Almost every food court in New York has its own story – the odd downtown developments notwithstanding. There are the “cursed”, the curious and the classics. The one at 241 Smith Street, recently the cool and warm Jolie, is now Ruthie’s. Owner Marc St Jacques also operates the great Bar Bête, which opened in 2019 with partner Joe Ogrodnek, who ran the excellent Battersby between these two locations for seven years until 2018.
So, on the corner of Smith and Douglass is a building recently vacated by a beloved neighborhood bistro and newly occupied by a respected local chef with implicit knowledge of the local market. That it exudes family friendliness, especially before dark, is not unexpected in the region. And there wasn’t a very good burger anywhere on Cobble Hill’s. Once row of restaurants until Ruthie’s assumed the role in August.
The interior is newly stripped of its previous lived-in richness and looks about as plain as the interior of an egg carton. It’s less noticeable when it’s crowded during prime time on weekends, but its overly bright lights bounce off the white walls to permeate the air on quieter school nights. The bar seats — which feel geared more toward dining than hanging out and drinking despite the seemingly laid-back vanity of the rest of the place — are now fixed to the floor. There’s a long common plateau with backless stools near the center of the room, and leather banquettes have been replaced with wooden tables and tables to the right, and some larger more comfortable (and more private) booths to left. There are covered seats outside.
Although only five of the 23 items on its one-page menu (which you might consider more given the variations on a grilled cheese or a baked potato) are burgers, Ruthie’s is a capital Burger Place. The thick-portioned patty of the Cheddar Pickle Variety ($20) has a light funky punch above an everyday mix, topped with horseradish mayonnaise, sharp cheddar and the titular sweet pickles. Sob ($21) is deliciously messy with caramelized Swiss onions and bacon. Blue cheese is covered in this distinctive flavor and is best left to those who have acquired the taste. And the fish in the tuna burger ($22) is so expertly prepared with a lovely pink finish that it wishes it was unhooked from its bun, avocado, spicy greens and chili aioli and enjoyed on its own. None include the fries, which are always worth a look, but, for an extra $5 or $11 as a side dish, the medium beef fat potatoes are archetypal; each possessing the ideal textural dynamics of crispy and soft, brilliantly seasoned and built to hold the right temperature until the last.
The rest of the menu is divided into snacks, plates (which are basically sides or apps), soups and salads, “the rest” (those options of baked potatoes and grilled cheese, plus a beer, again, without its soulmate fries) and weekly specials. Its occasional incongruity (honey-roasted peanuts and popcorn would make more sense at a dedicated drinks bar, and we can save the discussion of their $7 and $6 prices for another day) helps Ruthie’s stand out. as Burger Place, although these are outnumbered several times. Some of the majority are superficial, if they tickle comfort notes, like the spinach and cheese dip with tortilla chips ($12).
The seafood cocktail in that same “plates” section ($15) is a great mix of octopus, scallops, squid, and avocado, all just the right firmness and bursting with freshness even in its sauce coat. spicy and teasing over low heat. It’s served in a functionally appropriate sundae glass that suffers the same aesthetic fate as most clear food vehicles, perhaps the most awful of which is the martini mashed potatoes and gravy: looking like a whole mess just a few bites. This one is tasty enough to look the other way, and it would be even easier if, again, the lights were lower. The Thursday pasta special ($23) also meets or exceeds much of what you’ll find at the many old and new Italian restaurants here in Red Hook. Lean spaghetti is homemade, drizzled with a fluffy marinara and topped with a large meatball masterfully cooked and sprinkled with parmesan cheese.
Ruthie’s imprinted cocktail menu is limited to whiskey drinks like the soft, not-too-sweet Toronto ($15), which incorporates cynar, demerara and sassafras, and the brilliant smash ($16) with blackberry bush, mint and lemon. It’s a little restrictive, but, since it’s still a bar, you can order anything, like the perfectly fine gin martini ($15). Beer on tap includes beers from nearby Threes and Other Half. Its reasonable wine selection lists some fresh reds that pair well with burgers.
The atmosphere: An everyday place with better than routine food; Busy on Fridays and Saturdays and a little quieter on weeknights.
The food: Really good burgers, great fries and seafood cocktails and some really special specials.
The drinks: Cocktails, wines and beers.
Ruthie is located at 241 Smith Street. It’s for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday from 5pm to 10pm. Brunch starts at 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.