By Peter Mitham
TORONTO – Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse has earned its place in the heart of Toronto, nearly 25 years after moving into space at the Hilton Toronto formerly occupied by Trader Vic’s. The tiki bar had enjoyed a loyal following, but Ruth’s Chris faced the challenge of introducing a new concept to the location and making it the steakhouse of choice in a city where the Duke family had personal connections.
Those connections soon extended across a broad swathe of Toronto’s financial district, and this year the steakhouse signed a new 25-year-lease and undertook a renovation to serve a new generation that is moving faster and eating lighter, but still looking for the elegance and service that have characterized Ruth’s Chris from the start.
“People are more fit today and thinking about their diet, and they’re not going to come in three times a week for a huge steak, but they might come in three times a week for a cocktail after work and an appetizer,” R. David Duke, co-franchisee and company CEO, said following the restaurant’s grand reopening on November 16. “Since 2008, it was a big changeover for us where the bar became much more significant.”
While the bar was always front and centre, it’s become much more of a destination than a stopping point on the way to the main seating. The new design echoes an old-time speakeasy and is rooted in fond memories Duke has of visiting the Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York a few blocks south.
“Originally, the bar was only nine feet, and now our bar is over 33 feet with a nice lounge area,” Duke said of the Ruth’s Chris remodel. “It seems that it’s getting to be where people after work say, ‘On Wednesday night, let’s go for happy hour at Ruth’s Chris.’ … So many business meetings happen right at that 5:30 hour.”
This marks a decided shift from 1995, when the restaurant business – even at hotel restaurants – was more about the dining than about the bar. The remodelled restaurant expands the bar seating to 29, with 24 of those seats in a lounge area. Total seating capacity is 249, down from the original 273, but a reflection of how the space has been redefined.
“It was more about how many seats you could get into a restaurant. Seats equal dollars,” Duke recalled of how the restaurant business has changed over the past 25 years. “You put really nice décor in there, but at the same time it didn’t really have the show biz that you have today.”
Now, the show kicks off at the door, with flat-screen TVs in the Fireside lounge, and carries through into the main dining area, which seats 99 people. A 33-foot ceiling creates an unexpected volume for a restaurant of just over 6,700 square feet situated entirely below street level.
“We were actually able to open up the ceiling and really give the room a very spacious kind of feel,” he said. “[It’s] really opened up the dining.”
There’s also private dining, which typically accounts for 20% of the business at a Ruth’s Chris. But it’s more than that in Toronto, thanks to the restaurant’s location. By adding audio-visual equipment to the private dining areas, Duke hopes to capture more special events and business meetings.
“Being in the financial district, we were doing about $1 million a year before the renovation, and so we’re hoping to at least increase that by half if not double it,” he said. “We really put a lot of first-class elements into the private dining with all the flat screens and being able to hook up to the screen for presentations wirelessly and all that good stuff.”
The expanded tech offerings are balanced by a more focused wine list, which also reflects the changing habits of diners. Rather than the 1,000-odd wines on the restaurant’s list when it opened, the selection includes just 450 today.
The changes, with an emphasis on the business guests, distinguish Ruth’s Chris in Toronto from other locations. Business diners make up about 55% of the location’s traffic compared to 45% elsewhere. The point is the sort of factor the franchise takes into account when undertaking renovations.
“What’s really kind of fun for Ruth’s Chris is our food and our menu is really consistent right around the world, but each location and each city really brands itself,” Duke said.
The task of translating that branding into décor appropriate to Toronto was given to DesignAgency, which has handled work for clients from McDonald’s Canada to the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.
“Ruth’s Chris has its iconic legacy as far as restaurants and steakhouses go. They’re well-respected and we planned to build off the classic nature of what Ruth’s Chris represents in a contemporary, but timeless way,” said Design Agency founding partner Matthew Davis. “We used classic cues and elements for which Ruth’s Chris is known, like their wine displays, service, table set-up and décor.”
The cherry-like wood tones in the restaurant were kept, for example, but some of the woodwork received a lacquer finish that refreshed the restaurant’s classic feel with an urbane polish.
The changes seem set to carry the restaurant into its next 25 years. Now one of more than 155 worldwide, including five others in Canada (a location in Vancouver is under consideration), the refurbishment underscores a desire to keep up with the times.
“A lot of people worried that the first person to go in [the Trader Vic’s space] afterwards was not going to be successful. But we were,” Duke said, noting that five staff have been with the restaurant for more than 20 years, and 23 have been on staff for more than 10 years.
“When the locals come in, they all have their favourite servers,” he said. “It’s truly a family affair, and we’re truly proud of how Toronto’s embraced this.”