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Food & Drink

Secrets of a San Francisco institution: How to order off-menu at House of Prime Rib

Food writer Omar Mamoon visits one of San Francisco's most famous restaurants, House of Prime Rib, which has had just two owners since 1949.

“House of Prime Rib?” my Uber driver asks as I get into the car. “Ooh, I like that place. But if you go there, you have to fast for a month.”

I laugh. I’m so excited. Every single time, dining at the House of Prime Rib, the iconic meat mecca on Van Ness Avenue, is such a joy. The rattle of martinis. The packed, buzzing dining room. Chefs in toques wheeling around shiny steel zeppelins, carving meat tableside. 

Everyone loves House of Prime Rib—or HOPR, as fans tend to abbreviate it. Locals and tourists alike line up for it. 

One of the hosts mentioned to me recently that Keanu Reeves had visited the week before and sat at the same table where I sat during my last visit—the corner booth in the back, behind the main dining room. 

The Pretty F*cking Good logo is a a hand serving up the title on a plate.

HOPR is the sort of over-the-top calorie splurge you tend to have once a year, and I—like Keanu—especially love this restaurant during the holiday season. It just feels so festive. The shiny red and gold ornaments. The white Christmas lights. The pine green wreaths everywhere. I don’t celebrate Christmas, but the dining room during December at HOPR sure makes me wish I did.

Just two owners have overseen the almost 75-year-old institution: Lou Balaski, who founded the restaurant in 1949, and Joe Betz, who bought the place from Balaski in 1985. 

Betz, now a sprightly 84, has enlisted his son, Steven, to help with day-to-day management and heavy lifting. “I couldn’t do it without him,” says Joe.

But Betz Sr. can be found daily greeting guests in the dining room, and he still tastes spoonfuls of creamed spinach and mashed potatoes for seasoning before the start of service for “quality assurance.”

Two people standing in a wine room of the House of Prime Rib.
House of Prime Rib owner Joe Betz, left, and his son, Steven Betz. Joe Betz bought House of Prime Rib from Lou Balaski in 1985 and brought on Steven to help manage the restaurant. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Part of the fun of House of Prime Rib is figuring out what cut you’re going to get. There are four options. From smallest to largest: The City Cut, the House of Prime Rib Cut, The English Cut (which is the same portion as the HOPR cut, just cut in thinner slices), and the King Henry VIII Cut (the largest cut, “for king-size appetites,” which comes on a bone). Each dinner is accompanied by salad prepared tableside, mashed or baked potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and creamed spinach. No matter which option you go with, you will happily roll home.

As for me, I tend to go off-menu. A few years ago, I wrote about HOPR’s Secret Menu after learning that you could get your prime rib briefly seared (so that it eats more like a ribeye steak) or the King Henry in the English Cut, giving you the best of both worlds: more meat, cut thinner and more tender, plus you get the bone to chew on. I’ll sometimes ask them to sear the bone beforehand, if I’m in the mood, which creates a crispy crust and gives it a nice chew.

It’s no secret that if you’re somehow still hungry, you can order seconds, and chefs will carve you off an additional small slice of meat. After discovering this, I  would always ask for a slice of the end cut, which is a salty, crispy, well-done piece from the end of the rib.

But on a recent visit, it occurred to me that I could request the end cut for my first round, and I could have it cut any which way I pleased. Requesting the King Henry end cut produced a single piece of meat unlike anything I’ve eaten in my dozens of visits to HOPR over the years: You get the crispy, salty well-done bit combined with a nice thick slice of tender, chewy beef that goes from medium all the way down to medium rare. There’s a variety of eating experiences in one bite, and it’s PFG. But then again—every cut at HOPR is, no matter how you slice it.

A slice of King Henry VIII English Cut.
The King Henry end cut is highly recommended for its deep flavor profile—but it has to be specially requested. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

There are a few additional pro tips I’ve learned that regulars may or may not know about:

1. Cornbread: Don’t waste your precious time and stomach space on the sourdough and butter placed at the center of the table—save room for cornbread. You have to ask for it, and they don’t always have it, but if they do, it’s a nice addition. 

2. Seasoning salt: The extra savory seasoning salt they use for the salads can also go on the steak. I wouldn’t douse it, but a dash here and there changes things up.

3. Double, triple or quadruple King Henry: Let’s say you like a challenge (and don’t mind the meat sweats). You can order an extra large piece of meat, like our sushi-loving friend Ray Lee, whom you might recognize.

4. HOPR to go: You can pre-order a whole or half-rib dinner that comes with all the trimmings to take home. Bonus: the restaurant also sells its plates and cocktail shaker sets.

The James Beard Foundation nominated House of Prime Rib as a semifinalist for Outstanding Hospitality for the second year in a row in 2023. 

“My idea is you make the customer happy,” says Betz. “I’m not doing anyone a favor opening the door; the customers are doing me a favor by coming through the door.”

Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based writer & cookie dough professional. Find him on Instagram

House of Prime Rib

️ 🗓️ Daily | 5 p.m.-10 p.m.
📍1906 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco