It’s a three quarters of a century old, but can it satisfy modern palates?

House of Prime Beef is a San Francisco institution. The busy restaurant has been serving slabs of beef, sides and desserts for generations – it turned 75 years old this year. And yet I hadn’t heard about it until a few years ago, when photos of decadent dinners there started showing on a local foodie Facebook group. Surely, I must have come across mentions of the restaurant before, as I have been patronizing Bay Area food newsgroups since the 90’s, but I probably just never paid attention. Given how easy it’s to cook steak at home, I’ve never seen the point of paying many times more to visit a steakhouse. So when my non-vegetarian daughter mentioned she wanted to go to a steakhouse for her birthday, House of Prime Rib is what popped to mind.

Alas, House of Prime Rib is not the kind of restaurant where you can make a last minute reservation – and by “last minute”, I mean “with less than six months notice.” House of Prime Rib opens its reservations a year in advance, and prime spots are taken pretty much immediately. You can go when they open and hope you get lucky and get a table, but I’m too old for that. Instead, I made reservations for her birthday at Bix (lovely place, great for a special meal) but also took the first available reservations at House of Prime Rib for a weekend night at a reasonable time. That turned out to be almost seven months later. We had a good enough experience that I already made reservations to return next year.

Despite the difficulty in getting reservations, House of Prime Ribs is a rather large restaurant, boasting several dining rooms in addition to the crowded bar area. They serve 600 people every evening. Each dining room, however, feel rather intimate, like a restaurant in itself. I loved the atmosphere of the one we were in, it looked like dining in someone’s old fashioned library. It was darker than this photo suggests, but light enough to be able to see our meals. It was busy but not terribly noisy, we could hear each other well. Dress was business casual – most men had collared shirts and, this being chilly San Francisco, long pants. The restaurant was a nice temperature but you do have to walk outside.

The menu at House of Prime Rib is quite limited, your choices are Prime Rib or, as a concession to those who absolutely can’t eat red meat, fish. You can choose how your prime rib is cut and how well it’s cooked, whether you want salad, or whether you want your potatoes mashed or baked. Otherwise, your only choices are of drinks and of desserts. Service is by old time professional waiters who bring you back to another age and make you feel special. Indeed, feeling like you’re back in the 50’s is a big attraction of this place.

We started our dinner with cocktails. They bring you both the glass and the mixing bottle – which has enough for another cocktail. As the cocktails are not very big, this is a good thing. I got a Cosmopolitan ($15.5); I asked for it to be made weak and it was. It was delicious, particularly at the bottom where I could really taste the Triple Sec. Next time, I’ll order it normal. Both Mike and Camila thought it was very sour, but it didn’t feel like that to me. Mike had the Lemon Drop ($15.5). He liked it very much and would have it again. Camila had a couple of Shirley Temple mocktails ($3) and we both thought they were very good as well.

The meal itself started with white bread and salted butter. The bread was served warm, it tasted fresh, and it was very good. It took effort to not fill ourselves with it. Later, they brought us little warm corn breads which I thought were delicious, though I’m a huge fan of warm cornbread in general. Camila, who is not, gave me hers.

After the bread, the waiter brought a cart featuring a large bowl with ice and a large salad bowl inserted into it. I thought that the salad would be mixed tableside, but it comes already mixed, all the waiter does is very ceremoniously add the salad dressing, spin it and toss it. It’s sort of a show. Unfortunately, the show was better than the salad. I was concerned that the salad had beets and chopped eggs, two things I disliked, but fortunately those ended at the bottom of my plate. Unfortunately, I found the dressing too acidic for my taste and just not very tasty. Camila agreed – we both barely ate any a few lettuce leaves before deciding it just wasn’t for us.

You can only omit the salad by ordering your Prime Rib a a la carte, but you currently you can only get Prime Rib slices if you do so.

I knew that I wanted to get dessert, and that meant that I would not be able to eat a steak by myself – thus I decided to share a King Henry VIII cut ($68) with Mike. The sharing fee is just $10 and they bring you your own plate with salad and sides. The King Henry cut is thick and includes a bone. It was the perfect size for two not-too-hungry people. It was also delicious, perfectly cooked medium rare, juicy with a melt-in-your-mouth feel. I’m not a particularly big fan of Prime Rib – give me a grilled or pan-seared steak any day – but you could feel the quality of the meat as well as the expertise in cooking it and cutting it. I’d clearly have it again.

The steak comes with creamed spinach and we asked for mashed potatoes. Mike loved the creamed spinach, he actually made us try it, though to me it tasted just like the abomination that creamed spinach is. But hey, if you don’t think cream spinach is Satan’s own invention, you might like it too. The mashed potatoes were great, though a bit too runny. I’d have wanted a spoon to eat them with. I did love the gravy they came with, it had a deep meaty flavor that I’ve seldom actually encountered in gravy. If I could have eaten any more, I’d have asked for more mashed potatoes. I don’t think the sauce the steak came with was the same gravy, however, as I was less fond of it – it lacked that meatiness and had little depth.

The meal also came with a Yorkshire pudding and this was a revelation. I’d unsuccessfully tried to make them myself once, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually eaten them at a restaurant (surely when I went to England? but I can’t remember). In any case, they weren’t at all what I expected. One flattish Yorkshire pudding, cooked in a small pan, was cut in three and served to us. It had an airy but very eggy consistency, sort of like a very eggy crepe. I’m not a fan of egg myself, but I liked the silkiness of the texture and the subtle egg flavor. I just wish I had liked the sauce the meat came with better.

Camila had the City Cut ($59) which is their smallest serving, and had it well done. She only ate about 2/3rs of it as it was. She thought it was very good; I thought it was dry – but that’s what you get for ordering “well done” beef. She was underwhelmed by the baked potato, however. It had sour cream and chives but no other seasoning, so she mostly left it uneaten. She also skipped ordering the spinach.

House of Prime Ribs has a long list of delicious and very classical sounding desserts, but I had decided on the Strawberry Shortcake ($12.5) in advance. Though the desserts are listed as single serving, this one, at least, was large enough to share. It was delicious, but mostly on account the of the strawberries and cream. I don’t think the cake was a shortcake, it was too sweet with an annoying vanilla flavor, and too light. I daresay it may be the same sponge cake they use in the trifle. Still, the strawberries were fresh, ripe and sweet and the natural syrup from them was delicious. Back in Argentina, strawberries and cream is a common restaurant dessert and I really don’t know why it’s not in the US. It really doesn’t get better than that.

Mike had the Creme Brulee ($12.5), which was also a very generous portion. It was also very good, but not spectacular as I think there isn’t much that can be done to improve creme brulee from its classical presentation. Still, as far as creme brulees went, this was very well executed.

In all, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the meal. These were all American classics, not gourmet food in the least, but well executed and very universally appealing. I also really enjoyed the atmosphere of the restaurant. The one minus is that the whole meal went very fast. We were in and out in just an hour. Now, it’s not that we were rushed – though it’s obvious the name of the game for them is turning tables – but that the dishes were cleared so quickly (albeit after we’d finished) and new ones were brought right away. As we were with an impatient teen this wasn’t totally a bad thing, but if I went there with adults, I’d like to enjoy a more leisurely meal – which I guess we’ll have to force ourselves through pacing our own eating.

House of Prime Rib
1906 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA
M - F 5 - 10 PM
Sa - Su 4- 10 PM

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