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High steaks 

Succulent cuts at Ruth's Chris Steak House

This year has signaled the second wave of steak houses for Charlotte. The first wave arrived in the 1990's -- Morton's, Capital Grille, Sullivan's. Now, steak houses are again springing up like mushrooms after a rain. And why? Well, why not? Charlotte is a city of big banks and big appetites, where the sky's the limit for hopes, dreams -- and evidently thick slabs of beef.

We had heard whispers of Ruth's Chris coming to SouthPark for years, possibly before the company even knew about it. This fall Ruth's Chris opened a store close to the SouthPark Mall and the newly constructed office towers and condo complexes. The company also has stores in Greensboro and Cary, with a total of 88 company-owned and franchise-owned restaurants nationally.

Ruth's started in 1965 when a woman, Ruth Fertel, bought Chris Steak House in New Orleans. After Fertel died, the chain eventually went public in August 2005. The Charlotte store is a franchise owned by Jeffrey Conway, previously in the company's upper management. About 55 percent of the Ruth's Chris Steak Houses are franchises.

With steak houses in fierce competition, how do they differentiate themselves in a market like Charlotte? At Ruth's Chris, it's -- as they say -- "the sizzle." For you Atkinites, the sizzle is butter. Red meat sizzling in hot butter. If you don't have a cardiologist on speed dial, read on -- this may be your kind of place.

Conway has recreated the interior (formerly Guytano's) into a comfortable breathing space. No lockers of aging beef dismally welcome you. Instead, once beyond the high spirited, boisterous bar where many diners await their tables while drinking Mojitos, one enters a dining area lined with deep cushioned banquettes and an elegantly appointed center. Ruth's Chris does not convey the overly masculine, overbearing, dead heads on the wall ambience that some other corporate steak houses have. With the high ceilings, raucous laughter echoes from the large parties cluttered towards the center of the room and travels throughout the room making the atmosphere genial and, well, happy. This is a place for folks.

What makes a good steak house is lots of good meat. Ruth's Chris is no exception to the rule. On the menu are a Filet ($30), New York Strip ($35), Ribeye ($33), Porterhouse for two ($77), Petite Filet ($28), T-bone ($40), Cowboy Ribeye ($36), and a Veal Chop ($30). Their meat is corn-fed Midwestern beef, USDA Prime. The rest of the menu has a bare-bone, utilitarian feel. There's lobster and more lobster dishes, Ahi-tuna, stuffed chicken breast asparagus with hollandaise, creamed spinach, and the lettuce wedge.

The first dish to arrive from the kitchen was a steamy bowl of Louisiana Seafood Gumbo, one of Ruth's original recipes. At that point it became clear the portions were more than generous, almost overwhelming. In fact, they are of King Kong proportions. Starters easily feed two: two crab cakes, which were plenty good, come as one appetizer. We ordered the small house salad and had it divided, and these portions were the size of a typical serving at any other restaurant.

The thick New York Strip, cooked with precision, oozed with fatty, rich flavor, while the three thickly cut lamb chops were densely flavored and tender -- albeit sitting in a pool of sizzling butter. Ah, the sizzle. This is what people come for.

The side of French fries was about the size of a soccer ball. I didn't think any one person could eat the whole amount, but the guy -- about 5'10", 280 -- at the next table proved me wrong. He finished off his fries and then scarfed down the remainder of his girlfriend's steak. We ordered the onion rings merely to watch the challenge it presented the server, as they attempted to balance this Seussian stack of rings while weaving through a crowded dining room.

Since the tables were dotted with bright red Ruth's Chris take home bags, it was surprising to also see a well-rounded dessert selection. If you have room, the warm apple crumb tart is a delight.

The service during the evening ranged from excellent, to good, to slow at times. I had the feeling -- throughout the two-and-one-half hours -- that our server expected us to make a night of the dinner. Most people around us stayed for some time. Maybe that's why reservations are not always seated at the appointed time. Conway makes rounds at the tables giving the place a personal touch and making sure to overcome any difficulties.

The major drawback to Ruth's Chris is the check. Ours, including tip, was about $240, which doesn't seem hard to do. The place is drawing local celebrities, too. On the same day he appeared on a local paper's front page, Ric Flair also dined at a table near ours at Ruth's Chris. The old steak house formula reigns true: it's more fun pleasing a crowd than impressing them.

Eaters' Digest

Woodlands Pure Vegetarian South Indian Cuisine, 7128 Albemarle Rd., is under new ownership. 704-569-9193.

The King and I, 4800 Central Avenue has closed, but the owners are planning to open another Thai restaurant in the Dilworth area. In their space on Central is a new Salvadorean bakery and coffee shop. They have become known for their pineapple pastries. They hope to add a dinner menu in the future.

Marguerite's French Bakery has relocated to a bigger space: 2424 N. Davidson Street, 704-332-2028.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: tricia.childress@ creativeloafing.com.

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