Extinct

Ruby Red’s.

Marigny: 435 Esplanade Ave.
1962-1992

I’d better start off by saying that I’m not 100 percent sure that Ruby Red’s is not open somewhere. Since the original Ruby Red’s closed, other locations have come and gone in Harvey, Belle Chasse, and (most recently, and for a very short run) in the CBD. Looking further back, we find that a Ruby Red’s operated for quite a long time in Fat City. Some even made it out of town: there was once at least one Ruby Red’s in Houston (on Westheimer.)

This appreciation is entirely for the long-gone Ruby Red’s at the foot of Esplanade, across from the Old U.S. Mint. It comes from a person who is the perfect age not only to remember Ruby Red’s hamburgers well, but to have been blown away by them.

Ruby Red’s one and only dish was called a “steakburger.” It’s known in the hamburger industry now as a “better burger.” The kind getting prices over $10, and generating the loudest buzz in the entire restaurant industry. Decades ahead of that trend, Ruby Red’s hamburger patty was two or three times as thick as the standard American model. It came with “steak fries,” following the same size proportions.

Such a hamburger is easy to find now. In the 1960s, it was unheard of except at Ruby Red’s. Or it was, until many other similar restaurants came along to share in the success. When they did and we tried them, we found that merely making a thicker hamburger would not guarantee a hamburger of Ruby Red’s quality.

RubyRedsLogo

Inside Ruby Red’s small menu was a sticker with gold lettering that identified the beef as coming from Leonard Pfaelzer, a high-end meat packer in Chicago. Pfaelzer’s main stock in trade was in prime steaks. It evolved into the company that would become the main supplier of beef to Ruth’s Chris Steak House. The sticker went on to note that the meat patties were of 100 percent sirloin. It was quite a lean mixture. I guy I knew who worked for Pfaelzer back then told me that it was an eighty-twenty burger–eighty percent lean.

The size and goodness of Ruby Red’s hamburgers was enough to wow its primary customers. They were in their late teens or early twenties, and in the 1960s and 1970s were unlikely to have the gourmet bug. They did like to go out to eat, however, and they were past the fast-food stage. And at Ruby Red’s you could have a beer with your burger.

Although I found Ruby Red’s declined in its later years, we weren’t fooling ourselves in giving the burger the highest marks back in the golden age. Even Richard Collin–the first real restaurant critic in New Orleans history–says in his groundbreaking 1970 “The New Orleans Underground Gourmet,” “Ruby Red’s serves far and away the best hamburger in town.”

Richard Dixon was the creator of Ruby Red’s, in partnership with a redhead named Ruby. The restaurant changed hands for the first of several times only four years later.

The original Ruby Red’s was as much a bar as it was a restaurant. That set such a strong example that, to this day, any list of the city’s best hamburger vendors will be dominated by bars. (The notion was strengthened when the Port of Call opened five blocks from Ruby Red’s, and raised the bar another two notches.)

Say the words “Ruby Red’s” to anyone who remembers the place in its prime will inevitably bring up the matter of the peanuts. As soon as you sat down at Ruby Red’s, the server brought a paper scoop of peanuts, roasted in their shells. Good idea if you want to sell beer. But what caught everybody’s attention was the method of disposal of the empty shells. You’d just throw them on the the things. Towards the end of the night, the floor was covered with shells. A manager told me once that the shells shoo away the roaches–always an issue in the French Quarter. Enough other places have taken up this gambit that it may seen like standard etiquette, but it was a Ruby Red’s original.

It’s hard to say what’s worse: being ahead of one’s times, or behind them. Ruby Red’s could have become a national success. Or maybe the formula was too simple for it not to be copied. But remembering those days when I was nineteen and had girlfriends who could be impressed by a thick hamburger, I can’t help but smile for Ruby Red’s and all it stood for.

18 Readers Commented

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  1. oyster on January 9, 2014

    Good memories. I often stopped in for a steakburger at Ruby’s in the 60’s and 70’s. In fact, I had a red Irish Setter puppy who I named Ruby Red. In true New Orleans fashion, I now have a son who lives in the Marigny and sometimes plays music in the place that is now The Dragon’s Den(I think); but it will always be Ruby’s to me.

  2. oyster on January 9, 2014

    Great place, great memories. Also loved the music and remember Peter, Paul and Mary played a lot during my many lunches in the early 1960’s.

  3. Rod West on January 10, 2014

    Worked at Ruby Reds in Fat City when I first came back fro Viet Nam then went to work at Esplanade. Burgers were $1 and Mich draft was $.40. The second largest seller of Mich draft in NO next to Moisant airport. Peanuts came from Southern Seed Co. on Decatur a few blocks away. Henry was the mainstay of the company. Went on to help start O’Henry’s around NO. Woody was the lady’s choice of bartenders. First frozen daquries in town; Ruby Red cocktail and a frozen bannana concoction.

  4. Houston/Orleanian on January 10, 2014

    I remember Ruby Red’s on Esplanade – my parents had divorced, my dad was living in the Quarter at Royal and Dumaine. His idea of a night out with an 11-year old girl was to go to Ruby Red’s. I loved every minute of it – hamburgers were amazing – but my mother was decidedly unhappy about it because, as you point out, it WAS primarily a bar. Guess dad figured it had something for us both! And by the way, I also remember RR on Westheimer in Houston – no peanuts on the floor there…

  5. gypsy4life on June 6, 2014

    I can’t believe Ruby Red’s in the French Quarter has been closed since 1992! It was one of my favorite New Orleans places. Can anyone tell me what happened to the actual bar? I remember it was large and old. Is it still in that location? Guess I will have to check it out this weekend at the Tomato Festival at the French Market.

  6. John Carey on February 21, 2015

    I loved Ruby Red’s. I lived in New Orleans in 1981 and ate there several times. I remember the first time I ate there I was eating the peanuts and putting the shells on a napkin and the waiter/bartender/cook came over and threw the peanut shells on the floor. The burger was amazing. I haven’t found one to compare since. I loved the old look of the place, especially the old smokey mirror behind the bar.

  7. JB on March 1, 2015

    The world has never known a better burger + fries + ambiance than at Ruby Red’s on Esplanade. Pleasant memories indeed!

  8. jammin jay on April 30, 2015

    THE best place in NOLA!! It was a Sunday tradition in the 70s and 80s. We’d go to the Saints game then make our way to Ruby’s. Best burger EVER! Couldn’t beat the coldest, cheapest draft around either. Served in an ice cream sundae glass

  9. DLS on September 17, 2015

    Mr. Dixon sold Ruby Reds to Bruce Gentry back in the 70s and at one time there were several locations on the east and westbanks. After the CBD location closed in 2012 and the Belle Chasse location (formerly the Harvey location) closed in 2013, Ruby Red’s was able to return to it’s long time Harvey location near Manhattan and Lapalco last fall. Bruce Gentry passed away about 20 years ago and since then, Ruby Reds has been run by his family and still is. The original “Ruby” even passed along her Ruby Red’s flapper dress and shoes that she used to wear at the restaurant way back when. 1525 Lapalco in Harvey.

  10. Lisa on June 25, 2016

    I lived on the same side of the street about a block from there in the mid-60s
    and it was our neighborhood bar. Many nights after work I stopped in for ‘dinner’, a drink or 4, the peanuts and camaraderie.
    Great place-great food.

  11. William on March 16, 2017

    I use to work at the French Quarter Ruby Reds as a cook in 1977. Yes, I use to make those awesome 100% sirloin steak burgers. As I recall, the oblong shaped burgers came directly from a meat packing plant somewhere in Oklahoma. The burgers were cooked on a large charcoal grill. It could get tricky keeping the temperature constant. You’d have to when to add just the right amount of charcoal so not to kill the heat.
    There were only two food items on the menu. Steak burgers cooked your way and Texas fries.

  12. BL on March 17, 2017

    The Ruby Reds on Lapalco in Gretna is open. Went there for lunch.

  13. John m on April 30, 2017

    Ruby reds my first job in nola 1977
    To this day the best burger I’ve ever eaten
    What a crew there in the 70s hard working hard drinking hard partying
    It’s amazing even we few have survived

  14. Dennis Hinrichs on May 31, 2017

    My Father Henry Hinrichs, who was mentioned by a previous poster, worked there (not sure what capacity) and then went on to o’Henry’s. He passed away on May 23rd and would love if anyone has any stories of him or remembers him. He always talked about Ruby Red’s.

  15. James Caton on June 21, 2017

    I was one of the early bartenders at Ruby Reds 1960 to 1964 Dave shift always had a big lunch crowd businessman lots of nurses in 63 we went to Royal Street and bought real tiffany lamps don’t know what happened to them they’d be worth a fortune today they were hanging up stairs and down and we’re signed . Great memories

  16. CRAIG H. on June 21, 2017

    Spent the summer of ’69 as a geologist intern at Pan American Petroleum in New Orleans. Even got married there that summer. Ruby Red’s was our favorite place for lunch. I seem to remember that the cook was in the corner, elevated above the crowd. So many great memories. That’s why I Googled Ruby Red’s 48 years later.

  17. James Caton on June 22, 2017

    Worked 63 – 65 day shift bartender cook and waiter later they hired a cook to help me lunch crowd was nurses and businessmen in 64 we scoured Royal Street real Tiffany lamps to decorate the place wonder if they’re still there best burger anywhere great memories

  18. David Ezzell on August 2, 2017

    In 1971, I was at Loyola for the summer (from the panhandle of Texas). My sister lived in an apartment a couple of blocks away, at Dauphine and Esplanade. Everything you said about Ruby Red’s is true. The appeal was the great burger, the cold glasses of beer, the peanuts….it was a progenitor of a lot of wannabes that have never quite matched it.

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