New Orleans lost one of its first ladies of politics last week when Ruth Fertel, founder of the Ruth's Chris Steak House chain, died after a long bout with cancer. She was 75.
The story of Ruth's rise to business prominence is well known. She mortgaged her home to buy Chris' Steak House in the mid-1960s, and literally rolled up her sleeves to learn the business. On her first day, she once told me, she had to cut the meat by hand.
Before long the city's high and mighty were queuing up for seats in one her booths or back rooms. Her super-sized cuts of aged U.S. Prime beef, along with four-finger pours of mixed drinks, became appropriate victory symbols in the sanguinary game of New Orleans politics. Under Ruth's stewardship, Chris' Steak House established itself as the unofficial clubhouse of the city's political fraternity. Countless deals were hatched or sealed there, and nowadays it's the place to see and be seen.
This didn't happen by accident. The restaurant's success reflects Ruth's personal drive to excel. The lady with a chemistry degree from LSU worked tirelessly to confect the right mix of atmosphere, value and service. And she was justly proud of her achievements.
She also was set in her ways -- in ways that were uniquely New Orleans. For example, for years she closed shop on Good Friday. "It's just not right to serve meat on Good Friday," she said. Instead, she would treat her entire staff to lunch at Fitzgerald's seafood restaurant in West End.
Just about every other day, particularly in the old days, she would sit at a table in the dining room or at her desk inside her office, as often as not playing (and winning) a game of gin rummy. There was no pretense, no B.S., about Ruth. She was a great hostess, but she was no glad-hander. Mostly, she let her food and her service speak for her.
Ruth also was loyal to her customers. In the mid-1980s, pollster Joe Walker, the late Jim Monaghan and I started our own tradition at the Washington Mardi Gras -- lunch at Ruth's Chris in D.C. We got the Storyville Stompers to parade down Connecticut Avenue from the Washington Hilton Hotel (site of the Mardi Gras ball), and we treated our friends to steaks and the trimmings. At the time, Ruth's Washington "store" wasn't doing so well, and for several years she didn't even open the place for lunch. But she opened it for us and gave us a discount on the food to boot. In return, we filled the joint with thirsty Louisiana folks (we didn't pay for the drinks, just the food -- we weren't that crazy), so it was a fair trade. In a few years, what began as a cozy little party had grown to an overflow crowd. Even with Ruth giving us a break on the food, we priced ourselves out of existence -- but by then Ruth's in D.C. had become a landmark for Washingtonians as well.
Another example of Ruth's generosity came on the day we buried our old pal, the late state Rep. deLesseps "Toni" Morrison. After the funeral, which was on a Saturday, it seemed only natural that some of us should head to Ruth's for lunch and drinks. It's what Toni would have wanted.
Trouble was, Ruth's was closed for lunch on Saturdays at the time.
When we arrived to find the place closed, we sent word to Ruth why we were there. Minutes later, she opened the bar just for us and sent out appetizers. Thanks to Ruth, we sent Toni off in style.
The hallmark of Ruth's restaurants has always been their clubby atmosphere.
The club won't be the same without her.
A previously scheduled tribute to Ruth will be held Wednesday at The Ritz-Carlton Hotel. The $500-a-plate fund-raiser will benefit the Ruth Fertel Culinary Arts Building at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux. Call (877) 218-7847 for information.