French Quarter: 539 St. Philip St
In 1985–a time when most of the buzz about new restaurants was in Uptown–no restaurant in New Orleans was talked about with more enthusiasm than Miss Ruby’s. For a time, it had people lined up on Chartres at St Philip so consistently that it was often compared with K-Paul’s. (You also shared the long tables with other people, like at K-Paul’s–but beyond that the comparison was not apt.)
Reading my reviews from back then, however, makes me wonder about the fuss over Miss Ruby’s. Until I recall what the rest of the scene was like. Ruby’s was ahead of its time. In an era when major restaurants (except K-Paul’s) hewed to a certain level of formality, Miss Ruby’s was a bare-bones Southern-Creole café, with few rules, no pretensions, and low prices.
It was difficult to have a meal served in more than one course at Miss Ruby’s. You ordered a platter, and the salad came out with it, accompanied by a former ketchup bottle filled with the house dressing. And that was that.
Miss Ruby’s first premises were in an old paper warehouse. It underwent only a utilitarian renovation to turn into a restaurant. The location–St. Philip at Chartres–is now well known as the address of Irene’s Cuisine is now. The dining room was even smaller than Irene’s, and the kitchen minuscule.
The day’s offerings filled a sheet of lined paper with longhand. The house specialty was chicken–broiled one day, fried the next, chicken and dumplings the day after that. All this was home style and good enough to make a trip into the Quarter worthwhile.
Seafood was another good bet, ranging from your basic Southern fried catfish platter to stuffed trout, blackened redfish, oysters, shrimp. We went wild over it all, except perhaps for serious New Orleans standards like red beans and gumbo. Which Miss Ruby never seemed to get just right.
There was a reason for this. Ruby Wilkenson was not from New Orleans. Her palate was more in the style of the rural South. She made a big deal over her fresh vegetables (never canned or frozen, which in 1985 was unusual), then cooked them to what we would now consider death.
And she made a lot of desserts, with a particular deftness in the pie department: peanut butter pie, coconut chess pie, pecan pie, lemon meringue pie, and more. She was more a precursor of Paula Deen than of Chef Paul.
Miss Ruby was herself a kick. A middle-aged woman on the short side, she was always laughing. Her trademark was a leather cap. Everybody wanted to know Miss Ruby.
Then suddenly, for unknown reasons, Miss Ruby moved across the street. The old place stayed open, but now there were two. You didn’t know which one was the “real” Miss Ruby’s–both claimed to be. Neither was as good as the original. By 1990, both were gone. Miss Ruby turned up not long after in a restaurant on the corner of Decatur and Conti, but the magic was never recaptured. I have no idea where she is now, but I don’t think she’s in the restaurant business here anymore.
Miss Ruby left behind an excellent cookbook: Miss Ruby’s Southern Creole and Cajun Cuisine: The Cooking That Captured New Orleans. It’s available on Amazon. And, in a way, her legacy is alive in Irene’s. If Miss Ruby’s hadn’t been on that corner of Chartres and St. Philip, Irene’s might not have become as popular as it is.