Classic SFDepartments

Prime Cuts

By Paul Wilner

Joe Betz and son Steven hold court at Van Ness institution House of Prime Rib, operated by Joe since1985. The juiciest cut on the menu: the King Henry VIII, fit for kings and queens alike. (Derek Yarra)

For longtime House of Prime Rib restaurateur Joe Betz, success is a family tradition built on comfort, affordability, courteous service —and good grub.

San Francisco institutions come and go, buffeted by the whims of trends, technology and taste, but the venerable House of Prime Rib, on VanNess Avenue since 1949, is still going strong. Joe Betz, the unpretentious, plainspoken proprietor who took over the place in 1968 and still regularly comes to work at the ripe old age of 79, has a simple explanation for their success: “I have a saying: everybody who’s coming through the door is doing us a favor.”

The German-born immigrant has been working in the food trade since 14, starting in Munich and Bavaria, then Switzerland and Holland, where he worked on a cruise ship before coming to America in1959. After stints in New York, Florida and Chicago, he settled on San Francisco in 1962. “I remember coming in to town at five in the morning, and seeing the sunrise over Twin Peaks — it was unbelievably beautiful,” he recalls.

The first job he landed was waiting tables at Hoffman’s Grill on Market Street. But the diligent Betz watched, learned and saved, ultimately buying the place in 1968. After selling the building, and also working in food services — plus running a disco — at the Transamerica Building, he purchased HOPR (which San Franciscans affectionately pronounce as “hopper”) from former owner Lou Balaski in 1985.

He quickly upgraded, to high-quality marbleized grain-fed meat from the Midwest, and began offering hearty meals of the famous prime rib, salad, Yorkshire pudding and other side dishes at more than affordable prices. Meals served jumped from 75 a night before the management change to “700 on a slow day, close to 800 on Saturdays, and close to 1,200 on holidays,” Betz says proudly.

He’s passed the torch of general manager to his son Steven, who’s worked at the restaurant since high school, starting as a dishwasher. Steven comes in to the office regularly and checks in each evening. “This is the kind of business where you have to like what you’re doing,” he allows. “You can’t make it as a side show.”

Regulars include radio talk show host Ronn Owens, San Francisco 49ers co-owner John York, Willie Brown and a slew of other athletes, politicians and celebrities. “The bigger the stars are, the nicer they are,” Betz says.

He gives back, too, each year delivering and serving 2,000 pounds of prime rib as Christmas dinners for the homeless at Glide Memorial Church. (It was Herb Caen’s suggestion.) He also sponsors an annual dinner for the 49ers offensive line and a cocktail reception at Betz’s Nob Hill home for the Blue Angels crew and family.

Besides Steven, Betz’s close-knit family includes another son, lawyer Michael, with first wife Heide Betz, and four grandchildren. He is remarried to Marion Olin Betz. “He’s put in more hours than I could ever match,” Steven responds. “I try to live up to what he’s taught me — I’m honored every time someone walks through the door. No people, no business, no job.”

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