Thursday, November 15, 2012

REVIEW: Ruth's Chris- ***/$$$$$

Want steak? Want almost nothing but steak? Ruth's Chris has you covered. Ruth's is the largest luxury steak  chain in the United States with one hundred and thirty five locations in almost all major cities, serving up specially-sourced meats straight from high-end farms managed by the company. Pretty impressive.

At least as far as the Providence location goes, that impressiveness extends to the architecture and decor. Ruth's apparently spent over three million dollars building their Rhode Island operation and it shows. The inside is massive, and it seems to stretch forever from the front of the building to the back, where doors lead to private dining areas for groups. The ceilings are a good twenty-five feet high, with gigantic modern-ish light fixtures that could kill someone if they fell. As far as aesthetic goes, it is modern with a distinctly wealthy bachelor feel to it.

The valet was friendly and helpful, and after he took our car, we entered into what appeared to be the entrance. We stood around for a couple of minutes looking lost before someone at the bar finally realized that we were hoping for dinner, and we were directed to walk past the bar, down some stairs, to a second (hidden from our vantage) desk that actually held the hostess. Of course. The hostess was vegetative, and she lead us to our table in a haze.

After getting to our table, we enjoyed the view out the window of the river. It was very nice and I suspect that dining during Waterfire would be great. Unfortunately, I'm sure that this is precisely the time when the restaurant will be overwhelmed with diners. But even without burning pyres, it was pleasing. The tables are set well and the chairs are decently comfortable. The flatware was nice, and the glasses were spotless.

The waitstaff is a disaster. I'll have more on them later.

Apparently, the restaurant relies on your having an appetizer. We were informed that "going straight to entree," results in a twenty-minute wait for food. Ok. This gave us a chance to take in the sight of the other diners. The masculinity of the decor is not lost on the clientele, with the vast majority of people being male, with many of them talking "business." And by business, I mean congratulating each other on being brilliant. I don't mean to sound like some sort of corporate-hating communist at this point, but it was painful to watch and listen to. We had no less than three groups of white men discussing why Romney lost.

Adding to this absurdity of the scene was the mob family that kept parading by our table to a private dining room. I'm not joking. Seriously. I think it may have been a mob family. Lots of overweight men in nice suits, lots of women with tans. The restaurant manager who asked us about our meal did not help this impression, with hair that was slicked back with shoe polish so fiercely that they could very well have been cutting the meat with it. After he stopped by our table, I commented to my partner that I felt greasy.

"But what about the food?!" you are yelling. Yes. The food. Long story short, it was very good. It was exactly what you would expect for an expensive piece of meat cooked well. Ruth's appears to err on the side of rare, with my medium-rare petite filet being what I would consider rare. Perhaps they do this since they plate on which they serve the meat is heated to 500 degrees, meaning that the meat continues to cook. Regardless, it was a minor quibble, and in fact I think more places should err on the side of rare.

The meat dishes are austere. Very austere. You get meat. On a plate. And that's it. You can appreciate why this business model exploded during the real-estate boom; the profit margins are enormous. Our petite filet, which I suspect was in the neighborhood of 6-8oz, cost $36. I don't consider this wildly out of whack since the meat, in all its austere glory, is excellent: tender, flavorful, and seasoned just right. But that said, it's still a bit pricey.

I can get similar meat for less per ounce at any number of RI steakhouses. Providence Prime, my current favorite, will give you a 10oz filet, with sauce and side for $37. It's a similar, cheaper, story at Ten Prime, Capital Grille, and Fred & Steve's. While other restaurants have brought their competitive A-game in the economic downturn, all Ruth's has done is apparently stop charging for valet. The prices aren't a total deal-breaker — with meat this good, they would have to be much higher — but they are still a knock against Ruth's.

It's the very austerity that they champion that amplifies this issue. Why pay more when I can get meat that is equally prepared and equally austere elsewhere? There is no recipe, no art. All they have is their hot plate gimmick (which is, I'll admit, nice). This stands in contrast to places like Gracie's, who I have criticized for having servings that were too small for the price. At least at Gracie's, their foods are complex creations — pieces of edible art. Most of Ruth's Chris items are little more than high-quality ingredients, prepared well.

The sides, which are intended to be shared, are equally disappointing. When I ordered a la carte sides at Fred & Steve's, they were the size of the table. Sides at Ruth's Chris are borderline one-person servings, further exacerbating the wild prices. Twenty cents worth of broccoli is sold for $8.50. The sweet potato and pecan casserole was a bright spot. It was nearly a dessert, with creamy sweet potatoes under crisp pecans. Other than that, their sides are basically a list of overpriced vegetables.

I mentioned earlier that the service was a disaster, I shall now elaborate on that.

When I am spending a fair amount of money, I expect service. I do not expect to be worshipped, or fawned over, or have dutiful-yet-silent servants float by with water. There is no script for this — no absolute plan. But that is exactly what Ruth's Chris is trying to do, and it blows up in their face.

The strained obsequiousness of our waiter was painful. The absolutely oddball lilt to his way of speech contrasted badly with his tattoos and hair. His bodily positioning bordered on parody, as though he was almost attempting to mimic the waiter from The Triplets of Belleville.

This cartoon is exaggerating and thus mocking the mannerisms of a classically-trained French waiter. Ours wasn't at all classically-trained, so the movie is not directly mocking him. They are related, though. He was a waiter who was following a script, differing from the above video only in that the creators of the movie wrote with mockery in their mind, while the managers of Ruth's Chris did so with insane earnestness in theirs.

Indeed, the waiter acted as a suitable representation of the restaurant's gestalt: a poser, faking the gross elements of behavior of other high-end restaurants. In those cases, the raison d'être of the restaurant is being a restaurant, not being yet another instance of a chain. The wellspring of choice and behavior comes from that. Good restaurants go from that into a business model that allows for profitability. Ruth's Chris reverses this.

There is no fire behind any of it. It is faked high-end. The dining room wants to be like Per Se or Chez La Mere Michel, but without the passion of a singular vision behind it, it's soulless. It's Hewlett-Packard selling a computer that looks like a Mac. This is fine for cheap places like TGI Friday's, or even slightly more expensive chains like Longhorn Steakhouse. But there is a good reason why the majority of high-end restaurants are not chains: we are not simply paying for food when we go to them, we are paying for vision. We are paying for art. We are paying for something more than a mere declaration of conspicuous consumption.

My final issue with the environment wasn't initially noticed by me, but my partner, Danielle. I may have been oblivious, but after she pointed it out, the hair on the back of neck stood on end for the rest of the meal: the waiters were all white, and the busboys and waterboys were all black. 100%. I'm not sure if this was the case over the entire staff — I can't imagine them being that blatant — but for our meal, the 100% measure is accurate.

Interestingly, while doing research on the steakhouse scene for this review, I came across an article posted earlier this year, and while not having anything to do with Ruth's, it did involve their across-the-street competitor, The Capital Grille. The Grille is the focus of a growing, multi-state racial discrimination lawsuit where employees are alleging that "Capital Grille [favored] white workers over people of color for lucrative tipped jobs." Sound familiar? I guess this isn't surprising considering all of the Romney voters in the dining room and stuff like this (start at 3:00).

I will never go back to Ruth's Chris, yet I give it three stars. Why? Many of my problems with Ruth's are my interpretations of things in the environment. If you do not have these interpretations, you will not have many of my problems. Certain things are the very embodiment of food criticism, though, such as the recipes and prices. These problems, combined with the fact that Providence is not at all short on high-end steakhouses, place Ruth's Chris firmly in averageville. Everything is simple, good, and high-priced. Just like everybody else.

Ruth's Chris: ***

10 Memorial Boulevard
Providence, RI 02903
(401) 272-2271
Reservations Recommended

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