The WYSIWYG principle
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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. If ever you need reminding, in fact, why good beef is the chef's best friend, an elegant food that barely needs salt and pepper and scarcely any cooking, then a visit to HPR is in order.
And if you happen to be in the company of small children who don't like vegetables, then HPR's vegetables will appeal. The mashed potatoes are buttery, while the baked potato is topped by a flourish of sour cream. The spinach and corn are as creamy as their names suggest. We did indeed see a number of tables featuring small children, none of whom seemed to be squalling or otherwise rejecting the food being set before them. They were under the spell of fat.
Is HPR a kiddie restaurant, then? No, though kiddies are welcome; so too are tourists from foreign lands (or people we took to be tourists, on data that included their slow, accented English and strange shoes), family groups of various ethnicities, and that increasingly rare bird here plain, middle-aged, middle-American folk, people for whom a nice dinner must include meat and potatoes in some recognizable form, in a handsome but not overwrought setting with the warmth of Grandmama's dining room.
House of Prime Rib is, in this sense, one of the dwindling number of outposts of this city's dwindling middle class. Youth and wealth and our peculiar, much-celebrated amalgam of the two congregate elsewhere. Beef, meanwhile, doesn't command the audience of yesteryear; the food cognoscenti tend toward fish (for reasons of health and vanity) and often away from flesh altogether. Dinner, under the new regime, no longer must include a big slab of red meat and a blob of potatoes. In fact, it probably shouldn't.
Still, we all have our cravings for those very foods from time to time, and for an old-time atmosphere to enjoy them in. House of Prime Rib's pleasures might be atavistic, but they are real enough, even a form of time travel, back to an era when the youthful rich weren't quite so much with us. 2
HOUSE OF PRIME RIB
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 5:3010 p.m.; Fri., 510 p.m.; Sat., 4:3010 p.m.; Sun., 410 p.m.
1906 Van Ness, SF