After nearly 17 years in Columbus, our restaurant will be closing on Sunday, February 14, due to changing marketplace dynamics. That’s the official word from Ruth’s Chris as of yesterday afternoon.
You’ll have to give me a moment… I think there’s something in my eye.
I can’t remember when I went to the Columbus Ruth’s Chris for the first time. It’s possible that it was dinner with my father, although it’s equally possible that the Mrs. Baruth of the time and I just went there to see what all the fuss was about. Doesn’t really matter. By the year 2002 or thereabouts, I was a fairly regular presence at 7550 High Cross Boulevard. For five or six years or a row in the middle of that decade, my wife and I invited various friends and frenemies to have Valentine’s Day dinner with us there; at one point there were fourteen people at the table. Once or twice I picked up the whole check. It was an era in my life where a fifteen-hundred-dollar tab for dinner did not in any way dismay me.
Around 2005 I got into the habit of dining with my old business partner and friend, the “Big Dog”, at Ruth’s Chris about once a week. We’d sit there and disgrace the relatively clubby atmosphere of the place with our various and sundry coarse pronouncements. The first time I ever heard the man deliver his famous line, “Young stupid bitches grow up to be old stupid bitches,” I was seated in one of the booths to the south side of the main room, sawing away at a filet. After his series of strokes, he decided he didn’t want to return, so we have our meals now at the Outback, both of us quiet and reserved, as if we had committed or witnessed a crime together and sworn never to speak of it.
Certainly I spent tens of thousands of dollars there over the years, but nearly as expensive was the tab for the various clothing I destroyed in my sometimes drunken but always over-enthusiastic approach to my meal. Ties, shirts, and the occasional sportcoat, all adulterated forever by blood or wine or vodka or butter-soaked parsley. My relatively small collection of pre-corporate Borrelli shirts, acquired for five or six hundred bucks a pop, fell before this onslaught like teenagers in what Setright called the “blood-soaked cockpit” of Passchendaele, returning after unsuccessful laundering to serve as the world’s most expensive shop rags.
I would eventually expand my Ruth’s Chris resume to locations as broadly-spaced as Niagara Falls (the worst ever), San Diego (brilliant), and West Palm Beach (unforgettable) in the course of adding various notches to my guitar, as Robert Cray would say, but I kept the Columbus location nearest to my heart. I fell in love a few times at those tables. I ate too much and drank too much and said too much and revealed too much. Didn’t do a lot of listening. Rarely am I as personally obnoxious as I can be with eight shots of Ketel One and a fine steak in my stomach.
There are many stories I’d like to tell about affections found and lost and found again in those close-coupled booths, but I don’t think those stories belong entirely to me. I can remember a lot of pretty faces laughing and at least one dark-eyed woman succumbing to a Wagnerian crescendo of tears behind her clasped hands. There was a friend’s wife for whom I burned with indifferently-concealed passion and often was the time that I’d contrive to buy her and her husband dinner, spending the whole time mesmerized by her peerless decolletage and gorgeously planed cheekbones. Many of my recollections disappear halfway through, the calling card of incipient alcoholism and/or substance abuse in progress. I wish I had them back.
When my divorce came through, my ex-wife and I made a complicated agreement to never appear there on the same night. The discussions took more time than the discussion about what to do with my retirement money. She’ll be there for that final night, Valentine’s Day of 2016. Of this, I approve. She’s earned it. A few years ago, we suspended our rule and I sat down there for dinner with her and her new husband and my son for what felt like long-delayed closure but also a sort of tangible declaration that we would have peace in our time.
After the January 2014 crash, I sort of re-imagined the visibly-aging Columbus location as a place for recovery and quiet. We found a favorite waiter and listened night after night to his stories of skiing in Colorado and traveling across the Midwest. I imposed a four-drink maximum on myself, then cut that further to three at the most. I’d sit there with my cane and thoughtfully consider the various possible incarnations of my future. Not to be confused with the various possible incarcerations of my future.
Some part of my life is being taken away, closed up. No longer will I have the chance to sit in those booths, swaddled in the dyed tapestry of my often-unpleasant but still-vibrant past, grateful to be alive and mostly whole but also sorrowful at what I’ve missed and lost. The man who sat there for his first meal in 1999 is only a distant relative or ancestor of who I am today. I rarely feel as close to him as I do when I’m behind those double doors.
If I’m smart, I’ll use this closure as a chance to declare the end of a personal era. To say that the dissipated, vicious, unpleasant person I’ve often been at those tables is dead and buried. That I’m a father now and maybe I’ll be a husband again in the future and maybe the time has come to let all of that go. That you’ll be able to find me at the Applebee’s or the Bob Evans and as the years drag on I’ll become indistinguishable from all the other pleasant fathers and corporate workers and dutiful suburbanites who surround me. But before they turn out the lights, I’ll be back one last time. To raise a toast. For the people I’ve loved. And thrown away. And discarded. And kept. And hurt. And leaned on. And lost.
Once more, with feeling. And then it’s goodbye to all that.