Review: Good ol’ American beef at Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Last week two of us serendipitously found a $25 promotional gift certificate to Ruth’s Chris Steak House in the mail. Fifty dollars off a steak dinner for two seemed pretty substantial so we headed right over. But as it turned out, a 50-buck credit barely makes a dent in a Ruth’s Chris tab.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House was founded in 1965 by Ruth Fertel, a divorced single mom who mortgaged the family home to buy a New Orleans restaurant listed in the classifieds, Chris Steak House. She made it her own by appending “Ruth’s” to the title. Now a franchise with 119 locations worldwide, Ruth’s Chris is a publicly traded company. Our San Francisco branch on Van Ness Avenue and California Street has been running for about 20 years.

In meat circles, Ruth’s Chris has built a reputation on serving U.S. prime beef cooked in a 1,800-degree broiler. The flash cooking seals and browns the outside and warms the inside while allowing the fat-marbled meat to stay juicy. Every steak is cooked exactly to specifications explained on the menu.

Our steaks arrived sizzling on menacingly hot plates. My ecstatic dining companion polished off a $49 T-bone with particularly succulent tidbits on the filet side along the bone.

My buffalo ribeye steak ($43), listed on a locally generated menu page of specials, was delicious — bright in flavor and tender, with plenty of fat marbled into the flesh, as I saw the next day when I took the remaining half of it out of the refrigerator to eat cold.

Accompanying items are all a la carte, with signature items on the menu printed in red, but I couldn’t bring myself to order sliced tomato and onion salad ($8.50) in April. I opted for lettuce wedge ($7.50) — actually two wedges of iceberg, one draped in chunky blue cheese dressing, the other naked, mysteriously perched on a bed of tired greens. Baby arugula salad ($8) was ruined by a cloyingly sweet balsamic dressing.

A dense one-pound baked potato ($9) with trimmings on the side, and a huge boat of pleasant-enough creamed spinach ($9), easily served two, as did an individual banana cream pie ($10.75) with lots of custardy white chocolate filling and caramelizedbananas on top, for dessert.

Wine is overpriced, as are cocktails, such as the $11.25 Chopin martinis. In the end, the cost of this dinner for two with one glass of wine and one cocktail came to more than $200 with tip.

Is a dinner at Ruth’s Chris worth it? No. A $50 credit puts it in the ballpark, but only if you hold yourself to one glass of wine or a cocktail.

I came back early one evening, sat in the clubby wood-paneled bar where I could watch basketball on a big flat-screen television and tried a few more items, including decent Louisiana seafood gumbo ($9) and New Orleans-style hash browns ($9.50), a thick, very buttery potato cake with a crisp top and soft interior — a keeper.

That’s when I came up with a strategy for eating here. Stay away from salad and split everything else, including a steak. You’ll get what you came for: U.S. prime beef expertly cooked. Believe me, half a steak here is plenty. Or go crazy and just eat steak. By San Francisco standards, nothing else at Ruth’s Chris is really worth the money.

Patricia Unterman is author of the “San Francisco Food Lovers’ Pocket Guide” and a newsletter, “Unterman on Food.” Contact her at pattiu@concentric.net.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Location: 1601 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

Contact: (415) 673-0547; www.ruthschris.com

Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Price range: Starters and salads $7 to $20; steaks $39 to $49; sides $9

Recommended dishes: T-bone steak, buffalo ribeye steak, hash browns

Credit cards: All major

Reservations: Accepted

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