Obviously, if you are heading up a major United States restaurant chain, one which turns over in excess of $1.2billion per year across 850 outlets worldwide, you need to get into the bustling British economy – fast. And where better to set up shop first than the burgeoning metropolises of Cheltenham and Cardiff?
This is what Ruby Tuesday has done. I am ignoring Wales ever since they embarrassed us in the rugby but found myself in CheltVegas again recently, checking in with the parents (my mum needs periodic visual confirmation that I am still alive) and the opportunity presented itself to get in on the new kid on the block, at the Brewery entertainment complex near the town centre.
Initial impressions of Ruby Tuesday will depend entirely on personal sentiments towards TGI Fridays. Both have clearly been born of the same mother and had wholesome upbringings before heading off to some kind of metaphorical restaurant university. However, TGI’s never left, deciding to take up a full-time job at the union bar after graduation and then pissing about for the next twenty years. Ruby’s boldly stated “I’m going to make something of my life”. It did, but after eating there I am not sure what.
There is reined-in honesty and straightforwardness in everything that Ruby’s does, shows or serves. The ultimate cocktails are served in pint glasses (as opposed to the mental chalices you get if you go large at Fridays) – even the traditionally more delicate margarita. My Pyrat Hurricane just kept coming at me like some kind of mad wolf. I had two. Despite their ankle-tag appearance, taste and ingredients are smashing (Pyrat XO rum is not to be sniffed at).
The food – coming from all corners of the States – swerves into TGI’s lane on more than one occasion. The Four Way Sampler is a platter of Southwestern spring rolls, fire wings (off-the-menu on our visit, sadly), fried mozzarella and breaded chicken strips, offering more that a passing nod to TGI’s crazy combos. Here though, everything seems more thoughtful and yearning to be taken seriously. There is even a sense of order about the presentation. The spring rolls are unusual and refined; the chicken strips – perfectly cooked, crispy and crackly – must have come from the biggest damned chicken in the world, maybe that one from Family Guy.
Just going through the menu’s section-upon-section of main courses is over-logical to the point of exhaustion. Fresh Handcrafted Burgers, Fast and Fresh Combinations, Pasta Classics, Prime Burgers, Premium Seafood, Fork-tender Ribs, Steakhouse Steaks (yes, you read that one correctly), Fresh, all-natural Chicken and Fresh. Fresh. Sides.
Deep breath, please.
My misgivings about such menus stem from an old chef adage that kitchens cannot effectively and freshly store/cook such huge qualities of food. However, on that Thursday night Ruby’s delivered three great mains. My steak, all £seventeen of it, was the best-tasting I have had in that price range – even better than the legendary Brown’s ribeye. I could tell Mumsie was enjoying her salmon as she was silent, no longer relentlessly asking such questions as “Are you eating OK in London?” (not really, if you go by this post) or “Are you sure you are happy?” (definitely. Half an hour on the Tube in rush hour gets me grinning from ear to ear)
Daddio’s burger was tender, juicy and generous, loaded with toppings and a sweet chilli mayonnaise, the likes of which I have never seen before – but I would love to bump into again. Again, like the Sampler starter, everything seemed a little more mature than TGI’s – burgers served on plates, not paper, and steak knifes, not steak machetes. The food was certainly a lot more toothsome. Don’t even get me started on the dessert. The Key Lime Pie was one palate-cleansing, generous mother of freshness.
As I ate and continued to drown in rum, I looked around the restaurant. Living-room civilisation. Comfy chairs and pastel-y colours as opposed to dark woods, red-and-white awnings and stools. Weird and wonderful artwork yes, neon signs and crap on the walls, no. Even the diners were frequenting the all-you-can-eat Garden (Salad) Bar in an orderly fashion.
There are no pumped-up singing waiters with stupid hats here, just the awkward naïvety of inexperience – I could see that the restaurant is relatively new. Our waitress keyed in the wrong flavour margarita and bizarrely asked if we would prefer that one instead, which, for me, is a cardinal sin of lazy service. She later apologised incessantly for a indistinguishable delay with the starter. She was a genuinely warm person though – and that was the overriding thing which shone though. Remember kids, hire attitude, train skill.
The beauty of Ruby Tuesday is that you pay high-street prices for a grown-up taste of America. That is pretty unique – only Frankie & Benny’s comes close but it is unforgivably inconsistent there. The flip side to this coin is that sensibility inevitably comes at the expense of fun and soul. A hen party sat down not long after us – they looked like they were having an agreeable time, but where was a jokey waiter flirting and working the table? Everything seemed just a bit too solemn. Dare I use the word ‘dull’? In any event, my parents and I made our own fun, giggling at a woman on the next table over who looked exactly like Rosemary West.
Suddenly the locations of Ruby Tuesday make a little more sense – virtuous, sensible and respectable restaurants for virtuous, sensible and respectable towns (I am loathe to call Chelters dull, cos it ain’t). It’s a big name that will almost certainly grow more into the United Kingdom, so, you heard it here first – a Ruby’s franchise will likely be coming to a whimsically British backwater near you, very soon.
Three three-course meals and a few too many pints of cocktail came to about £eighty
www.rubytuesdayuk.com | @Ruby_TuesdayUK | 01242 222 175 | The Brewery, Henrietta St., Cheltenham, GL50 4FA