Wednesday, June 20, 2007

House of Prime Rib Has Seen Better Days

There was a time in my life when I would've told you that the House of Prime Rib on Van Ness was my favorite restaurant. I loved nearly everything about it. The menu is so simple that you have your order memorized by the second time you go there ("English cut medium, mashed" was all I'd say). The way the courses are set up in advance for you, it makes a meal there very pleasing and ritualistic. I've said before that the salad is my favorite anywhere. The bread is unbeatable. The way the prime rib, au jus, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and Yorkshire pudding meld together is masterful. I love the way the martini comes with the shaker in a nice cold glass.

BUT... I somehow no longer have the same warm feelings about the place. Perhaps I'm getting older. More likely, I think, The HOPR is getting older. The format remains the same. The bread is still the best bread in San Francisco. The martinis still come the same great way. But now there are all sorts of obstacles to my HOPR enjoyment.

The first and biggest one is health concerns. No meal makes me feel more unhealthy - fast food included. I wake up the next morning with my feet swollen to size 15 from the sodium. A friend coined the term "meat sweats" based on meals there, explaining the disgusting sensation you get overnight after a meal there. And invariably I ooze the smell of the creamed spinach for days. In recent visits (all told, I've been there probably 50 times over eight years) I've switched up my order to include putting the au jus on the side and special-ordering steamed spinach. I still feel unhealthy, however, and vow to only go there if absolutely forced by some large group event I must attend. I've even considered ordering the fish of the day, though I've never actually gone through with such a pathetic plan.

Beyond th
e health issues, the HOPR (properly pronounced, "Hopper", by the way) has lost a lot of lustre for me in other areas too. One problem I have is around the wine. I wouldn't begrudge them the $30 corkage fee if either they had a great wine list or they waived corkage if you buy a second expensive bottle. Neither scenario is even close, so the $30 corkage does really sting.

Another thing that really bugs me now is the rising prices combined with the lack of investment. When I first went there in 1999, the price of the English Cut was around $22. Now it's $37 (granted, your salad and everything else is included). But they only do one thing! All their sides are the same, and their agreements with suppliers were probably set in 1968 and they're paying the same prices for their ingredients (hyperbole alert... please note). The place may as well be a mint the way they print money. Now I don't begrudge the very nice Betts family making a very nice living, but it does really bother me that the carpet and upholstery is the same dowdy crap they last installed in the 70s. If I'm going to pay through the nose for my meal, please don't make me sit in a disgusting booth coated in three decades of meat stench.

I could go on with the complaints. The staff isn't nearly as well-trained as they used to be. The clientèle is not the same bunch of old-school San Franciscans that it used to be. The salad is now more about the MSG than it is about the beets and dressing. And on and on.

I'm rooting for the HOPR to make a return to glory, but I'm not counting on it. In the meantime, I'm going to do my very best to avoid the meat sweats. I'll tackle my alternative locations for great beef in another post.

Sunday, June 17, 2007


I really appreciate seeing aggressive, ambitious projects downtown, whether it's a fancy new restaurant, the Rincon Towers project, the new Moscone Center, or anything else. Downtown needs a constant influx of investment and innovation to stay vibrant and relevant. As San Franciscans, we've been generally lucky in this regard. In particular, I also appreciate when a worn-out, has-been restaurant with a great location gets a full face-lift and new life.

Perbacco, the now-year-old Italian that took the place of the old Gold Dust next to T
adich Grill, fits this mold, and thus I'm glad it's there and open. However, the follow-through of the restaurant itself doesn't quite live up to the promise and appearance. While it remains an interesting spot to try, flaws with the food, service and pricing make it a place one would have a hard time rushing back to.

The interior is wonderful. A long bar at the front is very inviting, with a brick backdrop, the now-stylish downward-slanted mirrors and great lighting. The scene is active and vibrant. Behind it and above is a two-level dining room that's also very well-lit and the tables are the perfect distance apart for creating a comfortable dining experience while keeping the feel active enough to be fun and potentially even a bit rowdy. Whoever designed this place had a clear vision, looked at every detail, and made few mistakes.

The same eye for detail doesn't quite get to the staff however. They seem somewhat disorganized, forgetting either us or our orders a few times over the course of our three visits. One time we were seated upstairs with only two other parties around (boring compared to the downstairs) and it was clear that they forgot we were there and didn't assign anyone to us. That made me feel really big and important.
When ordering wine from their expensive and expansive wine list, the sommelier was less than interested in finding us some fun, interesting value in the $40-$70 range, presumably because the price point wasn't worth his time. I'm sure he's very knowledgeable given the large list and what others have said, but I prefer talking to someone who's simply excited about wine and what they've put on the list and shows it without pretension.

The food is good but not great. In all three visits, I was much more excited about the appetizers and first courses rather than the entrees. The house-cured salami is a definite highlight, and I'm not the only one who noticed, apparently. The entrees were acceptable but uninspired. My overall reaction to the food was that everything (except the salami) could've been a notch or two better, and that the prices are about 20% too high as a result.
The pasta is not quite a fresh or flavorful as you'd hope for. The meats not quite so skillfully prepared as you'd expect for the prices.

So given all this, my final recommendation is that it's worth an exploratory visit, but you might want to stick to drinks and appetizers at the bar to start. Given other viewpoints I've seen, I may be in the minority. I love the overall effort to do something so ambitious downtown, but the ambition doesn't quite meet the final delivery for me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Spencer's House

I have to say, I was shocked and amazed to hear that Chez Spencer was celebrating its 5th anniversary this year. This unlikely and upscale French restaurant is located on 14th St. near the Best Buy, tucked away from the street by a garden, then a dining patio, and finally in a fairly industrial building that appears to have been a warehouse.

The amazement I had about it being around for five years came from a few things. First of all, it's an excellent restaurant all around and I only heard about it for the first time about a year and a half ago. I prefer to blame that on their inept PR rather than admit that I just wasn't paying attention. More importantly, the interior is quite hip and I don't believe it's the least bit outdated. If you were putting together a fine French restaurant in a converted warehouse this year, it might look a lot like Chez Spencer. And lastly, both their food and their service still have that extra effort and edge you typically see at a restaurant that's aggressively trying to make a positive name for itself on the SF scene.

Let's be clear though, that while the food is very good, it's not cheap. They offer a six-course tasting menu for $80 that looks like way too much food to me. We opted for the a la carte menu which is designed to be three courses with entrees in the high $20s and low $30s. Our dining highlights included a smoked duck breast for a second course and the venison entree. The venison was a "Pan Seared Venison Tenderloin" with juniper berry-peppercorn jus. The meat was sliced very thin and appeared to be nearly carpaccio-like in its rareness, but when tasted it was clearly cooked through and not at all gamey. One theory we discussed is that it may be cured for days with a salt rub. Whatever the process, the result was amazing and some of the best meat I've ever had.

Also of note are the martinis. They have a nice specialty cocktail list, of which one option is their special martini. It's served in a tumbler that is mostly filled by one, single giant round ice cube. The ice is so big that it barely melts yet keeps your martini very cold. It's a very nice touch and something very unique. Beyond cocktails, the wine list is very French and has good options, though I'm a bit sick of restaurants pulling the old $30-corkage-fee move. However our group brought one bottle and purchased another nice one and they waived the corkage, so at least they're not unreasonable.

All in all, Chez Spencer gets a big thumbs up from me. It's a great place for a date, to meet friends, or even do a civilized family dinner. I'll be back.