It was February 5, 1927 when Chris Matulich opened the doors of Chris’ Steaks in New Orleans. Unbeknownst to him, across town (on that very same day), a little girl named Ruth Ann was born. Bright and competitive, she skipped grades and eventually earned degrees in chemistry and physics. (Meanwhile, Chris–blissfully unaware of young Ruth–continued to crank out steaks down in the French Quarter.) In 1965, that little girl, Ruth Fertel, now-divorced and struggling to support her two sons, mortgaged her house and purchased the tiny restaurant. After a fire in ’76, she reopened nearby as Ruth’s Chris’ Steak House. Friends and extended family asked to purchase franchise rights for the wildly successful eatery, and by 1985 there was a Ruth’s Chris (they eventually dropped the last apostrophe because it confused people. Sadly, a lot of people are easily confused) in just about every major city. Ruth Fertel is dubbed “The First Lady of American Restaurants” and “Entrepreneur of the Year.” She died in 2002, with 2010 marking the 45th year since she risked everything to buy that little steak joint.
In spite of a pervading (and unexplainable) bias that some hold against any restaurant with more than one location, I count my experiences at various Ruth’s Chris as among the best I’ve ever had. Without boring you with details (or has that ship sailed?), the strict policies and procedures imposed on their franchisees focus obsessively on quality and overall customer experience. Of course, as with any endeavor that involves human beings, there will be variations on the theme, but apparently somebody’s keeping track of the rulebook over there in Ocean City. It’s all in the details: When the server noticed that three of the six diners in our party were wearing black trousers, she brought out black napkins rather than the traditional white which can leave bits of white lint. I like stuff like that.
Oh, by the way, it’s comfort food! The place is a pantheon to carbohydrates and calories. It might not be something you indulge in every day, but those little carbohydrates can sure put a shine on a special occasion. We started with the Lobster Bisque and the Gumbo. The Bisque was creamy and full-bodied, with a hint of sherry, and the gumbo was darkly spicy, slightly chunky with okra, and redolent of file. They were both delicious.
The Tomato and Onion salad is so simple, but last night’s tomatoes were dark red, perfectly ripe and…well, just plain tomatoey. Not those hard nasty things you get at the grocery store that never seem to ripen. The salad’s drizzled with a tart vinaigrette and topped with crumbled blue cheese–lots of it. I often get the Ruth’s Chopped Salad served en timbale with lots of goodies including Hearts of Palm, Mushrooms and Radicchio. On previous visits we had the Crabtini appetizer, with big chunks of cool crabmeat in a lemony vinaigrette, accompanied by a spicy remoulade. The Caesar Salad was cold and crisp, and though you rarely get one made tableside any more (thank you, food police. Mind your own business, would you?), the dressing had all the required tastes, though one of my favorite Foodies-in-Waiting wimped-out of the anchovies. <<sigh>>
Seafood gumbo at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse1/9 The entrance to the OC Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse2/9 Ruth’s Chris Steak House (Ocean City)3/9 I like extra bleu cheese….4/9 The shoestrings make a great topping for the T-bone5/9 The signature creamed spinach6/9 Shoestrings7/9 The Wedge8/9 My favorite: The T-Bone9/9
Sure, you can get other stuff (they actually have nice shrimp, chicken, fresh seafood and lobster entrees for the dainty among us), but it’s definitely about the steak at Ruth’s. I rotate among the New York Strip, the Filet and the T-Bone. I feel that a bone-in steak actually tastes better, so the T-Bone mostly ends up being my default. I am not making this up: Last night I was able to cut the filet portion of my T-Bone with the side of my fork. The New York Strip was equally tender and almost an inch thick, with a thin and darkly seared edge of fat. An accompanying musical Foodie (this time he was in good company….) ordered the Filet and sang of its tenderness and flavor. Two things about Ruth’s Chris in general: (1) the ovens are very hot (over 1000 degrees), so the outside of the steak will have an appetizing, slightly crispy crust (technical Foodies call that the Maillard effect). (2) Your steak will almost always come out slightly rarer than you ordered it. They know that “doneness” is subjective, and they will be happy to cook it a little more for you. Attempts to UN-cook a steak have thus far been unsuccessful.
Ruth, or at least the rhetorical Ruth, is not shy about her potatoes. She proffers seven varieties for your perusal. My favorite is a tie between the Shoestrings (a haystack of thin-as-air, golden brown and crispy fries) and the Loaded Baked Potato (topped with pretty much everything you can think of). Do also try the Au Gratin (with 3 cheeses) and the Lyonnaise (sliced and sauteed with onion). Last night we snacked on the Asparagus topped with Hollandaise (still-crispy spears lounging in a pale yellow, buttery sauce). One of the signature sides they’ve had for years is the Creamed Spinach. Never one to shirk tradition, I always order it “for the table” (that’s code for “I want it”).
Ruth’s Chris Steak House is west of Ocean City, MD off of Rt. 50, slightly east of Home Depot and Walmart near Berlin, MD. Turn north at the signs and drive straight back to the Clubhouse of the Glenriddle Farm (former stable and training facility for the legendary racehorses Man Of War and War Admiral). If Matt’s at the front desk, tell him The RehobothFoodie sentcha. Though the space is large, it’s laid out in such a way that it’s quite cozy. Click here to see the steak menu. Call 888-632-4747 for reservations or info. (L., D., Bar) Price range: Expensive +.