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Marin County’s Best Late-Night Restaurant Is a Poker Room With $26 Prime Rib

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Man cuts a piece of prime rib while eating at the bar; next to him, another man devours a burger.
The $26 Thursday night prime rib plate at Pete’s 881 Club is one of the hidden gems of Marin County — but the poker room’s other bar food is also well worth seeking out. (Thien Pham)

The Midnight Diners is a regular collaboration between KQED food editor Luke Tsai and artist Thien Pham. Follow them each week as they explore the hot pot restaurants, taco carts and 24-hour casino buffets that make up the Bay Area’s after-hours dining scene.

To find the best late-night food in Marin County, you have to snake through the dimly lit, warehouse-dotted back roads of San Rafael, past the auto dealerships and the landscaping supply stores, until you pull up to a low-slung, windowless brick building.

This is Pete’s 881 Club, and at first glance, the place looks like a lot of different things before you’d ever suspect it of being a notable dining destination.

Most prominently, it’s a sports bar — an old-school one, in both its aesthetics and its (gracefully aging) clientele. Ten wall-mounted TVs ensure a clear view of the Warriors game from any seat in the house. Pete’s also happens to be the only legal poker room in Marin County, which accounts for the two felt-topped card tables set off to one side of the room. On any given night, you’ll find an assemblage of serious-looking Texas Hold’em players in rumpled sweatshirts and baseball caps, poring over their stacks of chips.

You order food at a place like this because you want something to snack on while you watch the game, or because you don’t want to drink too many PBRs on an empty stomach. But you don’t necessarily expect the food to be any good. You certainly don’t expect a $26 prime rib that draws favorable comparisons to House of Prime Rib (at about half the price) — pink in the center, immaculately seasoned and succulently tender, with a charred crust and a streak of luscious, wobbly fat down the middle. The plate comes with horseradish cream, a big ol’ baked potato and some of the most delicious creamed spinach I’ve ever had — a super-rich version laced with bacon.

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The prime rib plate at Pete’s is available on Thursday nights only, and it comes with one big caveat, for the purposes of this column: Even though the kitchen stays open until at least midnight every night, the prime rib — along with the prime rib dip sandwiches the bar sells on Fridays — always sells out early. You have to get awfully lucky to snag a plate after 9 p.m.

Exterior of a nondescript bar, with the sign for "Pete's 881 Club" above in green lettering.
Pete’s is located in a sparse, warehouse-lined stretch of San Rafael. (Thien Pham)

Fortunately, the rest of the food at Pete’s is also pretty darn good. Apart from the nightly specials, the menu reads like a typical sports bar menu — burgers, wings, pizzas and the like. But everything we tried was so much better than it needed to be. Better than it had any business being, to be honest. The chicken wings? Transcendently crunchy, served with the buffalo sauce on the side for dunking. The onion rings? Flawless. Everything tasted like homemade food, not freezer food.

We also tried Pete’s version of a “Juicy Lucy,” a Minnesotan regional specialty burger in which the patty itself is stuffed with cheese — a funky blue, in this case — so that the melted cheese oozes out when you bite into it. Delightful, even if the burger had a few too many toppings for our liking.

While we were perusing the menu, the friendly bartender told us we’d have to come back on a Wednesday to try their famous chicken Anselmo special, a pan-fried chicken dish that comes drenched with gravy.

“It’s fucking bomb,” she said about that chicken, and also literally every other menu item we asked about. And you know what? She didn’t lie to us once.

Pete’s 881 Club is open at 721 Lincoln Ave. in San Rafael from 10 a.m.–2 a.m. daily. The kitchen is open until 1 a.m. Thu.–Sat. and until midnight the rest of the week.

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