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Photograph at top left by Raphael

Today, as part of an image makeover, Ruby Tuesday is going to blow up the last of its old-style locations at 3 p.m. ET (you can watch, live, online at rubytuesday.com). We figured this was as good a time as ever to go over the burger there.

You see, a number of A Hamburger Today readers have written in steadily over the lifespan of this blog swearing that Ruby Tuesday, surprisingly, had an excellent burger. And indeed, a recent commenter on Serious Eats notes that it was originally founded as an upscale burger restaurant.

Ruby's was started in Knoxville, TN by a guy named Sandy Beall and a couple of frat brothers as an upscale burger restaurant. The burgers were seriously good and unusual for the time (early 70s). The first restaurant was off the University of Tennessee campus and the second was opened two doors up from the Pier 1 Imports I managed at the time. For a while, every time they opened a new store, Sandy would come into Pier 1 with his decorator and plunk down a couple of thousand dollars -- which absolutely made my day (financially speaking).

Even though I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, a land rife with every national chain imaginable, I'd never had a Ruby Tuesday burger. I don't think we had a branch in the KC before I left for college, and after I received my mandatory anticorporate indoctrination at school, I turned my back on major chains (for the most part). But in the name of burgerdom, AHT had to investigate.

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Photographs of signage above by Raphael

And so we found ourselves at the Ruby Tuesday in Manhattan's Times Square, a location that opened in April 2007. It's the largest in the struggling chain's empire, with a first floor "cafe," which offers a smaller menu than the separate upstairs dining room. True to the overall rebranding, the Times Square location was a world away from what I expected, with nary a tchotchke to be found. Instead, it's a sleek, modern space, decked out in nice-looking woods and with understated decor.

It's such a dramatic turn from the Tiffany-esque lightshades and retro-nostalgia junk that I wondered whether the chain would scare off its existing clientele. It looks much more highfalutin' than the sit-down "fast-casual" places I'm used to. And, indeed, according to a restaurant-industry watcher quoted in Brandweek, the new direction seems to have backfired:

Ruby Tuesday is attempting to recover from a misguided foray into upscale dining, said Ron Paul, president of Technomic, Chicago, which tracks the restaurant industry. "They took their eye off of their core customer and tried to go upscale . . . they didn't attract enough new customers and turned off existing ones. They have been significantly damaged."

Hence the all-in, play-the-cards-you've-got focus on hammering home the new look.

Cut to the Burger

But, whatevs. What we really care about here is the burger. So let's take a look.

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It's a fresh-not-frozen hunk of Angus beef served on a challah roll. I'm guessing it clocks in around six ounces, pregrill. (Yes, the burgers are flame-grilled here.) The patty has a moderately coarse grind and exhibits a very musky beefiness. And it's very juicy. I've had juicier burgers, sure, but the moisture level here would leave no one disappointed. You can see it soaking the bun bottom in the autopsy photo just above. And, though the lighting from the Times Square glitzshow just outside the window here may have thrown off the color a bit, my burger was cooked as ordered, to medium-rare.

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The one disappointing thing about the burgers my dining companion and I sampled was the char on the patty. There's almost none. Instead, you've got a patty that's flavorful but lacks any kind of crunchy, smokey bits to give it some textural interest. It's a fairly mushy affair.

But if Ruby Tuesday would have been open in Times Square when I did my mid-range, fast-casual burger roundup in late 2006, it would have trounced the competition. The only competitor in near its price range and class would be the burger at Houston's (reviewed here on AHT in 2006).

Ruby Tuesday

Location Visited: 585 Seventh Avenue, New York NY 10036 (at 41st Street; map); 212-382-3898; other locations nationwide
Want Fries with That? They come with the burger. They're merely OK. Long, golden, crisp, about 1/4-inch thick, and heavily seasoned. If they didn't come with the burger, I'd skip them
Size: I'm guessing six-ounces
Heat Source: Grilled
Bun Style: Braided challah roll does a fine job of soaking up the juices, and the usual challah sweetness does not really distract from the burger
Cost: Triple-Prime Burger, $11.99 (comes with fries); Triple-Prime Cheddar Burger, $12.99 (fries included). It should be noted that "triple prime" refers to the beef itself and not the number of patties on the burger (though I've never heard of an actual USDA designation of "Triple Prime")
Notes: If you're visiting the Times Square location, be aware that it is a "Ruby Tuesday international location" and that an automatic 18 percent gratuity is added to your bill after 4 p.m. I'm guessing they had so many European tourists stiff them (tipping is not customary there) that they had to add it

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