We found ourselves at Ruth’s Chris again last week, and this time we stayed. I had it on my mind since the aborted visit the week before. Mary Ann was delighted that we were early, because she likes the burger in the bar, and happy hour prices even more. I was determined to have a steak, even though I had to have it in the bar. We arrived with three minutes before the close of happy hour, and placed the burger order when we sat down. I got a house red wine at happy hour prices.
There is something very homey and appealing about the Ruth’s Chris in Metairie. Always has been that way. The one downtown is glamorous, to hear MA tell it, but this one feels good. There’s a clubby air of camaraderie, she says.
And we got to talking about the place. I was happy to fill her in on the history of Ruth’s Chris. The most oft-asked questions are, “Who’s Ruth?” And, “Who’s Chris?” Even locals are confused. MA knew a little of this from our time together, but she was surprised to hear that Ruth wasn’t a waitress, because she certainly looked like a waitress from that era. In reality, she was a professional woman who liked Chris’s Steak house, which was not in the Broad and Orleans location. The empire started humbly at the corner of Ursulines and North Broad. That building--with the look of a neighborhood cafe--still stands, but it has not been in use since the 1970s.
In the late 1960’s Ruth Fertel, a newly divorced mother of two, decided to leave her college chemistry career and become a businesswoman. She made an offer to Chris Matulich, the original proprietor. She bought it one morning, and Chris told her a few things she needed to know. He promised a second lesson, but when she returned for more instruction, all that remained was an empty cash register. No Chris. It would be a baptism by fire.
Chris kept the name a year or two, but then it became Ruth’s Chris. It grew rapidly, as the fame of the steakhouse spread across New Orleans and elsewhere. A second location opened in Gretna, which at that time was loaded with steak-loving oil executives. (Coincidentally, Del Frisco’s started in that location much later.) The Metairie location was third.
A soon-thriving private party business did so well they built a large satellite restaurant on Orleans and Broad, which became a center of political power and all other kinds of power in the city. Then a location opened in Baton Rouge, where the international chain began. And soon, management moved from the original Ursulines location to Orleans, prompted by a fire in the building.
By this time, Ruth Fertel had become one of the most adept restaurateurs in America, and even internationally. She could claim to be the most successful restaurant operator in the world, in terms of volume, as one new location opened after another.
Over the years, I came to become friends with Ruth. The more I knew her, the more I liked her. The basis of her success was service. She told me once, “If someone wants something, I give it to them, no matter what it is.” This was a new idea in the restaurant world back then.
By the time she died, she was revered in the restaurant world. What she did was simple, and brilliant. If you ever want to read about this in-depth, get her son Randy’s book, “The Gorilla Man and The Empress of Steak.” It’s a great business story made colorful by tales only believable in New Orleans.
By the time I had told MA this story, our food arrived. She was disappointed in the $9 burger, which seemed smaller to her than when it was $7, the last time she had it. She did admit that she got it so well-done it might have shrunk. And the fries were not very good. These were battered, which is a no-no in her book. They happily swapped this for a loaded baked potato.
My petite filet hit the spot, with a lot of sizzling butter, cooked exactly as I asked. The creamed spinach I got with it was not one of my favorites, but it had spinach, so MA ate it.
The kitchen sent out a beautiful and perfectly delicious strawberry shortcake (pictured.)
This was a wonderful evening. We love this place and the warmth it imparts. ML had to deliver a cake there the following day and made the same observation, totally unsolicited. She was there ten minutes.
Maybe that’s why it’s always standing room only there. Ruth would be proud.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
3633 Veterans Blvd Metairie