Ruth's Chris Steakhouse: Chain or Champion?
Waltham, MA - The iconic chain has just set up its second Boston area location in Waltham. But does it live up to the hype - or it it more sizzle than steak?
Call us elitists, but we generally find it hard to take chain restaurants very seriously. In particular, steakhouses. After all, we’re home to the likes of Davio’s, Grill 23 and Frank’s. Even our own regional chains - Legal Seafoods? Beer Works? We're looking at you (please don’t have your lawyers beat us up) - generally pale in comparison to their standalone counterparts.
Still, we’re more than happy to be proven wrong. And this isn’t some smugly superior arrogance. Unquestionably, there’s at least one person in the world who would prefer Olive Garden to their local Italian trattoria… and I’m not one to judge, no matter how high my eyebrows might arch. Morton’s? Flemings? Capital Grille? All fine, fine institutions and worth every penny. There’s a comfort in familiarity; and you certainly can’t blame anyone for wanting an experience they can relate to. Which is while you’ll find me guiltlessly running out at 2 a.m. to hit up Taco Bell as opposed to El Pelon. Unless El Pelon changes to late night hours. In which case… I’d probably still be running out at 2 a.m. to hit up Taco Bell. (Don’t judge us.)
Still, we didn’t pay much attention when Ruth’s Chris opened up their first Boston location in 2005. Especially when one of their salient selling points is a reputation of Southern hospitality...- at Los Angeles haute cuisine prices. I’ve been to the South. If you’re paying more than $19 for a strip steak, you’re a damn fool. And sure, the Phantom Gourmet may have raved about it like a five-year girl who just tried ice cream for the first time; but everyone knows you can place a paper plate full of nachos from 7-11 in front of him and he’ll wax rhapsodic about it until you have no choice but to ban him for life from your store.
When I was recently visiting with family in Waltham, the unanimous choice on their end was Ruth’s Chris. No amount of pleading, cajoling or begging - as much for my ego’s sake as much as my wallet - could persuade them otherwise. No choice but to bite the bullet and cash in my 401K.
Ask many Massachusetts residents what they think of when they think of Waltham, and they’ll answer either “watches” or “aren’t there couple universities there?” And yes… Waltham has a history of both. They won’t mention the cultural diversity. The number of officially designated national historical landmarks. The thriving artistic culture. Or the famed “Restaurant Row” on Moody Street offering their own individual takes on everything from tapas to Italian to Indian to wood grilled pizza. And it was into this atmosphere that Ruth’s Chris chose to muscle in on.
When Ruth Fertel first opened her initial Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse fifty years ago, I don’t know if she anticipated that it would grow to be an international chain with over 150 locations. Or that it would grow to be a publicly traded company turning over $10 million dollars in profit. Or that people would shell out over $50 for a ribeye. Frankly, I don’t know if Ruth Fertel ever existed. Was there a Papa Celeste? A Long Jane Silver? These are pertinent questions; and somehow, I don’t suspect the current CEO of Ruth’s Hospitality Group is prepared to summon up her ghost via seance to shut me up.
The first thing you notice about Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is that it has the atmosphere of a memorial service. Which isn’t to say that the servers aren’t pleasant, attentive and friendly; even if my quips about “We’re going to Sizzler! We’re going to Sizzler!” were met with quizzical stares. What it means is that if you’re looking to impress a would-be septuagenarian in-law who likely has several dozen shares in offshore shell companies… Ruth’s Chris isn’t your worst choice in the world.
But neither rich pappies nor stiffly formal atmospheres are the draw of Ruth’s Chris. It’s clear that Ruth’s Chris business is steak; and to say they know their business is to say… they certainly know their business. You’re not going to find a fry cook from Denny’s behind the grill here. Both the cooks and the servers know more about steak than you ever will, and will gladly fill you in on the most intricate of minutiae until you honestly consider turning vegan just to weasel out of the experience.
We ordered the petite filet and shrimp; two 4 oz tenderloin medallions topped by two oversized shrimp. The steak arrived precisely as ordered (medium rare) and was unquestionably more than I expected in terms of size. The texture was velvety as opposed to the stringiness typically found in tenderloin cuts and the signs of age made all the difference in the world. The butter-peppercorn marinade perfectly complimented the natural sweetness of the beef; however, the same could not be said of the shrimp. What should have seemed like an ideal combination turned out to be a dominating one which cancelled all of the natural briny taste until you began to realize that this was more about the butter, not the crustacean. Even more disappointing was our brussel sprout side order. Bacon in brussel sprouts? Why, that’s so novel you can find it at IHOP! Unfortunately, the earthiness was completely lost in a sea of almost cloyingly-sweet honey butter. We could barely finish half of it; luckily we were sated by the portion size of the steak by that time.
As for Ruth Chris’s celebrated wine list? Show me a pint of MD 20/20 and a Tri-County Pinot Noir from 1994 and I’ll take the former; not solely because I’m nostalgic, but because I keep it real. But I can tell that Ruth’s Chris simply aren’t slouches. We went with the Daou Pinot Noir. I won’t lie and praise the complex fruitiness or the subtle nuances of the tannins but… even to a veritable Neanderthal, I could tell that this was a wise choice.
All in all, I stand by my earlier statement that if you’re trying to hustle...I mean, win the good graces of a rich relative who’s seen both more years and money than you likely ever will, Ruth’s Chris should be in your top five list. But if you’re trying to feed a family…. Better take out that second mortgage.