Unrated during the pandemic
Maybe you want a place to take the family that won’t break the bank. Ruthie’s All-Day has you covered. Entrees with mass appeal — smoked meat, wood-grilled fish and vegetables — average just over $20 and come with a choice of two sides. The possibility of leftovers is good (and so, too, are repeat tastes of dishes including lime-marinated chicken and dirty rice tossed with charred kimchi).
Perhaps you want to toast something or someone special. From the bar flow cocktails every bit as good as those you pay more for in Washington and a small but serious European-focused wine list.
Then again, possibly you’re simply after something to rev your engine in the morning. Ruthie’s All-Day, opened in September by chef Matt Hill and general manager Todd Salvadore, offers breakfast (apple pie pancakes, mushroom scramble) beginning at 7 a.m. — five days a week.
Let me sweeten the pot and tell you about plentiful parking and a spacious patio out back, where strollers and four-legged companions commingle.
Simply knowing where the principals have worked before makes me hungry for a meal at Ruthie’s. Hill, 44, is a North Carolina native who comes to the project from the popular Liberty Tavern Restaurant Group in Northern Virginia. Earlier in his career, he worked at the late Range and Charlie Palmer Steak in Washington, where he impressed the star chef enough to oversee Palmer’s other properties in Las Vegas and Reno. Salvadore, also 44, met his future business partner in 2010 when he served as general manager at the signature steakhouse on the Hill. Locally, Salvadore also worked for veteran chef Robert Wiedmaier at the late, seafood-themed Siren.
One of the tips I give people searching for a good meal in unfamiliar territory is to look for restaurants with an actual person’s name attached to it, with bonus points if that person is a woman. Think Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami Beach, Birdie G’s in Santa Monica, Sylvia’s in Harlem and now Ruthie’s, which Hill dedicates to his late grandmother. Growing up in Charlotte, Hill says he and his brother would visit every Sunday and “rush into her house for rendered fatback,” a snack before their lunch together. Ruthie Hill had a garden out back and a husband who liked to sell the tomatoes she grew, with the help of a scale and a card table, on the street corner.
Hill doesn’t claim a garden outside his restaurant, but something just as enticing: a custom wood smoker made from a repurposed propane tank. The black hulk, fueled mostly by oak and hickory, along with an Argentine grill and box smoker in the kitchen, flavor much of the menu.
The dishes designed to be shared are mostly songs of the South: not-too-sweet skillet cornbread accompanied by honey butter, buttermilk biscuits escorted with pimento cheese and Surryano ham, and hot-from-the fryer hush puppies named for the chef’s 3-year-old son, Harry. Agree to all. Hill sweats the small stuff, which is actually a big deal. Biscuits are baked every half-hour or so, and the crisp hush puppies sport minced shrimp and jalapeño in their fluffy centers.
I can’t recall the last time I saw a bowl of Brunswick stew. “Every barbecue restaurant in North Carolina serves it,” says Hill. Ruthie’s reacquaints me with the hearty blend of chicken, lima beans, corn and sausage (hold any squirrel, which some recipes call for). If Ruthie’s sounds too rich, note the colorful quinoa salad adorned with avocado, fried black-eyed peas, roasted corn and other goodies. While the bulk of the food travels well, you’ll want to save hankerings for the grilled oysters (too saucy) and deviled eggs (too apt to shift in motion) for the restaurant. The chef says he’s on the egg problem; future orders might leave the restaurant in egg cartons. Smart.
The sparkling fish tartare presented with waffle potato chips appears to be channeling an expense-account restaurant. Picture diced yellowfin tuna, garnished with snips of nori and sharing its plate with a swipe of pureed avocado speckled with Korean chile flakes. Odd dish out? Not in the estimation of the chef, who aims to do something for everyone. “I cook what I want,” says Hill. For the first time in his career, “I own the place.”
Windows on three sides of the restaurant, created with the help of Hill’s wife and co-owner, Jeanne Choi, bathe the room in light. The expanse is white with subway tiles and green with wainscoting and cozy booths. Strolling through the concrete-floored dining room, en route to a table on the patio, I pause and do something I haven’t done in more than a year: take a sound check. Given how few restaurants I’ve been inside since March 2020, I get a little nostalgic with a reading of 77 decibels, or “must speak with raised voice,” as I used to describe the noise. Lively dining rooms feel like business travel and SRO concerts: relics of the past.
Will I bother with sound checks ever again? My thought bubble disappears when the meat-and-two — or three, you decide — show up. Hill’s brisket, smoked overnight, is also the beneficiary of a seasoning blend, including paprika, garlic and onion powder, that the kitchen crew dubs TCB, or Taking Care of Business. Sweet Gulf shrimp comes with a curry-stoked drape of butter sauce, and fire-kissed chicken resonates with cumin and lime juice. Wilma Flinstone appears to have staged the meaty smoked pork spare ribs, the dark bark of which is sticky with honey, caramelized brown sugar and soy sauce and freckled with benne seeds. Like the other meats, the spare ribs are dropped off with housemade pickles and tender rolls, a.k.a. competition for your attention.
A baker’s dozen of side dishes make for delicious customization. Each supporting actor has something to applaud, but the standouts are the mac and cheese finished with Parmesan breadcrumbs, the lightly dressed coleslaw, the dirty rice made tangy with fermented cabbage, the braised greens paired with smoked tomatoes, stinging with the juice of pickled Fresno chiles and ... honestly, you can pretty much order whatever and be happy with it. My one quibble are the roasted sweet potatoes, which would be better without what tastes like granola sprinkled over them.
Does Salvadore keep a cot in the office? I’ve never been to the restaurant when he hasn’t been making the rounds of tables. Quick with a quip or a “thanks for joining us,” he puts the hug in hospitality.
Like just about everything else, the desserts, while familiar, show thought. Butterscotch pudding shows up with Chantilly cream and a crumble of Heath candy bar, and the bet-you-can’t-eat-just-one “campfire” chocolate chip cookies get their name and their flavor from smoked butter.
The owners have a lovely thing in their joint venture, a case for cloning. “I just want to be open all the time and for all people,” says Hill.
Ruthie’s All-Day makes it easy for his audience to be all-in.
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Ruthie’s All-Day 3411 Fifth St. South, Arlington. 703-888-2841. ruthiesallday.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining, takeout and delivery for breakfast and lunch on weekdays, brunch on weekends, and dinner daily. Prices: Appetizers for sharing $5 to $15, entrees with two or three sides $14 to $43. Delivery via Door Dash and Uber Eats. Accessibility: Wheelchair-friendly.