UPDATED 5/13: Owner Joe Betz voluntarily closed the restaurant on Thursday, May 13 for 24 hours, and requested that the SF Department of Health revisit the restaurant for another inspection. Betz told the Chron that he feels it’s the only way to prove to the dining public that there’s nothing wrong with their food. Stay tuned for an update on that inspection.
After COVID-19 restrictions closed San Francisco’s restaurants, one of the city’s most anticipated reopenings was that of iconic House of Prime Rib, the old-school prime rib joint that’s been carving up thick slices of beef for more than 70 years. Takeout has been available, but it’s no substitute for the ambiance of dining in, the stiff Manhattans served in their own shakers, and the table-side meat presentation. When reservations opened up again, it was immediately booked out months in advance, just like pre-COVID days.
Now, the restaurant is under investigation for allegedly causing foodborne illnesses over the course of the past two months — which the owner suggests to Eater SF has more to do with diners’ pandemic-era digestive systems than harmful foodborne bacteria.
San Francisco’s general dining public first became aware of these issues after a post shared on the House of Prime Rib Instagram account on Tuesday, May 11 said that the restaurant had “recently had an isolated issue with some of our prime rib which was immediately discovered and addressed.” It was followed by an in-depth report from the SF Chronicle, which notes that reports of illness by House of Prime Rib diners began to trickle into the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) in early April, resulting in an inspection on April 7. Inspectors found little to report at that time, noting two “lower risk violations” that included a meat grinder that needed to be cleaned, and, ironically, the standard menu advisory stating that certain raw or undercooked foods may cause foodborne illness.
An Instagram post from House of Prime Rib shared later in the day on May 11 provided an update: “We were just visited by the Health Department before and during service. They have found 0 violations. We were told we are doing everything correctly.”
“Yesterday, the department came in before and during service and I was told there’s nothing wrong with what we do, we do everything right,” owner Joe Betz told Eater SF on May 12. “They believe there’s a possibility, that when people haven’t gone out for a long time and start eating heavy food, that that’s how they can get diarrhea.” The reports of illness have not included vomiting, according to Betz, which is an indicator of most common foodborne illnesses.
According to the Chronicle, the SFDPH has not yet found any evidence to back up diners’ claims. “We couldn’t find any direct causal link between the alleged foodborne illnesses and the observations that we made today,” DPH representative Veronica Vien told the paper Tuesday evening.
Amateur health department wannabes and sickened diners have taken to Yelp, Instagram, and other comment sections (including the SF Chronicle) to hazard guesses about exactly what caused the illnesses. David L. from San Mateo took to Yelp to report that he and his wife were sickened by a meal there; unsure of whether the food had caused the problems, his wife ate leftover prime rib and was sickened again. Others say the only the member of their party that ordered the prime rib became ill, while those that ordered salmon did not. Numerous users on the site Iwaspoisoned.com, a foodborne illness reporting website, have alleged illnesses from eating at the restaurant on Mother’s Day; many others have returned to report their illnesses weeks after the fact, after learning that their previous sicknesses were not isolated incidents.
On Monday, May 10, Iwaspoisoned.com posted the following: “We have received a large number of reports citing food poisoning after dining at House of Prime Rib at 1906 Van Ness Ave, in San Francisco. As of May 11th 2021, we have over 50 reports citing over 120 persons sick in the past 14 days, and we continue to receive reports linked to this location. Public health officials in San Francisco are investigating the situation.”
Many commenters have had the same suspicions as Betz. “I wonder how many people’s digestive systems are just not used to rich restaurant food anymore. I love HOPR but if I ate there now after not eating much red meat for the last year, my stomach would be mad at me. Could explain some people feeling off,” commenter ERIC80 wrote in the SF Chronicle comments section. “If I ate a huge slab of prime rib after cocktails and starters, then threw in some dessert on top of that, I would be sick even if there was nothing wrong with the meat. Gorging is terrible for the human body,” writes Tim1961.
“That’s the best I can do. They found no bacterias in any part of the place. The temperatures were absolutely perfect,” says Betz. Additionally, he reports that no employees were sickened after consuming the weekly prime rib dinner shared by staff each Saturday night. “I believe somebody saw it on Yelp and that became a copycat situation. There is a great possibility that competitors put the whole thing together, if the health department can’t find anything and our employees who ate all that meat did not get sick.”
“We cook it the same way we have cooked it for 72 years, the same purveyors, the same system, the same thing all the time,” says Betz. “There are no changes.” That apparently also applies to the packed reservation log, which Betz says has remained steady, with the same number of reservations booked this week as before. While many diners say they’re wary of returning to dine at the restaurant after falling ill, most say they’ll return in the future, and are sure it’s a one-time incident. Many are even hoping that a slew of cancellations will allow them to snag a coveted reservation. The restaurant had been booked 303 times today (at time of publication), according to OpenTable.