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.


Julian said...

Thanks for the update with the House of Prime Rib I'll be there in a few weeks or so. It seems to that a lot of the times old restaurant as such feel they have to stay the way they were because that's what the clientele are used to, but I side with you. Open that place up it feels to tight and cave like. Can't really comment on the "Meat Sweats", that cracked me up!

The Bone said...

Well put, it's a shame that such formerly brilliant San Francisco traditions like the HOPR let themselves go like this. Have you ever noticed the tour buses parked outside? 10 years ago I'd go there with my family and friends for Easter, it was special, now its just disgusting to even sit down.

Anonymous said...

I think a good HOPR experience is all in the approach. You can't approach it like it's a three star fine dining establishment. You need to approach it for the kitsch that it is. There's something fabulously rat-packy about it with the generous martinis and total disregard for health. It's the whole experience package, not just the food. If they ever served anything organic here, I'd never go again.

Peter said...

I was just at House of Prime Rib a couple of weeks ago prior to reading this post. I couldn't quite put my finger on what my feeling was there but I think you've hit it on the head. It's seen better days. Unfortunately, I think it's a victim of it's own success. HOPR used to be a place where you could get a tasty piece of prime rib for a decent price without too much hassle. We seem to have lost the price and hassle benefits. It's now a place where you wait 30 minutes for your reserved table, hear "Happy Birthday" sung 3 times during your dinner ,and get cornbread baked in corn shaped molds! As one Chowhounder described it, it's like "an old English steakhouse" exhibit at the Epcot Center.

Still eagerly awaiting your "good steakhouse" post. Is the West Coast version of Peter Luger's too much to ask for?