In conversation with Lana Duke of Ruth’s Chris

MARKHAM, Ont. — Radio listeners in the GTA will recognize Lana Duke’s as the husky voice urging Ruth’s Chris Steak House patrons to, “Come hungry, Darlin’.” Colleen Isherwood of CLN had coffee with Lana and talked about renovations to the Ruth’s Chris in the Toronto Hilton, and changes in hotel restaurants.

While she was in town Oct. 22 and 23, Duke gave presentations to two women’s networking events, one at the Markham Board of Trade luncheon and the other a Mississauga Board of Trade breakfast.

The big news for Ruth’s Chris, is that Duke, who lives in New Orleans, has temporarily closed the Toronto Hilton location for an interior design refresh. This restaurant first opened in June 1995, and was the first Ruth’s Chris in Canada. The Grand Reopening is set for Nov. 16.

Duke has been making changes to her Toronto restaurants each year: she launched her new Mississauga location on the grounds of the Holiday Inn Toronto Airport in November 2017 and the Downtown Markham location inside the Marriott Hotel in November 2018. The refreshed Toronto location will make it a perfect trifecta.

“The downtown Toronto location will have been open 25 years next year,” Duke told CLN. “Through the years, we have done different renovations — new carpet, new chairs, new lighting. This time we had to close the restaurant because we’ve expanded the bar substantially. People like to sit and dine at the bar. The private dining area has been levelled out; now there’s one large room that can be broken into three — perfect for an anniversary or big birthday, seating 20-25 people.”

The Celebration Room and the Political Room, private dining rooms for 40-50 people, have been modified as well. The restaurant’s booths have been taken out, and the area is more open. The crown moulding has also been lightened up.

“My son David says it’s more like a speakeasy,” Duke said. Lana and David Duke are co-owners of the three Toronto-area restaurants plus three in San Antonio, Texas.

“The Toronto Hilton location opened in 1995, replacing Trader Vic’s, which was a thriving restaurant at one time,” Duke noted. “This was Ruth’s Chris No. 48. We negotiated a good deal and hit the ground running with the first Ruth’s Chris in Canada. At the time, Canadian reporters were concerned that we were serving American beef. Our beef is the same in Hong Kong and Toronto, St. Louis or Houston. We offer the same flavour, taste and formula. We asked the reporters to come dine with us, and then we got good press.”

The Markham Ruth’s Chris is doing well, Duke said. “I went there for dinner on Saturday night, and the hostess said they were full; would I mind eating in the bar? I enjoyed that very much. Markham has grown tremendously in the past few years. We picked the right time to open.

“At one time steak houses had cherry wood, lots of crown moulding, and were very dark. Today’s demographics want a lighter decor, with more colours. Every Ruth’s Chris in the world is different. It always amazes me. But guests always know what the food is going to be like. We produce consistency in environments that are different.

“That all started in 1965, when [founder] Ruth [Fertel] first bought Chris’ restaurant — it was accidental, but it has worked out well. We are a chain of 152 restaurants, but we’re not a chain. When Ruth started franchising, she wanted a Dallas feel at the Dallas site. The Ruth’s Chris in the San Antonio Alamo Heights subdivision has the feel of The Alamo — it’s cosy, comfortable and looks like Texas. Everybody has a favourite Ruth’s Chris — people get attached in different ways.”