Secrets Of Ruth's Chris Steak House You'll Wish You Knew Sooner

For carnivores and business travelers with hefty entertainment budgets, Ruth's Chris Steak House has long been a dependable choice for a luxurious meal with few surprises. With 133 locations in the United States as well as additional restaurants in 10 other countries, including Aruba, Mexico, Singapore, and Canada, it's a familiar name for steak lovers — even if pronouncing it remains a constant struggle.

And in case you're wondering, there is actually someone named Ruth (and a secondary character named Chris) behind the original restaurant. Founder Ruth Fertel, a divorced mom looking for a business that would allow her to put her two sons through college, bought the defunct Chris Steak House from Chris Matulich in 1965. She had no idea what she'd gotten herself into: Unbeknownst to her, Matulich had already sold the New Orleans restaurant, watched it fail, then repurchased it for pennies six times before. But through a combination of luck, grit, and smarts, Fertel managed to break the cycle and succeed — so much so that a loyal customer who moved out of town proposed buying a franchise so he could enjoy his steak fix close to home. And from there, the iconic steakhouse's growth to global prominence began.

Here's where that weird name came from

When hearing about Ruth's Chris Steak House for the first time, the first question most people have is, "What's the deal with that name?" When Ruth Fertel first bought and re-opened the Chris Steak House in 1965, changing the name of the restaurant wasn't part of the plan. She had zero food service experience, so she focused instead on teaching herself everything about running a restaurant — from bookkeeping to cooking to even butchering a whole beef loin singlehandedly. 

Her efforts paid off, and locals came to respect her energy — and her steaks. So when a fire destroyed the original restaurant in 1976, there was no question she'd reopen it –- but it would have to be in another location. There was just one problem: The name Chris Steak House was legally bound to the original property, and Fertel didn't have the right to use it for her replacement restaurant. Not wanting to lose the name, which Fertel's customers came to associate with both her and the restaurant, she hastily improvised a loophole and added "Ruth's" to the front of Chris Steak House. It was one of her rare truly bad ideas. "I've always hated the name," she admitted to Fortune (via The Hill). Fortunately, her customers came to accept the odd name, like the restaurant's custom-designed 1800-degree broiler for its steaks, as part of what makes it unique.

Founder Ruth Fertel was a bit of a kid genius

At first glance, Ruth Fertel seemed like the last person one would expect to turn a troubled restaurant around. She had no experience or training in food service or hospitality, and knew so little about business she didn't think to investigate the restaurant's history of multiple failures before buying it. And both her banker and lawyer warned that her plan to mortgage her house to pay for the restaurant was beyond foolhardy. It seemed that only a supremely oblivious person would make such a move. Or a genius who somehow saw what everyone else was missing.

The restaurant's success clearly proved Fertel's genius. But there was ample evidence from her earlier life that there was much more to her than met the eye. She was a child prodigy, graduating from high school at 15 and completing a degree in chemistry (with a minor in physics) at 19.  At the time she purchased the original Chris Steak House, she was working as a laboratory technician at Tulane University. But after buying the restaurant, she realized hospitality was her true calling — and was where her true genius lay. "I was so lucky that I fell into something that I really, really love," she told Louisiana Public Broadcasting in 1998. "And I think that if you ever go into business, you better find something you really love because you spend so many hours with it, it almost becomes your life."

Ruth Fertel intentionally recruited fellow single mothers

It's never been easy being a single mother, but in the 1960s, when divorced mom of two Ruth Fertel purchased and opened the restaurant that would become Ruth's Chris Steak House, it was even more of an uphill battle than it is today. For one, good-paying professional opportunities for women were hard to come by. While Fertel was fortunate to have stable employment as a lab technician at Tulane University, a job she really enjoyed, she knew it didn't pay enough to put her two sons through college. The only option she could think of to earn a fatter paycheck would be to own her own business.

And once she opened her restaurant, she began staffing it with other single mothers, hoping to give them some economic security as well. But her interests were more than altruistic. She believed that like her, they'd be hard-working and driven to succeed. At one point, the entire waitstaff at the original restaurant was all female — and all single mothers. This hard-working team of women came to be affectionately called the "Broads on Broad Street."

But the restaurant was later sued for sex discrimination

As the years passed and the Ruth's Chris empire expanded, Ruth Fertel's personal influence over her restaurants diminished. After all, there was no way she could be in dozens of locations around the world at the same time. While her first franchisees were fans of the restaurant who knew and shared her personal vision and even in her 70s, she made a point of visiting 42 of the restaurants to "smell out how they're doing," her grip over her empire began to loosen. She ceded most control over her restaurants to new corporate operators before succumbing to lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 75. 

With Fertel's death, her restaurants lost not only their visionary founder, but her mission of female empowerment. In 2011, three women working for Ruth's Chris filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against the restaurant, which later expanded into a class-action lawsuit. The suit accused the restaurant of systematic discrimination against women, including harsher disciplinary measures, lower pay, and fewer promotions for women, along with a culture of sexist comments and behavior. The restaurant denied these allegations.

A major hurricane made the original restaurant a local favorite

For business owners in New Orleans and other coastal areas of the southeast United States, the prospect of a major hurricane is constant and terrifying threat. Even if your business survives unscathed, power outages, road blockages, and flooding — not to mention a traumatized and possibly newly homeless customer base — it could be enough to put you out of business.

When Hurricane Betsy struck New Orleans in 1965, owner Ruth Fertel faced precisely this challenge at her new steakhouse. Without electricity to power her refrigerator, her stash of pricy steaks was at risk of spoiling. However, her gas-powered broilers still worked, so she decided to deploy them as a force for good, grilling free steaks for first responders and survivors. Her generosity won her legions of new fans, who stayed on as loyal customers after normal operations resumed. Meanwhile damage to local fisheries proved to be another lucky break for the fledgling steakhouse. With fresh fish in short supply, the local Catholic Church put meatless Fridays on hold, and Friday business at the restaurant skyrocketed.

The restaurant's pandemic cash grab sparked outrage

During her life, Ruth Fertel was known for her generosity and love for community. She famously staffed her restaurant with other single mothers like herself, and following Hurricane Betsy, gave freshly grilled steaks away to aid workers and survivors.  And she wanted her spirit of generosity to outlive her, requesting in her will that a foundation be established in her name to support educational programs in New Orleans and surrounding areas. 

The corporate owners who took over Ruth's Chris Steak House after her death, however, had other priorities. In 2020, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, Congress authorized the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to provide financial support to small businesses that had been forced to put their operations on hold. Using a legal loophole, Ruth's Chris Steak House managed to procure $20 million in PPP funds, a move that outraged struggling small business owners who'd received pittances. Public outcry convinced the restaurant to return the funds, but Fertel's grandson, Rien Fertel, found this cold comfort. "My grandmother believed in the virtue of giving, in community, in helping those in need," he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

To add insult to injury, the restaurant also boosted its prices

Ruth's Chris Steak House has long been a special-occasion restaurant, with prices to match. Customers are drawn to the restaurant for a luxury experience, and they make their reservations knowing they'll be spending significantly more than they will at most places. But in recent years, even loyal return customers have been experiencing serious sticker shock upon opening their menus. And the restaurant's staffers have started to notice some blowback. "Overpriced so everyone who comes in feel cheated right off the get-go," a former bartender grumbled on Indeed.

Price increases are a fact of life for businesses, and historically, Ruth's Chris Steak House has increased its prices by about 1% per year. But in 2021, the restaurant pushed up its prices by a whopping 4%, citing the impacts of the COVID pandemic and rising commodities prices as reasons for the price hike. Restaurant management denied this was price gouging, calling it financially responsible and appropriate. "We are thoughtful and surgical with these price increases to ensure we balance profitability with the value we've been known for in the fine-dining category, and we will continue to approach pricing with this lens," said Kristy Chipman, company chief financial officer (via FSR magazine).

For a more affordable Ruth's Chris experience, check out their happy hour

If you feel like treating yourself to a meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House but can't justify paying $100 or more for a full meal, here's some good news. There's a way to enjoy a meal at Ruth's Chris without breaking the bank, and it's been hiding in plain sight all along: Enjoy a meal and a drink during the restaurant's happy hour instead. You won't get discounts on everything, but you will enjoy selected meals including steak sandwiches and burgers from prime meat, crab cakes, and sushi-grade tuna at discounted prices. Beer and wine will also be available at a steep discount. 

It's worth noting, however, that offerings and prices will vary by location. Happy hour prices at franchised locations tend to be higher than at corporate-owned locations, but some franchised locations may offer items that corporate locations don't. And to enjoy all this, you have to be up for an early dinner — happy hour specials are typically available from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and food and drink are served at the bar only. Finally, while more affordable by far than a regular meal at Ruth's Chris Steak House, don't expect fast-food pricing. Luxury food is always going to be an investment, so expect to pay around $17 for a prime burger.

Whatever you do, don't touch your plate

If you've ordered fajitas in a Mexican restaurant, you've probably seen your server arrive and set down your sizzling platter while saying "Careful, the plate is hot." At Ruth's Chris Steak House, you'll also hear your meat sizzling as it approaches your table, and you'll get the same warning from your server. Cynical diners may be tempted to ignore this as a lot of theater, but they'll be doing so at their own peril: The servers aren't playing around. The plates at Ruth's Chris are indeed seriously hot – they come to your table heated to 500 degrees, or the highest temperature of most home ovens.

The hot plates are one of the restaurant's signature features, and an innovation started by founder Ruth Fertel. Her goal was to ensure diners enjoyed every bite of their meals, and one way to do so was to keep their steaks hot by keeping their plates hot. She also wanted to be sure diners could hear their steaks sizzling as they were placed in front of them, and heated plates helped ensure this. But not all diners love it — some fear the hot plates are an emergency room visit waiting to happen. "The steaks were fantastic, why the need to cause 3rd degree burns to diners? The hot plate issue apparently is the owners' signature. What a load of nonsense," a reviewer groused on TripAdvisor.

The restaurant is happy to share some of its recipes

While Ruth's Chris Steak House is best known for its steaks, some of its other dishes, including its creamed spinach and bread pudding, have also won over loyal fans. Their inclusion on the menu is more than a happy accident: These dishes, and many others, are old favorites from founder Ruth Fertel's family. While Fertel herself had no culinary training before buying her first steakhouse, she grew up enjoying good food. Her mother was a talented Cajun cook(though Fertel was quick to add that steaks were rarely if ever on the menu at home), and her great-uncle, a World War I combat vet turned professional cook, created many of the recipes still used in the restaurant. 

And if you're a fan of their creamed spinach or some of their other dishes, you can enjoy them at home without asking for a doggie bag – just ask for the recipe. Ruth's Chris currently offers customers recipes for six of its fan-favorite dishes: barbecued shrimp, creamed spinach, bread pudding, sweet-potato casserole, crab cakes, and fresh mozzarella and Kumato tomato salad. So if you're handy in the kitchen, you can treat your guests to a taste of the Ruth's Chris experience from the comfort of home — and at an affordable price point.

Butter is Ruth's Chris' secret to juicy, sizzling steaks

High-end chefs and home cooks often finish searing their steaks with a bit of butter or top finished steaks with a round of compound butter for extra richness and flavor. Ruth's Chris Steak House takes this one step further — for the restaurant, butter isn't just a garnish, but a central part of its branding: All steaks come not only topped with butter, but served on hot, buttered plates. Like many of the restaurant's signature touches, this was developed by founder Ruth Fertel. "The butter melts and mixes with the juices from the steak. Can you imagine anything tasting better?" she explained (via CNN Money).

But flavor wasn't the only reason Fertel relied on butter. She believed a steak meal should be a multi-sensory dining experience. Putting her scientific training into action, she designed the restaurant's fast-heating infrared broilers, which seared steaks at a blistering 1,800 degrees. Butter placed atop the super-heated, just-cooked steaks sizzled loudly on contact, giving off not only a rich, toasty scent but a dramatic sound intended to get diners' mouths watering. She told reporters, "You hear that sizzle, and you think, 'I wonder if that's my steak'" (via Homeperch). This practice remains in place today — and to be sure you get that satisfying sizzle and hit of ultra rich flavor, the restaurant uses a special variety of butter with an exceptionally high milk fat level.