Unique Comfort Food

by Tommy Feisel

Top Jeff

Even from across a room, Jeff Ruby is larger than life. With an unmistakable swagger and swirl of smoke, he conducted an orchestra of carpenters and electricians like woodwinds and brass, using his cigar as a baton to maintain the brisk tempo.

Less than a month from opening, his signature steakhouse in downtown Columbus was far from finished. It was a symphony of chaos.

We first met at the height of construction—yet only weeks later, you’d never suspect the latest location of his regional restaurant empire wasn’t here all along. Though the renovation timeline was as impressive as it was aggressive, Ruby admitted the expansion was overdue.

“Columbus is a city we’ve had our eyes on for a long time,” explained Ruby, whose ominous silhouette and brash persona may seem at odds with the requisites of a restaurateur. He’s more of a midwestern wiseguy, with a stubborn, straight-shooting style as finely tailored as his suits.

Plans to open at Easton were scuttled by Smith & Wollensky, and efforts to move into the empty Morton’s location also fell through. But that closing, and the westward migration of Hollywood Casino’s Final Cut left a void for a downtown steakhouse Ruby was ready to fill.

“People from Columbus have been supporting our restaurants in Cincinnati for decades. They’ve been telling us for years to open in Columbus,” Ruby noted. “There is a sense of experience here.”

That experience, even in a city like Columbus with a booming restaurant scene, isn’t always enough. Uber Eats and Door Dash are quickly undermining destination dining as much as Netflix and Redbox have movie theaters. Both industries are struggling just to get people off the couch.

The motion picture metaphor doesn’t escape Ruby.

“Everyday a curtain goes up and we have a new audience,” he said. “When we open a new steakhouse, we have a casting call. We audition our employees. I tell a story with every restaurant.”

That story certainly didn’t spare any expense in the props department or set dressing. Even those familiar with the space wouldn’t recognize it. The former 89 Fish & Grill, Michael O’Toole’s Restaurant & Bar, and a Damon’s Grill before that, all seem as sparsely appointed as a college dorm by comparison.

And that grandiose statement is no less grand than the tin ceilings and tufted seats, with old world touches on every surface. Ruby is unquestionably a natural storyteller, eagerly and easily able to tell the origin of every fixture and finish. From the stained glass windows to the wall sconces, Ruby’s a bit of an auction enthusiast, with some pieces purchased years ago and squirreled away in a warehouse waiting for just the right spot in the just the right restaurant.

If you want to know when and where the chandelier over your table was procured, the name of the Vermont electrician who was supposed to rewire it, and tiny Chicago shop that ended up restoring it for much less, just ask Jeff—he can probably tell you off the top of his head.

Lights may dim as they grow older, but Ruby has not.

For those unfamiliar with Jeff Ruby, he’s kind of a big deal. So much so, it’s hard to know exactly how big. He says he’s the first to put a sushi bar in a steakhouse in the 1980s, a point of pride illustrated as he was interrupted to personally decide the exact sequence of the tiles behind the sushi bar in the middle of our conversation.

Whether or not he used to have the pull to get players traded from the Cincinnati Reds, or is personally responsible for getting the band Survivor played on the radio (both assertions from his autobiography) remains unclear. But in an industry of imitators, there is no denying Jeff Ruby is an original without equal.

Unexpected accommodations are also part of the Jeff Ruby brand. The Precinct opened in a former police patrol house, and the Waterfront was a floating night club on the Ohio River he nostalgically described as “Miami Vice Deco.” But each defied convention beyond the décor. Serving French fare, seafood, sushi, and comfort food classics all on the same menu made each restaurant surprisingly approachable. They were never, as Ruby put it, “steak it, or leave it.”

If you’re craving entry-level elegance, consider the surf and turf, a petite eight-ounce filet mignon paired with a 12-ounce cold-water lobster tail. If your tastes are more raw bar than red meat, the cool Chesapeake oysters with the slight heat of the horseradish cocktail sauce are only upstaged by the tiger shrimp—absolutely enormous and easily addictive.

The decadence doesn’t stop with dessert. Bananas Foster prepared tableside is tempting, but the Buckeye Cake is a Columbus exclusive. Thin layers of red velvet stacked high with peanut butter mousse, iced with chocolate ganache, vanilla cream, and a precisely placed buckeye on top.

But beneath all of the obvious opulence is someone literally and figuratively close to the bricks. As we toured the various dining rooms of the then-incomplete restaurant, Ruby called every tradesman and employee by name—though everyone respectfully calls him “Mr. Ruby.” By the time we reached the kitchen, still in the midst of construction, a handful of staff were wrapping up an order of subs for lunch. Ruby joined in and offered to pick up the bill—but made it clear the place better get his order right, or else. He’s still a Jersey boy at heart, always ready for an Italian sub or a knuckle sandwich.

However, Ruby still faces the same struggle as any small family business—ensuring its future. That’s why it after decades of never pulling a punch, Jeff Ruby made what was likely his most unexpected business move amid overwhelming success. He stopped opening restaurants.

“I waited for my kids to grow up before growing the business. I wanted to be a father first,” he explained.

His children have since become integral to the company’s growth beyond Cincinnati. Britney Ruby Miller is president of Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, Brandon is corporate director of training, and Dillon oversees the most recent location in Nashville, which also opened last year. Aging, yet active, Jeff is confident “the Ruby way” will persist and his legacy is in capable hands.

“Now they aren’t just the reason I want to expand,” Ruby noted. “They are the reason we can expand.”

Jeff Ruby Steakhouse is located at 89 E Nationwide Blvd. For more, visit jeffruby.com.

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