Everyone is happy at House of Prime Rib. Probably because most of the gussied-up families and couples gathered in the old-fashioned, wood-paneled dining rooms are celebrating something: birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, promotions, bonuses, graduations, engagements. This is the kind of restaurant where you take a moment to savor the milestones of life. And House of Prime Rib, a setting for San Francisco celebrations since 1949, has an overwhelmingly positive vibe in the air, as though haunted by the ghosts of all this pleasantness.
Even the staff seems to be in a great mood, or is at least very good at faking it. Most of their job is performance, anyway. Chefs in all-white and comically tall starched hats roam the dining room, pushing zeppelin-shaped stainless-steel domes on carts. Inside this dome is the eponymous prime rib, which the chefs carve tableside and adorn with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes with gravy. Our waitress, a chipper blonde originally from Russia, had her own theatrical flourishes when preparing the salad, garnishing a baked potato, and cutting the Yorkshire pudding.
Before open kitchens, this kind of tableside service was as good as food-prep theater got, and House of Prime Rib hearkens back to a time before dining out meant Googling ingredients and confronting your palate with unfamiliar flavors. The menu here is ridiculously simple. Your biggest decision is which of the four cuts of prime rib you feel like tackling: The smallest is the City Cut, at 8 to 10 ounces; the 11- to 13-ounce House of Prime Rib Cut and English cuts vary only in the way they're sliced; and "king-size appetites" can go for the massive 14- to 16-ounce King Henry VIII cut.
Along with meat, and what wine you're drinking, the only other choice you have to make involves selecting your included sides: creamed spinach or corn (both are all you could wish from them), mashed or baked potato (the former comes with gravy, the latter with bacon bits, sour cream, chives, and butter). Eggy Yorkshire pudding, a lackluster green salad, and rounds of hot sourdough also come included in the meal.
It's a multi-course feast, and this might be the key to the happiness that comes from being here. There's something wonderfully freeing about feasting, about letting go and eating as much as you want, especially on food so comforting and primal. And because there's no hope of salvaging your diet, you might as well loosen your belt a notch and give in to indulgence. (The only alternative to prime rib on the menu is a daily fish dish, but he who orders fish at this temple to beef is in for a lonely meal.)
I was not there to celebrate anything in particular, but the magic of the place washed over me as soon as I walked in. It helped that the rooms are now all decked out for Christmas with wreaths and bows and lights. Reservations are highly recommended — I waited two hours for a table without one — though the lounge is not a bad place to wait it out, considering the crackling fire, the people-watching, and the $9.50 martinis, which come with a little shaker of bonus booze, like a milkshake.
Finally, my party's name was called and it was time to sit down. The dining room is all big circular tables, red leather banquettes, dark wood wainscoting, and old-fashioned paintings of British foxhunts and manor houses and the like. The short menu has illuminated letters, like it's a long-lost manuscript. Water is served in cut-crystal goblets. The décor is not exactly dowdy, but it's also not so old-school or Rat Pack-y it's hip, either — it just is. And the crowd, surprisingly middle-class considering the prices on the menu, isn't there for anything but the sheer enjoyment of being there.
I spent most of the meal watching the dirigible of prime rib glide through the dining room, willing it to come to me. It would hover next to a lucky table, chefs would carve off a slab of meat for others, and I felt my mouth watering like a cartoon cat's.
The dirigible eventually sailed over and docked at our table, and the House of Prime Rib's namesake dish did not disappoint. The meat was cooked a perfect medium-rare, with that velvety, chewy texture that the best steak gets. The sides were all exactly what they needed to be, which is to say excellent if you have a weakness for creamed spinach and buttery mashed potatoes, as I do. The meal was fine, but somehow, though it was the whole point of the restaurant, once it came it ceased to matter.
Still, we all ate and ate until we couldn't eat any more, and even after that we'd go back for one more forkful of spinach, or a shred of Yorkshire pudding dipped in gravy. By the end, we were all sweating meat. After we finally came to our limit, we all sat there quietly, wondering if we should regret what we'd just done, and privately deciding that we didn't.
On the way out, well-lubricated from martinis, I tried to strike up a conversation with one of the meat carvers, but it turned out that he didn't speak much English. Later I woke up in the middle of the night with heartburn and the beginnings of a headache, absolutely parched from a sodium overload. It's best not to look too far behind the curtain at House of Prime Rib. Instead, focus on the feeling of well-being you get fleetingly from being there, a feeling that lines up neatly with the mantra of the season: peace on earth, goodwill towards men.