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The House of Prime Rib’s best dining room is a converted wine cellar.

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Founded in 1949, House of Prime Rib is a San Francisco institution that’s attracted sports legends and local political figures for decades.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Even though I’ve heard many stories about it, in person, the House of Prime Rib doesn’t feel like a restaurant — it feels like another world entirely. 

Inside, the lux steakhouse is all wood panels, dim lights and burgundy leather. Servers in trim vests and button-downs dance between tables, whisking away empty plates and shaking martinis in jury-rigged pint glasses. When we arrive, we’re escorted through a narrow hallway and led to a small, secret room that’s tucked away from the public eye — the only indications that it exists are a few cryptic, low-resolution photos circulating the trenches of Yelp, prompting me to visit this mythical bunker in person on a cold November night. 

Over the years, this private space, which is actually a wine cellar outfitted with a modest table and speaker setup, has welcomed the likes of the Pelosi family and the San Francisco 49ers, among so many others. It’s charming, but in a messy, haphazard way: As we sit down, the tinny sound of ’70s rock emanates from behind a stack of wooden crates on the floor. Beneath the TV, a $630 bottle of Champagne lies on its side in a pile of dusty, loose remotes. There are other spoils in the corner: glimmering piles of Golden State Warriors championship rings, autographed baseballs and basketballs enclosed in plexiglass. 

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

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Beneath the cheap glow of artificial candles, Joe Betz, the restaurant’s 84-year-old patriarch, joins us at the table, waving me down and insisting I get comfortable. Like a maestro, he cheerfully orders loaves of golden sourdough bread with butter, glasses of pinot noir and house salads glistening with fermented apple vinegar dressing. It’s his world, and I’m just passing through it like some fortunate lost traveler.      

Founded in 1949, his restaurant has long cemented its status as a San Francisco institution, attracting sports legends and local political figures for decades. Betz, an icon himself, is well aware of House of Prime Rib’s immortal cult status, and tirelessly works day and night to keep his culinary empire running. 

“I live the life of a dreamer,” the restaurateur and former discotheque owner tells me. 

Born in Bavaria, Betz immigrated to San Francisco in 1962, where he bused tables and served cocktails in dark, defunct lounges like the Domino Club to make ends meet, even working alongside local legends like Carol Doda before she became a world-famous stripper. When he bought House of Prime Rib from its original owner in 1985, the restaurant was serving just 75 dinners a night. These days, he says they prepare about 600. Based on the number of times I hear people clap and cheer as they watch servers wheel out the iconic meat zeppelins, I know he’s not exaggerating. 

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Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, estimates that the restaurant serves at least 600 dinners a night.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE/Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, estimates that the restaurant serves at least 600 dinners a night.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE/Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Every day, Betz stays up until midnight making sure his kingdom is in order, but I get the sense that his work is never done. At one point during our interview, he abruptly leaves to say hello to Willie Brown, the 89-year-old former mayor of San Francisco (he usually orders the catch of the day, Betz tells me). A week before, during APEC, he hosted the prime minister of Thailand, who showed up with an entourage of over two dozen security guards, he said. “Oh, it was exciting,” Betz adds. 

Too small to be a cocktail lounge, too isolated to be a dining room, this private den was originally where Betz would have dinner and watch Monday night football after a long night of entertaining guests. But as word slowly got out, it became a safe haven for San Francisco’s athletes, politicians and charity organizations.While other local restaurants charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars to eat in private, no amount of money — even in cash — can buy entry to this Spartan, 8-by-8-foot cellar: Only Betz decides who is able to dine behind its closed glass doors. 

That’s because he understands that being seen is a game — though he wouldn’t say who, he tells me that entertainers will often choose to dine in the middle of the restaurant because their industry demands it. Politicians, on the other hand, operate differently. Ushering them to seclusion is ultimately better for the restaurant’s optics, and avoids creating tension with customers who may not agree with their line of work. Allowing patrons to get tipsy in a cellar full of expensive cabernet also involves a certain level of trust: “Somebody can take a bottle and it’s $25,000,” Betz says. “When people drink in a big group, of course, people do not always behave proper.” Another reason he seldom books the room is to keep the cool temperature of the wine cellar consistent; he’s worried that too many warm bodies will disrupt it, he explains. 

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Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.  

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

As someone who can’t stand loud restaurants, dining in this MacGyvered VIP room allowed me to actually focus on how remarkable the meal was: the salad, a swirl of greens lightly coated with fermented sherry and apple vinegar dressing, was tangy and fresh. The sea bass, possibly the most underrated menu item, delicately fell apart when I lifted my fork. Against my Jewish ancestors’ wishes, I had a spoonful of the creamed spinach with bacon, and it was so good, I had no regrets whatsoever. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the restaurant is not afraid to fill every corner of your plate with glistening piles of meat and vegetables, and for a surprisingly reasonable price of $49.85. 

“I charge what I have to, not what I can get away with,” Betz tells me, gesturing to the intimidatingly large pint glass of vodka next to my brimming martini cup. During our conversation, I replenish it several times before remembering I somehow have to finish this interview and get home. Though San Francisco has plenty of renowned restaurants, I finally understand why the city’s elites — and everyday citizens — keep returning here, and it’s not just because of the aged prime rib. 

Inside, the famed San Francisco restaurant feels like another world. 

Inside, the famed San Francisco restaurant feels like another world. 

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

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Article continues below this ad

For the rest of the evening, the restaurant’s gears loudly turned, but it didn’t seem to penetrate the glass confines of this little universe. The interview with Betz technically ended long ago, but our conversation continued. He spoke of the first time he saw the fog drift over San Francisco; of long-lost nightclubs; of a world that, for the most part, no longer exists except here. 

“It’s a dream city,” Betz says. When he does, I believe him, too. 


Founded in 1949, House of Prime Rib is a San Francisco institution that’s attracted sports legends and local political figures for decades.

Founded in 1949, House of Prime Rib is a San Francisco institution that’s attracted sports legends and local political figures for decades.

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Even though I’ve heard many stories about it, in person, the House of Prime Rib doesn’t feel like a restaurant — it feels like another world entirely. 

Inside, the lux steakhouse is all wood panels, dim lights and burgundy leather. Servers in trim vests and button-downs dance between tables, whisking away empty plates and shaking martinis in jury-rigged pint glasses. When we arrive, we’re escorted through a narrow hallway and led to a small, secret room that’s tucked away from the public eye — the only indications that it exists are a few cryptic, low-resolution photos circulating the trenches of Yelp, prompting me to visit this mythical bunker in person on a cold November night. 

Over the years, this private space, which is actually a wine cellar outfitted with a modest table and speaker setup, has welcomed the likes of the Pelosi family and the San Francisco 49ers, among so many others. It’s charming, but in a messy, haphazard way: As we sit down, the tinny sound of ’70s rock emanates from behind a stack of wooden crates on the floor. Beneath the TV, a $630 bottle of Champagne lies on its side in a pile of dusty, loose remotes. There are other spoils in the corner: glimmering piles of Golden State Warriors championship rings, autographed baseballs and basketballs enclosed in plexiglass. 

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Beneath the cheap glow of artificial candles, Joe Betz, the restaurant’s 84-year-old patriarch, joins us at the table, waving me down and insisting I get comfortable. Like a maestro, he cheerfully orders loaves of golden sourdough bread with butter, glasses of pinot noir and house salads glistening with fermented apple vinegar dressing. It’s his world, and I’m just passing through it like some fortunate lost traveler.      

Founded in 1949, his restaurant has long cemented its status as a San Francisco institution, attracting sports legends and local political figures for decades. Betz, an icon himself, is well aware of House of Prime Rib’s immortal cult status, and tirelessly works day and night to keep his culinary empire running. 

“I live the life of a dreamer,” the restaurateur and former discotheque owner tells me. 

Born in Bavaria, Betz immigrated to San Francisco in 1962, where he bused tables and served cocktails in dark, defunct lounges like the Domino Club to make ends meet, even working alongside local legends like Carol Doda before she became a world-famous stripper. When he bought House of Prime Rib from its original owner in 1985, the restaurant was serving just 75 dinners a night. These days, he says they prepare about 600. Based on the number of times I hear people clap and cheer as they watch servers wheel out the iconic meat zeppelins, I know he’s not exaggerating. 

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, estimates that the restaurant serves at least 600 dinners a night.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE/Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE
Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, estimates that the restaurant serves at least 600 dinners a night.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE/Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

Every day, Betz stays up until midnight making sure his kingdom is in order, but I get the sense that his work is never done. At one point during our interview, he abruptly leaves to say hello to Willie Brown, the 89-year-old former mayor of San Francisco (he usually orders the catch of the day, Betz tells me). A week before, during APEC, he hosted the prime minister of Thailand, who showed up with an entourage of over two dozen security guards, he said. “Oh, it was exciting,” Betz adds. 

Too small to be a cocktail lounge, too isolated to be a dining room, this private den was originally where Betz would have dinner and watch Monday night football after a long night of entertaining guests. But as word slowly got out, it became a safe haven for San Francisco’s athletes, politicians and charity organizations.While other local restaurants charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars to eat in private, no amount of money — even in cash — can buy entry to this Spartan, 8-by-8-foot cellar: Only Betz decides who is able to dine behind its closed glass doors. 

That’s because he understands that being seen is a game — though he wouldn’t say who, he tells me that entertainers will often choose to dine in the middle of the restaurant because their industry demands it. Politicians, on the other hand, operate differently. Ushering them to seclusion is ultimately better for the restaurant’s optics, and avoids creating tension with customers who may not agree with their line of work. Allowing patrons to get tipsy in a cellar full of expensive cabernet also involves a certain level of trust: “Somebody can take a bottle and it’s $25,000,” Betz says. “When people drink in a big group, of course, people do not always behave proper.” Another reason he seldom books the room is to keep the cool temperature of the wine cellar consistent; he’s worried that too many warm bodies will disrupt it, he explains. 

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.  

Joe Betz, House of Prime Rib’s owner, poses for a photo in the restaurant’s wine room and DIY VIP room in San Francisco on July 6, 2022.

 

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

As someone who can’t stand loud restaurants, dining in this MacGyvered VIP room allowed me to actually focus on how remarkable the meal was: the salad, a swirl of greens lightly coated with fermented sherry and apple vinegar dressing, was tangy and fresh. The sea bass, possibly the most underrated menu item, delicately fell apart when I lifted my fork. Against my Jewish ancestors’ wishes, I had a spoonful of the creamed spinach with bacon, and it was so good, I had no regrets whatsoever. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the restaurant is not afraid to fill every corner of your plate with glistening piles of meat and vegetables, and for a surprisingly reasonable price of $49.85. 

“I charge what I have to, not what I can get away with,” Betz tells me, gesturing to the intimidatingly large pint glass of vodka next to my brimming martini cup. During our conversation, I replenish it several times before remembering I somehow have to finish this interview and get home. Though San Francisco has plenty of renowned restaurants, I finally understand why the city’s elites — and everyday citizens — keep returning here, and it’s not just because of the aged prime rib. 

Inside, the famed San Francisco restaurant feels like another world. 

Inside, the famed San Francisco restaurant feels like another world. 

Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Advertisement

Article continues below this ad

For the rest of the evening, the restaurant’s gears loudly turned, but it didn’t seem to penetrate the glass confines of this little universe. The interview with Betz technically ended long ago, but our conversation continued. He spoke of the first time he saw the fog drift over San Francisco; of long-lost nightclubs; of a world that, for the most part, no longer exists except here. 

“It’s a dream city,” Betz says. When he does, I believe him, too. 

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