Distillations: Steak Out at Ruth's Chris

I was never planning to review the bar in Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. But I needed a fancy celebratory dinner on short notice, the local restaurants I tried were booked, and I've always liked Ruth's Chris's ungainly name and New Orleans history. I don't know why feminist scholars haven't held Ruth Fertel — who acted against the advice of every man in her life and learned how to butcher cows by hand in order to turn a failed local steakhouse into an international dining powerhouse — up as a paragon of female empowerment.

So I made a reservation and showed up on time. Then the maitre d' told me it might take a half-hour for my table to be ready, would I mind having a seat at the bar?

I don't know if I'm constitutionally capable of spending a half-hour in a bar without writing a column about it in my head anymore — and besides, Ruth's Chris is making an attempt to push its bar. Signs on the outside presented not its famous steaks but a series of new cocktails that it promised would make your night.

So I sat at the bar, which is in fact a beautiful example of the classic wooden rectangle in a dark and slightly crowded room, and studied the cocktail menu.

I was one of the few people sitting at the bar at this point — all of us seemed to be refugees waiting for the promise of a table — but I still had to wait for the bartender's attention. The restaurant drives the bar here, and those of us sitting in this room were always in second place. It's the customer service experience of waiting at a drive-through window.

Finally the bartender turned to me and asked how my evening was going.

“Good,” I lied. None of this was his fault. “I'm looking at the new cocktails, and I see you have listed a coconut ginger lemon drop martini. Now, tell me the truth: Is that actually good, or does it just throw a lot of things together?”

The bartender hesitated a long time. “It's the second one.”

I nodded. “Thank you.” He nodded back. “So …” I asked, “what on the cocktail menu would you drink?”

He hesitated again. “Honestly, I drink scotch.”

So it's like that. “I think we can do business.” I looked at the whiskey selection, which aside from being notably overpriced was acceptable. “It's been a long time since I had a Cragganmore.”

“Sure,” he said, and proceeded to look through the bottles behind him. I looked too: Cragganmore was definitely on the list, but neither of us could find it on the shelf. He gave me an embarrassed look. “I'll, uh, I'll ask if we have any in the back.”

I mentally rolled my eyes. “No problem.”

Mari arrived, all dressed up and puzzled to find me sitting at the bar. “Wait,” she said, glancing over at the shelf of liquor. “Are you writing a …

“Well, I hadn't meant to, but they're making me wait for our table, so…”

“So I guess you're buying me a drink.” She studied the menu. “Hmmmm, a coconut ginger lemon drop…”

I held my hand between her and the menu. “I've been advised not to.”

“Ah, it's like that.”

The bartender came back. “We don't have any Cragganmore.” He and Mari both gave me sympathetic looks.

“Just give me a shot of Oban.”

He nodded, got the bottle down, and poured. “Personally, I like the really peaty stuff. Otherwise it tastes more like a bourbon to me,” he said.

“And you're a scotch man, not a bourbon man?”

He ran to help another customer. The dinner crowd was being diverted into the bar — it was like formal detention with alcohol — and I never expected to see him again. But after pouring a few of the overly complicated cocktails he came back. “I like it all, but I tend to drink what makes the least impression in the morning, you know?” he said.

I did. We traded a few stories about bourbons that have done us wrong, and that lead to discussions about bourbons we'd tried recently and then favorite scotches. I think he liked being a bartender, rather than working a drive-through.

I'd just finished my shot when someone came in to tell me my table was ready. I paid up, and then he poured another shot in my glass. “For the road,” he said.

Just like Ruth Fertel would have done.

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