Marigny: 435 Esplanade Ave.
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.
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.