Critic’s Notebook: Good news, bad news at Ruby’s Dinette

Here’s a cautionary tale about two Ruby’s Dinettes.

I stopped eating at Ruby’s several years ago after being severely disappointed with the burgers at a couple of locations. But a colleague recently told me that the newly revamped Ruby’s on 17th Street in Costa Mesa was actually quite good, so I ventured back in.

I was blown away by the quality. Everything about the burger was excellent: the soft, pillowy bun was perfectly buttered and griddled; an expertly cooked meat patty tasted like great beef; real Cheddar cheese was beautifully melted; the tomato slice would have tasted fine on its own; the perfect smear of mayonnaise … even the frozen fries were good, for their genre.

But it wasn’t just the food that was good. I can’t remember when I’ve encountered a friendlier, happier, more eager-to-please bunch of restaurant employees than the kids working at Ruby’s on 17th. I was suddenly high on Ruby’s, urging everyone to give them another try.

A week later, I found myself at LAX, and I was hungry. I spotted a Ruby’s Dinette and began to salivate. The name is the same. The menu looks similar. The quick-service, order-at-the-counter format is exactly the same. But they couldn’t be more different.

When the burger came, the bun looked like someone had stepped on it. It was a completely different style of bun, the yellowish color of which looked artificial, with a strange scent of plastic. The meat-to-bun ratio played heavily in the bun’s favor. The patty itself was gray and strangely textured, tasting steamed and watery and downright awful. The lettuce remnants were wilted. The tomato was mealy and flavorless. The cheese was cold and firm, merely slapped on at the last second without allowing it time to melt. The fries epitomized all the reasons I normally loathe frozen fries.

The staff took my money, but they never smiled. I took a few bites of the burger, but despite my ravenous hunger, I couldn’t finish more than a few nibbles. I boarded my flight with a stomachache and a gut full of regret.

That’s the Ruby’s I remember. And that’s the Ruby’s I won’t be able to get out of my head for a long time to come. I’ve always believed that any restaurant is only as good as the worst item on its menu, and every chain restaurant is only as strong as its weakest link. And once you’ve experienced the worst, that’s what sticks with you longest.

This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. I also invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

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