I suppose I could review House of Prime Rib (HOPR) as I would any other restaurant, talking about the food. But all I want to say about HOPR is that the prime rib is fabulous; the hot bread with butter that they service, with a knife sticking out of the bread, is always a dreamy start to a great meal; the salad that follows is unusually and insanely delicious and addictive–I challenge you to NOT finish it. The prime rib cuts are amazingly juicy, tender and flavorful with the three different kinds of horseradish offered (opt for the fresh one — spicy!) — and an extra slice of meat is offered to those who devour their first slice, but I’ve only met two people who could opt for that.
But HOPR is more than just a great meal — it’s an experience. Everything from the ambiance to the service, to the wine list and of course, the food, is a combined experience that is quintessentially San Francisco. New York has Peter Luger; San Francisco has HOPR. Starting with the fantastic hosts in suits and looking dapper, to the hilarious and friendly old-school servers in vests — HOPR impresses.
My first time at HOPR was about ten years ago. A bunch of friends and I got together and someone suggested prime rib, and off we went to this landmark restaurant in the city. We all ordered the House of Prime Rib cut — a hefty portion of meat, along with many, many bottles of wine (I was much younger then). When they brought the bread out, we pigged out unaware of all of the food that was soon to follow. When they brought out the salad, most of us were a bit mesmerized as we watched our server spin and mix a huge salad — while I noted how basic this salad was consisting mostly of iceberg lettuce and some strips of beets. One bite with the chilled fork and I was hooked; if I recall correctly, I finished off another friend’s leftover salad as it was THAT good. By the time the meat came out, we were all buzzed, talking entirely too loud (though nobody minded as the everyone here is enjoying themselves at a rather high volume), and combining one bite of meat with one sip of Pinot Noir, we finished off the meal down to the last bite. It was a great way to enhance a great night with friends. Good food and wine makes everything better, no?
All of us needed gurneys to roll out of there that night. A few of us (I won’t say I was one of them) needed the parking meters in front to use as support while we waited for our cars. (Oh, they have valet parking here!)
Another time I came here, we sat in a huge booth and feasted for hours. Having just returned from Japan and Korea, and having had so much Asian food, sake and soju — I was dying to have some good American meat. And I needed wine in a bad way. I was on the 15 hour flight back thinking of nothing but HOPR and wondering if my flight would make it in time to run to this restaurant for dinner.
“Dear God, please let us make it back to SFO before HOPR closes. Thanks, AMEN!”
It did arrive on time — and as we vowed to do, we ran to HOPR upon landing. It was the only time I visited HOPR and didn’t start off with a Martini. (You try drinking sake and soju for weeks and see if you want vodka!)
Despite the jet lag, it was a three hour meal full of laughter and winding down from a 2.5 week vacation. The freeway, the big cars, the bread and the meat all reminded me of why, no matter what, I’m an American through and through. I could never live anywhere else forever; I’d have to return to the US to live big, at least a few times a year. Two big bottles of Napa wine with American meat made for a downright jubilant meal. We even finished off with some fantastic (American) apple pie and some Cognac.
Over the years, I must have come 40-50 more times. For special but semi-casual occasions, HOPR was great to celebrate with friends. For business meetings, HOPR was ideal; fancy enough to be professional but active and loud enough to remain fun. For dates – all it told me was the guy had good taste (if I didn’t suggest it myself). Birthday parties, girls’ night out, bachelorette parties — we’ve had it all here.
More recently, about a year and a half ago, Mr. K took me here on our second “date but non-date” at my insistence; he told me he didn’t like House of Prime Rib.
I know. The world just went off-kilter for you, too, right?”
I remember walking in and he was sitting a two-top by the bar having a scotch; I ordered my regular martini, and our conversation began. It was one of the most unusual conversations of my life in that my dining companion and I were as different as night and day.
Quite literally, if I liked black, he liked white; if he liked standing, I liked sitting; if I loved food, he “ate to live”; if I abhorred sleeping, he could sleep for days on end — and so forth. It was almost like two people who didn’t even speak the same language, except we did — and in a strange and fascinating kind of way, it was intriguing to be around someone so drastically different from myself. But House of Prime Rib, he began to like that day.
Looking back, it’s mind-boggling and peculiar that there were so many other dinners after this one — but there were, and they were all good. Who’d have known that a short time later, I’d be crazy about the bizarre (to me) person sitting in front of me who had absolutely nothing — and I mean NOTHING — in common with me.
He learned to like eating good food; I learned to be at least remotely curious about politics. He learned about clothes; I learned about self-hosted WordPress, ha. I am satisfied that he now asks on his own to go to House of Prime Rib.
Keep this in mind: when at HOPR, you have to save room for dessert. This tiramisu might be the best one in this city — it’s made in-house and it’s downright perfect. Pair it with some house coffee and you want for nothing more.
Also great on the dessert menu is the apple pie a la mode — you’ll be surprised that one way or another, you will find room for this in your already full stomach.
Anyway, no more stories. But that’s the way it is with House of Prime Rib. It’s been there forever; memories are made here. Conversations take place here….life happens here. I think with most of us who have been coming to House of Prime Rib, we remember the experience more than the food, which is always consistent. That’s what makes this place a landmark in San Francisco for many of us who live here. After so many visits, I now can stroll through this 60+ year old establishment and look at one seat to reminisce about one dinner, and another booth to recall yet another occasion. If I try hard enough, I can sometimes even see the dinner unfolding before my eyes in that seat — despite it being filled with other people now. I know what happened in which dining area of this huge restaurant, and I know who was our server that evening. I recollect who was together then, and which couples are no more. I can remember who went to the restroom with me and what was said, and I definitely remember how I felt on those evenings, whether I was blissfully in love, hopeful, heartbroken or just happy to be alive.
I suspect I’m not the only one who has this many memories at HOPR. Serving up excellent food for 60+ years must yield a whole lot of memories for countless San Francisco residents and visitors. Long after we forget and we move on, the walls of HOPR will know. Long after we’re done sitting in those booths, a little bit of us is left behind, contributing to the classically aged and old-school atmosphere of this wonderful establishment.
Addictive Factor: 9.8/10
Overall Rating: 9.35/10
Grace Keh is the author of "Food Lovers' Guide to San Francisco" and the critic, editor and photographer behind San Francisco Food. In her regular day job, she consults for corporate clients in marketing and event strategy. Once the sun sets, she's on the hunt for great food in what she considers to be one of the world's greatest cities, San Francisco.