October 27, 2020


Home Improvement

House of Prime Rib reopens with new $10,000 filtration system, stationary prime rib cart

With the House of Prime Rib reopened for the first time in seven months — the longest closure sustained by this San Francisco institution since opening in 1949 — much is the same, but a few things are altered because of pandemic protocols.

The dining rooms with the dark wood paneling, ornate chandeliers and red leather booths still welcome diners. But now, those booths are outfitted with partitions. The 21-day-aged prime rib will still be sliced to order at a zeppelin-like cart, but it will no longer roll to each table — it will be stationary. The salad will still be tossed with showmanship in a spinning bowl, but instead of tableside, that will happen at least 6 feet away from guests. And the beloved tradition of servers singing “Happy Birthday” to fete a celebrating diner will unfortunately fall by the wayside, at least for now.

One cherished constant remains, however: Owner Joe Betz plans to greet customers every weeknight just as he always has, even at 81 years old.

“Of course, I will be here,” says Betz, who will don a mask, just like all his staff. “Since I was 14, I have always worked. I’ve never had this much time off. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I still came in every day, and moved things from one side of the restaurant, then back again. I can’t stay away.”

In February, Joe Betz, owner of House of Prime Rib, laughs with one of his employees during dinner service.

Diners apparently can’t, either. Only 68 diners (25% capacity) will be allowed at a time at each of three seatings per night, and with those constraints the restaurant was flooded with 3,000 reservations within a couple days of announcing its reopening.

Betz was stunned by the response. “I feel so important that I don’t even talk to myself now,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s unbelievable. It’s a good feeling.”

In February, Caitlin Elliott, the first female carver at House of Prime Rib, carves a prime rib from her cart during dinner service.

More than $10,000 was spent on a new hospital-grade filtration system for the building, which Betz owns. It also will be deep-cleaned every two days with a disinfectant fogger.

Nearly 95% of the staff has returned. All but one of its seven white-toqued and red-kerchief-clad carvers has come back. Caitlin Elliott, the first female carver in the restaurant’s history, moved to Texas during the shutdown. Betz pledges there will be another female carver in the future.

In February at House of Prime Rib, Caitlin Elliott serves a prime rib to a customer during dinner service.

As it is, only three carvers will be on duty at a time now, down from the usual five when the restaurant would typically serve 800 diners on a Saturday night. But each will follow the same routine as before to get their half-ton custom cart ready for service with 200 pounds of beef nestled inside. The Sterno will be lit and the bottom of the cart filled with 160-degree water to keep everything warm inside.

“We hope to give people the same feeling as they’ve always had here,” Betz says. “It’s a little different, let’s face it. But we plan to make the best of it.”

House of Prime Rib, 1906 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Dinner nightly. 415-885-4605 or www.houseofprimerib.net.

Bay Area freelance writer Carolyn Jung blogs at FoodGal.com and is the author of “East Bay Cooks.’’ Email: food@sfchronicle.com

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