House of Prime Rib

The WYSIWYG principle
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Photo by Rory McNamara

paulr@sfbg.com

Beef: it's what's for dinner at House of Prime Rib, and it's pretty much all that's for dinner. There is a lonely listing for a fish of the day in a far corner of the menu; you must ask about the details. But really, we have no cause to complain, since if ever a restaurant honored the WYSIWYG principle, that restaurant would be House of Prime Rib. If you expect braised halibut cheeks or a timale of roasted winter vegetables to be served to you at a restaurant whose very name proclaims meat, you are inattentive to some of life's most basic clues, and we must fear for you.

HPR is probably the least grand of the city's high-profile beef emporiums. Nearby Harris' has a spare, high-ceilings-in-1948 elegance, while nearby (the other way) Ruth's Chris is a haven of plush intimacy, as if it were part of a Neiman-Marcus store. Morton's I haven't been to, but the steak aficionado assured me that it costs about twice as much as HPR for an experience that isn't drastically different.

The experience I was hoping to avoid was one of those immiserating episodes familiar to any holiday diner: cholesterol overload and soaring glycemic indexes. Beef is rich, and prime rib (marbled from feeding corn to the cattle) is the richest kind of beef you can have — and huge slabs of it, etcetera. Add to this the usual buttery accompaniments, and you soon picture your heavily intubated self departing on a gurney, pausing for a moment at the entryway while the valet pulls your ambulance around.

A departure by gurney might not attract all that much attention at HPR, since plying the dining room are carts that look like the sarcophagi of ancient Egyptian child-kings. Within these huge steel footballs are sides of roasted beef, and when the bell tolls for thee and thine, the cart rolls to your table and a crew starts slicing, putf8g, and distributing. The prudent will have settled on the city cut ($32.95, including all the fixin's), a single slice of boneless meat, nicely pink and juicy, big but not massive. The more ambitious might go for the weightier House of Prime Rib cut ($34.95, and you can get it on the bone if you prefer) or the English cut ($34.95), a fan of scaloppinelike thin slices. Let us not speak of the Henry VIII cut ($37.65), other than to note that it bears the name of that fellow who had the heads chopped off of some of his more unsatisfactory wives.

By the time the meat juggernaut reaches you, you will have seen the better part of the dinner's nonmeat componentry. There will have been a round loaf or two of warm, fragrant sourdough bread, presented with a serrated knife, like an ax in a tree stump, and a tub of good butter; there will have been the "salad bowl," a surprisingly tasty concert of iceberg lettuce, watercress, and slivers of roasted beet soaking luxuriously in French dressing.

The beef's sidekicks include choice of potato (mashed or baked), choice of creamed vegetable (spinach or corn), a chunk of Yorkshire pudding (basically a popover or savory pastry), and an array of horseradishes in ramekins. These range from the straight stuff, which soon finds its fiery way up your nose, to leash-broken versions cut with mayonnaise or sour cream. The horseradishes are flavorful enough — and even, in one case, thrilling — but the beef does not need them.

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