Some foodies — and I'm not naming names here — prefer to spend their dining-out dollars only at individually owned, full-service restaurants with roots in the local (more or less) community. Whether it be fine dining or pubby, they traditionally seek out these eateries.
Other frequent diners-out may more often take themselves to one of the plethora of full-service restaurants that are part of a chain. Sometimes called "recipe restaurants" (to distance themselves from the word "chain"), these eateries have put down strong roots, virtually nationwide, in the last quarter-century or so, following in the footsteps of such pioneers as Howard Johnson's.
This is understandable, especially for travelers, since they are assured of consistency — although some members of individual chains are better than others — whenever and wherever they visit a favorite.
We recently revisited one of these full-service restaurants — meaning, sit down and be served, and order a spirited drink, too: Ruby Tuesday in the Snowden Square Center. If memory serves, we wrote about this particular location some 15 years ago, when it opened, and subsequently visited a few times — amid throngs of diners — thereafter.
On this particular Friday evening, with dozens and dozens more Ruby Tuesday-style chain restaurants in the area, but with a $10 Ruby food coupon in hand, we got there around 5:15 p.m. and easily got a table, although the place pretty much filled up while we dined. It was pleasant to be reminded how spacious this 180-seat restaurant feels. Lots of cool dark wood; nicely divided dining areas, tables and booths; and plenty of windows with cheerful orange shades. Tables are vinyl-covered in black and ecru. There's a spacious wet bar, as well as the ample salad bar (now called "garden bar") we remembered from prior visits.
What's probably best about the space is that you feel like you have a little elbow room and that you can actually converse with your dinner companions without music making small talk impossible. (Local pubs, take note.)
The menu at the 500 or so Ruby Tuesdays has evolved, of course. For one thing, it's quite ambitious, and inclusive. Certainly, pub food is still a primary offering, but their treatment has changed over the years. So, that simple cheeseburger you tried long ago is now "hand crafted" and may be billed as a "triple prime bacon cheddar burger" or a "Boston blue burger." And poultry has made the "burger" list, including a chicken BLT and a turkey burger.
Of course, prices have changed. Burgers run from $9.49 to $12.49. But you get your choice of two side dishes with them. These include fresh grilled zucchini, steamed broccoli; no excuse for choosing unhealthy food. But, yes, there are fries and onion rings, too.
Whether all of Ruby's offerings come from corporate chefs or not, clearly these culinarians have kept up with food trends — both with ingredients and food treatments, and in response to the pervasive whining of the food police. The least caloric items are even flagged on the menu. In other words, there's virtually something for everyone's dietetic needs. But, as the saying goes, "You can lead a horse to low- fat oats, but. …"
Menu sections include "shareables," (read appetizers to share), main dish salads and "premium" seafood – shellfish and finfish. Or you could choose from a quartet of "all-natural" chicken dishes, or some beef in the form of "steakhouse" steaks or meatloaf. Or try a burger, some pasta, even some ribs.
The menu changes about every six months, with some of the less-popular items being scrapped and some of the newer (often seasonal) specials being added. Right now, for instance, you can opt for Friday to Sunday features of steak and lobster tail, or lobster mac 'n cheese ($18.99) or a shellfish trio of lobster, shrimp and scallops.
Additionally, you'll probably be handed a second, smaller menu that points up some "Chef Inspired Specials" from the regular menu and pairs them with an appropriate wine. Thus, asiago peppercorn sirloin ($14.99) is deemed good with a Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, and salmon Florentine ($14.99) can have Dream Walking chardonnay as a companion.
A simpler approach
We were greeted with complimentary small, over-baked garlic-cheese biscuits. But then things got better. We sampled Ruby's shrimp fondue ($7.99), a large serving of crisp-tender shrimp in a creamy dip spiced with fresh pico de gallo with plenty of tortilla chips for dunking.
And crab bites ($6.99/for eight) featuring lump crab meat and panko crumbs, fried up crisp outside and tender inside and arranged on leafy green lettuce, with a spicy chili-lime dunk on the side. These got mixed reviews from the crab purists that evening.
Plus a fresh guacamole dip ($8.99), creamy-chunky, kind of spicy, generous, set on lettuce leaves with yellow and black nacho chips for scooping.
As to main dishes, we opted to order a la carte, which at Ruby Tuesday doesn't mean you don't get goodies to go with your entree, it simply means you don't choose the combinations recommended on the menu.
One of our number did his own version of surf and turf. For the turf, he chose the Memphis dry rub baby-back ribs ($13.99), mainly because the dry-rub rib approach is a favorite. The half-rack (there are half-racks and half-racks) wasn't overly generous but the mild, fall-off-the-bones meat was nicely done. One of his side dish choices was grilled zucchini coins (generated a pleasant healthy feeling). For an additional $2.99 he helped himself to the garden bar, which was expansive and kept freshly stocked.
And for $3 more (with the entree order), our taster got his surf — an octet of small, nicely spiced, batter-fried Louisiana fried shrimp.
Another guest chose the rib-eye steak ($16.99), which was nicely but subtle-y seasoned, then grilled to her medium-rare order. A generous steak, but rather thin, and with ample fat still on, which fact she enjoys in a steak. Garlic-herb mashed potatoes and the garden bar were her side choices.
Herb-crusted tilapia ($13.99) was the epitome of simplicity — a mild fish fillet, which had been crusted with panko crumbs and sauted to a lightly crisped doneness, while remaining moist and tender inside. And topped with a lemon-butter sauce, which could probably use a bit more lemon. Rice pilaf on the side featured tender rice and red and green bell peppers. Fresh green beans were welcome, too.
We were so replete, we opted not to even look at the dessert menu our friendly, efficient server offered.
Ruby Tuesday (410-312-0917), 9071 Snowden River Parkway (Snowden Square Center), Columbia. A 15-year-old version of the national chain, this restaurant seems to have stood the proverbial test of time. During our visit, we noticed that the place was entertaining its share of regulars. Indeed, according to general manager Brian Webster, who has been with the Ruby Tuesday outfit for 20 years but only arrived at this location four months ago, the Snowden Square Ruby Tuesday "has more regulars than any of the other restaurants" he's ever worked.
Spacious, relaxing, reasonable prices, good service, a creative menu (complete with mouth-watering photos) that seems in tune with what eaters-out demand these days. Open seven days for lunch and dinner. No reservations.
P.S. According to Brian Webster, with some 500 stores nationwide, all named Ruby Tuesday, the corporation is venturing into other styles of eateries these days, with a couple of different names. One is Limes (Tex-Mex), and another is Marlin and Ray's (with a seafood theme).