In case you can’t tell, I really liked this place.
And there was a way around the wait, sort of. I had this friend named Stanley Ralph Ross, a prolific TV writer and occasional restaurant critic. Stanley was a friend of Bob Morris…one who claimed to have suggested the name of Gladstone’s. (Given Stanley’s tendency to exaggerate, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Morris did not agree.) When I told him of an excruciatingly long wait at R.J.’s one night, Stanley said, “You need a Farkleberry Card,” and before I could ask what the hell that was, Stanley was on the phone to Bob Morris’s office, convincing some nice lady there to send me one. It turned out to be a blue plastic card not unlike a credit card in look and feel but it didn’t buy anything. Instead, you flashed it quietly to the hostess to tell her you were some sort of privileged friend of R.J.’s…I guess. It was supposed to get you a table swiftly (or even sans reservation) but I’m not sure it ever sped the seating process and I never dared go there without a reservation. Still, I told myself after waiting just under an hour for a table, “Just think how long it would take without the card.” And I did feel privileged in some odd way.
Eventually, R.J.’s went away in stages. Morris sold it to others and they took it downhill farther and faster than the folks who’d ruined Gladstone’s. The last time I was there, they had notices up that they were moving, location unspecified. On the sly, the hostess told me the owners had just signed a lease on a place on Santa Monica Boulevard near La Cienega and that they’d be up and running there in less than two months. This was in 2006 and I’m starting to get the feeling that ain’t gonna happen.