The Empire of Sizzzzzzzle: Mom Buys a Steakhouse
Excerpted from the newly released book, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir by Randy Fertel, University Press of Mississippi, 2011.
From the beginning, or at least since Mom’s tenure, Chris Steak House was famous for its drinks. Free-pouring, rather than measuring with a jigger, was her absolute rule. It has been said that Chris Steak House invented the stiff drink – or at least set a very high benchmark. That is quite a distinction in what surely must be the hardest of hard-drinking cities. If an evening got rowdy, Mom might take her waitresses aside and warn, “Easy on the drinks, girls, easy on the drinks.” But she knew that dispensing pleasure in generous amounts would keep the front door swinging open. After she added her name to the neon sign at North Broad Street and Orleans Avenue – she didn’t have rights to “Chris Steak House” beyond 1100 North Broad St. – one food critic announced Ruth’s Chris Steak House should be used as a sobriety test, a test many happy customers were likely to fail. The name was a mouthful and hard to say, but also an asset, because once learned it was impossible to forget.
The beginnings are impossible to forget, too. My parents’ divorce was finally settled in 1965, after eight years of wrangling with a man, my dad, who would come to be known as The Gorilla Man. Mom was earning $4,800 a year as a Tulane lab technician. She decided to mortgage our house on Seville Drive to buy a business. “To send my sons to college” Mom was “ready to lay it all on the line.” She pored over the classifieds and came across a four-line ad under Businesses for Sale:
Established Steak House
For sale at reduced price
Owner retiring. Apply 1100 N.Broad
We had known Chris Steak House for a long time, the kind of joint we’d go to, if not its competitor Crescent City, if Mom and Dad had a horse that placed at the Fair Grounds. (Mom was the first licensed woman trainer of racehorses in Louisiana and she and Dad had owned a stable.) Chris Steak House had been in business for 38 years. Like Mom, owner Chris Matulich hailed from Plaquemines Parish. When he told her of opening the restaurant on Feb. 5, 1927, she said, “You’ve got to be kidding. That’s the day I was born.” A devoted crapshooter, Mom saw another auspicious omen in the address: 1100 had to be a winner!
The price was $18,000. Her brother, Sig, who had a restaurant in Happy Jack that was just making it, and her Tulane boss, renowned cardiologist George Burch, both asked, “Are you crazy, Ruth?” Which no doubt set her competitive juices flowing. Determined and self-assured – Steak house? I can do that! – Ruth approached her banker who looked the deal over. “What are you going to do for working capital, Ruth?” he wondered. “What about inventory? Maybe you should borrow $22,000 …” Ruth would always attribute her success to James Fallon Quaid’s insightful, generous gesture. She took possession on May 24, 1965.
Chris was supposed to show Mom the ropes for six weeks, but on the first day he came in, emptied the till and walked out. With Chris gone, Mom had to teach herself to butcher the meat, give orders to purveyors, take orders from customers, pour drinks and deliver the steaks. Manhandling and hacksawing 30-35 pound short loins was brutal work. Mom was 5-foot-2-inches tall and 110 pounds. How did she do it? After a week with the hacksaw, Mom invested in a band saw that made butchering easier but more dangerous. With no safety guard, the whirring band was ready to slice off a thumb. For the next few years my mother’s hands and arms were full of nicks and burns. She filled in for the broiler cook on Mondays and as needed on short orders. On a busy night she stood opposite the broiler cook and expedited, getting the steaks with their side orders to the tables on time.
The original menu was composed of three steaks, all from the short loin: filet, strip and porterhouse for two, three or four. Nothing came with the steak but that hot, crusty French bread. À la carte she served a few sides, including potatoes nine ways and four salads: regular, head lettuce wedge, white asparagus and Wop – the name for an Italian salad that passed muster in New Orleans well into the 1980s. The dressings were rich and tasty: Thousand Island rich in hard boiled eggs, Roquefort that was crumbled from large blue-cheese wheels, and a French dressing rich in paprika that’s sorely missed today.
The menu would grow very slowly over the years. The first addition was a family legacy and became the stuff of legend: creamed spinach based on Great Uncle Martin’s recipe. From Home Place in the Delta, Martin was the legendary cook in Mom’s Plaquemines family. Her sure hand in the kitchen was a family legacy, too.
The “front” of the restaurant had the mahogany-sided and white marble-topped bar that probably dated from the day Chris opened in 1927. Here people with reservations leaned, nursing their drink as they waited in line for a table, entertained (or aggravated) by the TV that almost always droned on. Tables up front were less desirable, unless you wanted to catch the news or a ball game. The two main dining rooms, separated by a varnished plywood partition, held only 17 tables.
Around the main dining room hung nostalgic renderings of gargantuan Hereford steers that seemed about to burst the picture frames. The partition was stained by years of nicotine and airborne butter thrown off by the sizzling steaks as they were hurried to table. In a large nook toward the rear of the main room, one large table sat eight or squeezed 10. Above it later hung rows of caricatures of her best customers. A third dining room for overflow or private parties was attained through the kitchen’s swinging door and up a short flight of stairs. Those in the know slipped $5 to Mom’s first broiler chef, the tall, lanky Vontel Lang, to insure the best high-rise, center-cut filet.
In September 1965, Hurricane Betsy almost put an end to her success even before it started. Power outages forced the restaurant to close. As electricity returned neighborhood by neighborhood in New Orleans, word of Ruth’s great steaks and big heart got out among the phone- and electrical-line workers who had flocked from all over the South to deal with the disaster. Their expense accounts were generous. The food was fantastic. Business boomed. Hurricane Betsy for New Orleans was a bitter lemon. Mom made lemonade, not for the first or the last time.
At $5.50 a steak à la carte, Mom was pushing the limit of most wallets in 1965. She stuck to the belief that people would pay a premium for the best. Just a few months after she started, Mom sat with a customer after lunch, bemoaning the slack business. Selling 35 steaks a day wasn’t going to improve her lot. “I didn’t know you wanted more business, Ruth,” the customer offered. “All my buddies in the oil patch across the river are from Texas and they know a good steak. I’ll bring ’em over.”
Customers began to line up to the point that Mom opened a second restaurant across the river in the oil patch’s backyard. Quickly renovating a failed restaurant, The Italian Village, in a strip mall on the West Bank, Mom worked with the makers of Montague stoves to make the broilers as hot as possible – 1,800 degrees, they claimed. She called the new restaurant Chris II.
Once a destination solely for the cognoscenti of prime, or for those who had hit the Daily Double, Chris Steak House now became famous for the people you saw there. Politicians with a nose for good expense account food and for knowing whither and whence the money flows followed the Texas oilmen. Chris Steak House became the place to celebrate and where deals, aboveboard or below, were cut, inked and toasted. As Mets baseball-great-turned-New-Orleans-journalist Ron Swoboda once quipped, “It was a place where carnivores behaved carnivorously.”
The main dining room contained three infamous tables enclosed by wood partitions and entered through green curtains. These served businessmen getting in one another’s pockets and lovers getting inside one another’s apparel. After her waitresses interrupted one too many moments of indiscretion, Mom installed switches that controlled the service light. These booths explain how Chris’ got voted in a magazine poll the “sexiest restaurant in New Orleans,” even at a time when the Playboy Club flourished in the French Quarter.
Another element of Mom’s success was warm, friendly service. Service in fine restaurants in New Orleans had been an exclusively male domain for nearly a century. Tuxedoed waiters at Galatoire’s and Antoine’s were career professionals who earned good livings by catering to their guests; they knew what brand Miz Uptown Blueblood liked in her whiskey sour and how Mr. Metairie Parvenu liked his pompano. Mom’s “girls” provided the same level of service and professionalism, adding a good measure of warmth and sass. Mom knew she could count on single mothers, who needed the job to raise their kids – as she was doing. Many of her waitresses had call-parties, customers who insisted on being served by Myrtle, Doris or Betty.
Myrtle Bijoux was part Polynesian, a beauty whose gray-streaked dark hair was swept up by a broad comb. Bijoux’s daughter Delilah worked as a Playboy bunny and often dropped by in the afternoons, visits that got my full 15-year-old attention. Mom’s first hire, Doris Brouillette, was a country girl from near Mobile.
Mom stole her away from A&G Restaurant on Canal and Broad streets after years of serving our family on all-you-can-eat nights. Betty White’s raven black hair and porcelain skin belied a cracker background that her way with the English language instantly betrayed. She later ran the Ruth’s Chris on Veterans Boulevard near Lakeside Mall – the “Metr’y” location. At one point Mom had four New Orleans restaurants.
Every time I came into the restaurant, Myrtle, Doris and Betty found a smile for me and a “Darlin’” or “Suga.’” They offered to feed me whatever I wanted. Mom made it clear that this could go too far, but Doris liked to tempt me with vanilla ice cream dosed with Crème de Noyaux. Later, when I came to work at their sides, they gently taught me the ropes and covered for my gaffes and blunders. Mom was a tad less tolerant.
Mom worked hard. “I’d leave the kitchen door cracked open so people could see how hard I was working,” she’d say years later when asked to explain her rise, “and seeing me work so hard, they wanted me to succeed.”
Many best remember Mom installed at her desk at a table near the bar and front door where she could keep an eye on everything, including the till. I can still see the half-glasses sitting on the paperwork neatly arrayed before her, the daily sales receipts, her adding machine tilted toward her by a foam cushion, an overflowing ashtray, a fresh cup of coffee and the list of house accounts. Customers loved to display their low Chris Steak House account number: it was a badge of honor to have been Ruth’s customer from so early or for so long.
Despite Mom’s roots in Plaquemines Parish, I have often heard it said that Ruth’s Chris was the first fine dining restaurant in New Orleans where African Americans felt comfortable. The Public Accommodations Act became the law of the land in 1964, a year before Mom took possession but, as throughout the South, the law took effect storefront by storefront. Lolis Edward Elie, a partner in the most important civil rights firm in the city, broke the race barrier when a conservative white politician, who sought Elie’s clout in the black community, invited him to lunch. Elie, a bon vivant, understood the good meal he was being suborned with, though knowing his support was a lead-pipe cinch to go elsewhere. Suddenly the dining room was in a tizzy. An oilman from the West Bank approached my mother and in his drawl, told my mother, “If that boy (two syllables) eats here (two syllables), I’ll never eat at Chris Steak House ag’in.” I imagine him towering over her five-foot-two-inch frame.
Her blue eyes turned steel gray. “There’s the door,” she replied. I can imagine her presence filling the room. But then, it always did, from those first days through the franchising that created the world’s largest fine-dining chain, serving sizzling steaks and Uncle Martin’s creamed spinach over 135 restaurants across the world. Her presence can be felt even now, even almost a decade after her death, even after other hands guide the empire she built.
Randy Fertel is the author of The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir (University Press of Mississippi, October 2011).
President of both the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, he is co-founder of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling. He has taught English at Harvard University, Tulane University, Lemoyne College, the University of New Orleans and the New School for Social Research, and his work has appeared on NPR and in the Huffington Post, Kenyon Review, Creative Nonfiction and Gastronomica.