Ruth West, known as much for her delicious pineapple layer cake and barbecued ribs as for her love of Fort Greene and the exacting standards she upheld at her two “Ruthie’s” restaurants, has died from pancreatic cancer. She was 76.
West opened her popular restaurant on DeKalb Avenue in 1997 after 30 years in the food industry. Her soul food dishes, like fried chicken and smothered pork chops bore the influence of her southern roots in Bayboro, N.C., a coastal town with a population of less than 1,000.
West moved to New York in 1954 and, after a brief stay in Harlem, settled in Fort Greene. She opened her first restaurant in 1967.
West’s first Ruthie’s, which remains between Ashland and Rockwell places, gained a devout following, and it — along with the other location on Myrtle Avenue between Classon Avenue and Emerson Place — is often pointed to as a critical player in the revitalization of the area.
West’s son-in-law Howard Foster, who works at Ruthie’s, said that his hard-working mother-in-law made sure the kitchen remained at the top of its game.
“She was like Chef Ramsay, the ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ guy,” said Foster. “When it came to the restaurant, she didn’t play. But she always made sure to say ‘It’s nothing personal.’”
West still manned the stoves until her battle with cancer overcame her. She died on Nov. 12.
Aside from her food, West is remembered for her dedication to the Friendship Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where she served as a trustee for many years.
West’s generosity went beyond big servings. She also had an ongoing tradition of giving leftover food to the homeless, who came by at closing time. A note posted this week at the Myrtle Avenue location by one such customer reads, “Thank you, from someone who is homeless.”
West is survived by six children, 22 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Her son John will be taking over the Myrtle Avenue location, and her daughter, Yanya, will be in charge of the DeKalb location.
Foster promised: “The food will taste exactly the same.”