While the Bay Area is blessed to have such a myriad of exciting new chefs and restaurants to sample and enjoy (c'mon, don't think I haven't seen the drool on the windows at Michael Mina's new digs), we natives also like to indulge ourselves in the local culinary past and wax rhapsodic about days of food gone by. Ironically, these walks down culinary memory lane usually come after we've finished a large chowdown (yes, I'm talking to you Chowfun).
Still, as a native San Franciscan and as a member of a food loving and working family, I try not to fall prey to such culinary romanticism, since it only seems to set oneself up for disappointment. It's fine and safe to recall the Scampi at Vanessi's or my first Veal Cordon Bleu at the Blue Fox, those institutions are long since passed and only the fond memories live on. However, it is quite another thing to speak of the Ciopino at Caesar's, the Sand Dabs at the Taddich or the Canelloni at Little Joe's. These places still exist, sometimes on nothing more than the memories of what once was good and right in the world. This is where the trapdoor threatens to drop us into the abyss.
Still, from time to time, even the most wary of folks will fall prey to the comforting reassurance that the prospect of recapturing one's most memorable meals offers, but rarely delivers. Which brings us to last Tuesday.
It was my annual reminder that time has continued to march forward and my friends from around the bay had wanted to take me out to dinner. As I've often seen posted on this very forum, the group quickly ballooned to a size that would surely eclipse the ability of the majority of restaurants. Realizing that this would likely be more of a social event, rather than a Chowhound level dining experience, I quickly thought of places that would satisfy a large mixed crowd which included somewhat less than adventurous palates. Of course, the one that stood out in my mind was the House of Prime Rib.
With a comfortable, but not overly subdued ambience and a large private dining room replete with fireplace (hey, I know it's Summer, but it is San Francisco), it seemed to be a good fit for this group. Now, at the risk of ruining my denial as to my rapidly advancing age, I'll admit that I can recall the beef shortage of the 70's. It was during such dark days that steakhouses seemed even more special. With it's shimmering zeplin-like carts manned by men in tall white chef's hats and carving knives that seemed more like swords, a visit to the House of Prime Rib was all the more special. So with visions of the perfect cut and Yorkshire pudding dancing in my head, a reservation for 20 was made.
A single long table was set and as I eased into my seat at the head, I didn't even bother to open the heavy dark red menu placed before me. Drinks were ordered and warm loaves of bread were placed on the table, still accompanied by a serrated bread knife that my mother long deprived me of wielding for fear of losing a limb or at the very least a digit. Evan as the wine was poured, I drank in the surroundings. The fireplace, the wood accents, the heavy purposeful flatware and cutlerly all looked and felt right. Just as the gleaming silver harbinger of beef came into view, I felt myself teetering on the edge of the precipice. Would the King Henry VIII cut still be as massive as I had remembered it to be? Would the edge still have that delicious savory crust? Would the horseradish still mix with the au jus perfectly, or would years of tourism and reputation have taken their toll, leaving nothing behind but a poor fascimile of what once was serving casino quality meat masquerading as PRIME rib? I silently hoped for the best, but steadied myself for a cold splash of reality.
After an uninspired salad was served and halfheartedly picked at, we were introduced to our carver, a jovial man named Francisco. I don't know if he was told that it was my birthday or if he sensed the giddy expectations of my past happy family dinners, but a near picture perfect cut of aged prime rib was soon placed before me. Now, as with so many attempts to recapture and relive past glory, quarter was given to excuse the small things such as the salad and the nondescript creamed spinach, but none such lattitude would be afforded to the beef.
I am quite happy to say that none was necessary. For all of our 'Houndish debates over the best Cambodian/Indian/African food or the latest gastronomic odyssey at the French Laundry, I will be the first to admit that sometimes all a restaurant has to do is get one thing right. Of course, it greatly helps if the one thing is the entree. Yes, the baked potato is still enormous and chocked full of real bacon, butter, sour cream and chives. Yes, the Yorkshire pudding is still dutifully soaks up the au jus. No, the creamed spinach and salad won't be long for my memory. However, the perfectly cooked ("just between medium rare and rare" was my high maintenance request), nicely aged, flavorful and wholly satisfying King Henry VIII cut was as I had remembered it, delicious.
Now, if you've managed to make it all the way through this latest long-winded post of mine, I will thank you for once again indulging me. Without a doubt, I am somewhat less than unbiased when it comes to this restaurant, but in light of how far some "institutions" have fallen, I must say that this was a pleasant surprise and certainly a happy birthday. Furthermore, I can honestly recommend this restaurant to those of you that find yourself craving prime rib.
No, the House of Prime Rib is not without it's flaws, but it still manages to get the most important thing so very right and that is what continues to feed, not just the body, but the mind and soul as well.