WHY IT'S NOTEWORTHY
Ruth's Chris is the biggest chain of premium steakhouses in the world, and it was born right here. But the current menu and dining room style at the two local restaurants are now just like all the other 100-plus in the chain, making them feel like Anywhere, USA. Still, most New Orleanians (myself included) remain loyal to it, and it's still the standard by which all other steakhouses are measured--even though they're no longer as dominant as they once were. You can get a better steak, but the House The Ruth Built is still Number One.
WHY IT'S GOOD
The USDA Prime specs (relaxed for the filets), the superheated, firebrick-lined broilers, and the sizzling butter have always set Ruth's Chris apart from its competitors. The butter thing--common in New Orleans steak service long before it became identified with Ruth's Chris--is incomparably appealing. The menu is more complex than it once was, with soups, sauces, and sides that Ruth herself never served. But the quality of the raw materials is clear, and the simplicity of the way most if it is cooked lets it all shine.
Chris Steak House started on the corner of North Broad at Ursulines. It was already recognized as a first-rate steakhouse when Chris Matulich sold it to Ruth Fertel in 1965. Because of some clause in the sale agreement, she added her name to make the tongue-twister by which the place is known. Ruth's began to expand in the 1970s, and franchises spread across the country. By the time Ruth retired and sold the company in 1999, she commanded more restaurant volume than any other female restaurateur in the world. The outfit that bought the chain followed typical chain restaurant practice and homogenized the two local "stores." The Broad Street flagship went down in Hurricane Katrina, never to return. The corporation did open one in Orleans Parish, in the Harrah's Hotel.
The two restaurants are very different. The Metairie location is masculine and clubby, with dark wood paneling and somewhat tightly-packed tables. The downtown Ruth's took over the former Riche, whose Italianate softness and beauty are much more feminine. The long dining room there opens onto the pedestrian block of Fulton Street, with sidewalk tables.
Sizzling crab cakes.
Seared tuna with ginger and mustard.
Osso buco ravioli.
Chop salad (a dozen things cut up like cole slaw).
Wedge iceberg salad with blue cheese.
New York strip.
Porterhouse for two.
Seared tuna stack with lump crabmeat.
Warm apple crumb tart.
Banana cream pie.
FOR BEST RESULTS
If what you want is excellence, forget the discounted set menus and go after the strip, ribeye, or (best of all) the porterhouse for two. Keep it simple. They may offer peppercorn cream sauce, but it's terrible--and even if it were good it would pale in comparison to the sizzling butter. To keep them on their toes, ask where those mammoth crabmeat lumps come from.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT
Lunch must return someday. Any distinct sign of New Orleans uniqueness locally would be welcome. The corporate headquarters should return here. They should bring back the original house Creole French dressing.
FACTORS OTHER THAN FOOD
Up to three points, positive or negative, for these characteristics. Absence of points denotes average performance in the matter.
- Dining Environment +1
- Consistency +1
- Service +1
- Value -1
- Attitude +1
- Wine and Bar
- Hipness -1
- Local Color -1
- Good for business meetings
- Many private rooms
- Open Sunday dinner
- Open Monday dinner
- Open some holidays
- Unusually large servings
- Good for children
- Free valet parking
- Reservations accepted
ANECDOTES AND ANALYSIS
The past year has not been a good one for the premium steakhouse chains in most of the rest of the country. Here in New Orleans, the two Ruth's Chris--one of them the oldest restaurant in the chain--did better than most. But now that the restaurants are run by corporate, they were diminished by the price-cutting and concomitant quality shaving that the entire chain underwent. Yes, you can have a three-course dinner at Ruth's Chris for forty dollars. But is that a USDA Prime filet? Ask and find out.
Meanwhile, more and more of the menu is coming from the commissary rather than cooked on site. Some such items are actually pretty good--the osso buco ravioli, for example. But why is the crabmeat from elsewhere than Louisiana? All that said, it's the rare customer whose eyes aren't brightened by the prospect of having dinner at either local Ruth's Chris. Usually, reservations are needed to assure a place in the dining room. If you get the sirloin strip, porterhouse, or ribeye, you're still eating the prime beef for which the place became famous. And the sizzling butter is no less appetizing than it has ever been. Ruth's Chris remains a great place for saying goodbye to meat in this Carnival season.
This review was updated with new information on 1/13/2010.
A list of all 300 full, current reviews is here.