Ruth's Chris Steak House

1801 Connecticut Ave. N.W.
(202) 797-0033

As the late Richard Nixon used to say, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Bob Livingston paid for his own dinner. No way the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee was going to violate the congressional gift ban by letting a reporter buy him a meal.


Food: 9 Ambiance: 7
Service: 8 Price/Value: 9

But that was fine with me. I got to eat one of the best steaks served anywhere in Washington, meet Rep. Livingston's charming and vivacious wife Bonnie - he paid for her dinner, too - and gather raw material for a restaurant review without submitting an expense account that looked like it came from an Appropriations markup.

HOURS: Dinner only, 5-10:30 p.m. daily, 5-10 p.m. Sunday.

PRICES: Appetizers: $3.95 to $9.25; entrees: $16.95 to $29.95.

Actually, Ruth's Chris Steak House isn't any more expensive than its upscale competitors. In fact, the prices of most entrees at this oddly named restaurant that bills itself as the "Home of Serious Steaks" come in at a few dollars less than competing macho beef emporiums like The Capital Grille, The Palm, Sam & Harry's and Morton's of Chicago.

But when you're eating U.S. Prime with the chairman of a committee that controls hundreds of billions of dollars in federal spending, who's counting? Rep. Livingston and his wife agreed to join me and Joan McKinney, the Washington bureau chief for the Baton Rouge Advocate, at the New Orleans-based chain's outlet on Connecticut Avenue in downtown Washington last month.

I like to think the Louisiana Republican viewed the dinner as an opportunity to break bread - or cut meat - with two important media types. But it's more likely he wanted to help his friend and constituent Ruth Fertel, who mortgaged her New Orleans home for $18,000 in 1965 and bought a small restaurant called Chris Steak House. She added to the name "Ruth's" and built it into a chain of 55 restaurants that now grosses some $155 million annually.

Ruth's Chris opened its third restaurant in the nation's capital area last December, in Bethesda, Md. - the other is in Crystal City in Virginia (there's also one in Bawl-mer). But for convenience sake, we chose the original D.C. location that opened in 1983, just down the street from the Washington Hilton. While it lacks the spectacular marble and wood-paneled architecture of the new Bethesda branch, the food and service more than make up for the uninspired decor.

I arrived first and was promptly seated, and soon was joined by Chairman Livingston and his wife, and a few minutes later, by Ms. McKinney, who failed to uphold the reputation of reporters as two-fisted drinkers by ordering a soft drink, as did the Livingstons. That left it to me to test the bartender's skills at pouring a Maker's Mark bourbon over the rocks, which he managed quite successfully.

Bob - he told me to call him that - and I ordered the house specialty, aged corn-fed Midwestern steaks broiled at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit and brought to the table sizzling in butter. (As the restaurant claims, you can actually hear your steak coming to your table.) Ms. McKinney had the lamb chops while Bonnie Livingston opted for the fresh catch, which was filet of salmon.

The chairman's New York strip ($24.95) and my filet, like the one you see on the Ruth's Chris ads, ($23.95) were sensational, 16 to 18 ounce slabs of tender beef cooked precisely to order and bursting with hearty flavor. The thick lamb chops ($29.95), flown in fresh from New Zealand, were equally impressive, according to Ms. McKinney, but I later learned that they're only on the menu during the Easter season.

Mrs. Livingston offered me a sample of her salmon ($21.95), and it was every bit as good as, and much healthier than, our carnivorously biased entrees, or anything I've eaten at restaurants that specialize in seafood. Next time I eat at Ruth's Chris, I might just order fish.

We shared an order of creamed spinach, saut´┐Żed mushrooms and steak fries, all excellent, but declined dessert and finished with strong, black coffee that reminded me of the kind you get with beignets in the coffee shops around Jackson Square in New Orleans. The service was impeccable, even before our waiter became aware that we weren't just the usual bunch of lobbyists or tourists.

Even though my portion of the bill was higher because of my cocktail (alright, I had a glass of red wine, too), we split the bill among the four of us. It came to $166 without tip, and just under $200 with a tip that reflected the excellent service.

Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) was sitting at a nearby table with a group of Missouri agribusiness executives, and came over to say hello to the chairman, who reciprocated by stopping to chat with Sen. Bond's group on the way out. I hope the people of Missouri benefited from their chance encounter, but I didn't ask the senator who paid for his meal. As they say in New Orleans, let the good times roll.