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Cheap Buzz: Ruby Tuesday

Editor's note: You may know John M. Edwards from his fast food reviews here at Serious Eats. We figured that if he's willing to try a Denny's Fried Cheese Melt, he's pretty much up for anything involving chain restaurants...even tasting his way through their signature cocktails. Here he is with another edition of Cheap Buzz! Take it away, John. —The Mgmt.

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[Photos: Maggie Hoffman]

Like Flinger's and Chotchkie's in Office Space, Ruby Tuesday has been duking it out with T.G.I. Friday's in strip mall parking lots for decades.

If you had to ask me, I'd say Ruby Tuesday is winning. Like Boston Market, Ruby Tuesday's has decided, despite the poor economic times, to up the ante. Founder Sandy Beall has poured $100 million into his restaurants, hoping to revitalize the brand. As noted in the New York Times, the furniture is nicer now—all leather and dark wood—and the menu features "fancy" fare.

So, have the cocktails kept up with the upgrade? In this edition of Cheap Buzz, we decided to find out.

As we stepped into Ruby Tuesday, the whole restaurant felt like a mint car just driven off the lot. I almost expected to see a chalk marking on the floor, or some indication that construction had finished too prematurely. But there wasn't. The hosting staff was polite and stuck to the house rules of only seating full parties.

When probed about the drink menu, our waiter said his favorite was a "Jameson Manhattan." A man after my own heart. After much deliberation, I ordered red and white sangria, a Rum Runner, a Margarita, a Grey Goose Martini, and a fruity concoction they call the "Relaxer." He gave me a look that said "Sure thing, Mr. Draper." Not wanting to look too much like a 1960s ad executive, I piped up, "those drinks are for the table."

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Before imbibing at Ruby Tuesday, it's important to line the stomach. We ordered a few appetizers, our favorite being the Lobster Mac and Cheese ($12.99). Warm, stretchy, and scrumptious, the melted cheese was probably the best part. We weren't as pleased with the lobster (not much of it) or the noodles (just a little too soft). But it was still better than plenty of the mac and cheeses we tried for our epic SENY roundup.

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We also tried the Spinach Artichoke dip ($9.99). It came with a positively incalculable number of chips. When the dip was gone—which was fine, but too creamy and heavy—I was convinced there were more chips piled than when we began.

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The Shrimp Sampler platter ($12.99) came with decent enough golden fried shrimp that were more edible with the Thai Phoon sauce (we don't recommend the Asian Sesame and Cajun ranch sauces).

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But enough with the food talk.

First up, the Relaxer. I expected a thick slurry, but it was on the rocks a bit more of an adult drink than I'd expected, with a definite alcohol presence. Unfortunately, the hints of passion fruit weren't enough to mask the sweet, almost bubblegum-like taste. Next up, their Blackberry Rum Runner, very sweet with a slight alcohol flavor. "The fresh taste of blackberries and DeKuyper Crème de Banana join the party, but Malibu Coconut Rum and Myers's Dark Rum provide the entertainment," says the menu. It wasn't as "fun" or "entertaining" as they make it out to be (though neither was it as terrible as some of the coconut drinks at Red Lobster). If I were you, I'd pass on both of these; neither is worth the $9.

Next, the two Sangrias. The red version was leagues ahead of Red Lobster's: sweet but not too sweet, with a decent wine flavor and just a touch of liquor. But the white sangria was even better: crisp, fruity, fresh-tasting, and not too sweet. At $8 apiece, they're both a good deal.

My first sip of the margarita was tart. "Because it's made with real lime juice," said our waiter. Hmm, really? It tasted more like that "Real Lime" concentrate you get in a plastic lime. But to be fair, it was better than most premixed margaritas I've had.

To test the bartender's hand at classic drinks, we ordered a Grey Goose Martini. It went down smoothly, had no stingy alcohol bite, and warmed the stomach. It was a decent deal—where else can you get a Grey Goose Martini for $10 in Manhattan? Kenji gave it a thumbs-up, agreeing that "the bartender knows what he's doing."

Does the $100 million investment show? We think so. The drinks are reasonably priced, and better than what you'd expect.

The Hangover Report

We had a good night at Ruby Tuesday, and if anything, we felt a little underdressed for this now swanky spot. Nothing we drank gave us much of a headache the next day, except maybe all that artichoke dip, but that was our own fault.

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