Welcome to The Greats, a series on the restaurants around the country that define their cities. Here now, a look at one of the Great’s signature dishes, the salad dressing from House of Prime Rib in San Francisco.
The hustle and bustle never quite peters out at San Francisco’s iconic House of Prime Rib, a landmark since its opening in 1949. Of the litany of things the restaurant is famous for — an interior charmingly locked in time; heaping, glistening cuts of prime rib; geneous pours of cocktails that come with sidecars of just a bit more of each drink— one of the most well-known elements of the experience is also one of the most unexpected: the salad.
The salad’s arrival at a diner’s table is both the first indication to a newcomer that this restaurant experience is going to be something different and a reassuring reminder to returning fans that everything they know and love about the place is still intact. Sitting gleaming on top of a cart or side table is an enormous container of ice, and nestled into that ice is an impressive glass bowl filled with iceberg, romaine, and watercress lettuces at the base, with chopped egg, pimento, and sweet beets mixed in.
A fork, chilled to an artic cold, is dramatically offered to each diner. Then, the server gives the bowl a whir before pouring the dressing onto the salad from a dressing boat, raising their arm up and down so the diner can see the steady stream of salad dressing coating the greens. What the diner receives is a snappy, refreshing start to a nostalgic meal, cloaked in that sweet, creamy dressing. All said and done, it’s a mesmerizing experience.
The dressing, though, is a story of its own, one that begins far before the salad arrives at a table.
When House of Prime Rib briefly resumed indoor dining last summer when San Francisco’s restaurant restrictions first loosened up, the big news was that the restaurant was going to need an extra two weeks to prepare to reopen — mostly because of the salad dressing.
“What it is is that we need to make a yeast-based fermented base, and that takes at least a week to ferment,” longtime owner Joe Betz says. “After you have the base, then we mix in the rest of the ingredients from the canola oil to the egg yolk. You also have vinegar and sherry — we use apple cider vinegar instead of regular vinegar, and then add sherry to it.” In addition to this, one of the other major elements that goes into the dressing that gives it its signature taste is another housemade ingredient, the HOPR season salt.
That fermented base, though, is really what separates this dressing from so many others. Betz, though, is coy about what else goes into the fermented base. “It’s a secret, but I can tell you that it’s five ingredients,” he says. “When you taste the dressing you taste something where you quite don’t know what it is, but you know it’s good.”
Since Betz took over the restaurant in 1985, he’s changed little, if anything, about the way the salad is prepared. It’s still composed of the same exact ingredients that it has always contained, down to the types of lettuces and origin of the ingredients, like the sweet beets from Oregon. (Many a diner has initially mistaken those beets, chopped into thin strips, for chunks of raw beef — perhaps not surprising given the beef-heavy nature of the restaurant.)
During the pandemic, House of Prime Rib offered takeout for the first time in its history, and diners were pleasantly surprised to discover that not only did the meal come with all it normally did — salad, prime rib, and sides, sans the bonus slice of prime rib offered while dining indoors — but also that the salad came with a full bottle of the dressing, even if the diner was only getting takeout for one or two people.
Betz says bottles of the salad dressing, emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo, are also for sale on their own should anyone want to bring a bottle home, load some ice into a container, and spin their own salad to drizzle as little — or as much — as their heart desires.
House of Prime Rib has recently once again reopened for dining, but as always, reservations are at a premium and booked out for months. The bottle of salad dressing is available immediately.
Noah Cho is a writer and teacher based out of Oakland, California. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @noahreservation.