Family Jewel

The line to get in the city’s newest hot spot already stretched down the sidewalk, so I discreetly slipped in the side door. Down some stairs and through the commotion of the kitchen, I was politely ushered into the heart of the restaurant where the owner eagerly waited to greet me with a firm handshake and the best table in the house.

It wasn’t quite the Copacabana scene from Goodfellas, but it was damn close.

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 latest signature steakhouse in downtown Columbus was far from finished. It was a symphony of chaos.

“Columbus is a city we’ve had our eyes on for a long time,” said Ruby, whose ominous silhouette and brash persona may seem at odds with the requisites of a restaurateur. He’s more of a midwestern wiseguy. But it’s that stubborn, straight-shooting style that is surely behind his acclaim, not an impediment. “It’s close to our headquarters so we can pay close attention to it. We don’t like to go far from home. That’s when quality suffers.”

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 western migration of Hollywood Casino’s Final Cut left a void for a steakhouse downtown 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. “They don’t come to our restaurants because they’re hungry. They can go to the refrigerator. There is a sense of experience here.”

That “experience,” even in a city like Columbus with a booming restaurant scene, isn’t always enough. Generational and economic trends are conspiring against institutions and cultural rituals that used to define our social interactions. Uber Eats, Door Dash, and a dozen similar services are becoming to the restaurants business what Netflix and Redbox have to movie theaters. Both industries are struggling just to get people off the couch.

The analogy, and urgency, doesn’t escape Ruby.

“The restaurant business, in my view, is living theater. Everyday a curtain goes up and you have a new audience. I named my company Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “When we open a new restaurant, we have a casting call. We audition our employees. Everyone has a role. I tell a story with every restaurant.”

That story certainly didn’t spare any expense in the props department or set dressing either. 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 room by comparison.

“Our audience digests the ambiance with every sip of wine and every bite of food,” Ruby chided. “I had an unlimited budget, and I exceeded it.”

A grand statement for certain, but no less grand than the tin ceilings and tufted seats with old wood charm and old world touches on every surface. Walking through the still incomplete dining space, Ruby was eager and easily able to tell the backstory 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 rewired it, and the tiny Chicago company that restored the crystal to its original luster, 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 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. He also claims he coined the term “servers assistants” for busboys as well, now industry standard jargon for fine dining establishments.

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 Ruby is an original without equal.

“Ballplayers, babes, businessmen, barflies, blue bloods, and blue hairs,” is how he described the diverse clientele of his earlier restaurants, where guests wearing blue jeans would pull up in a Rolls Royce because the atmosphere defied the stuffy conventions of other fine dining restaurants. “We dry-aged our own steaks on the premises, other steakhouses dry-aged their waiters.”

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”—they were familiar, but with fanfare.

“Our macaroni and cheese has five imported cheeses, and was named the best mac and cheese in America by Food Network,” Ruby revealed. “We worked five years on the recipe.”

That reputation for unapologetic precision is why thousands of applications were winnowed down to roughly 80 positions at the new Columbus location. Ruby insists on the best steaks and the best staff, with training taking them to Cincinnati to ensure the people are as well prepared as the dishes themselves.

“The culinary staff—the entire staff—is the best we’ve put together in any city where we’ve opened,” Ruby boasted, and he would know. As we toured the various dining rooms, upstairs and downstairs, he called every tradesman and employee by name, though everyone simply addressed him as “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, never shying away from an Italian sub or a knuckle sandwich.

The timing of the Columbus expansion also offers some serendipity. The aging but active Ruby—or as his family calls him, J.R.—is facing the same challenge as any small family restaurant. That’s why his kids are stepping in while they still have the opportunity to learn from their father and preserve the legacy of the family business.

“I never knew my father,” he explained. “My mother was married four times. I called them my ‘four fathers,’ but none were my biological father. I didn’t know who he was until I was a senior in high school.”

After opening the Waterfront, Ruby made what was likely his most unexpected business move amid overwhelming success: he stopped opening restaurants.

“I wanted to see my kids grow before I saw my company grow,” he said. “I wanted to be a father. I wanted to wait for them to grow up.”

“It’s too bad I don’t have as many brothers as we have restaurants,” laughed Britney Ruby Miller, daughter and now president of Jeff Ruby Culinary entertainment. Though she admits sometimes their conversations tend to revolve around work, everyone makes extra efforts to ensure they do more than just talk shop. “It’s very easy to get so consumed with work that we forget about what’s most important—our relationships.”

Son Brandon, now corporate director of training has seen this on the menu for years.

“From the time I was able to even recall, I wanted to be a restaurateur like my father. I even wrote it down on a list of questions in first or second grade, but did not spell restaurateur correctly—nor was I close,” he said.

Dillon,  the youngest of the three who ended up taking over at the Nashville location after the general manager didn’t work out, is excited to see how something new plays out in Columbus.

“Because we’re opening a steakhouse that is so completely different than what anyone in this town has ever seen before, that’s a huge risk. The fact that we took the risk and see it paying off with all the success we have had in the past year is definitely a pleasant surprise.”

Now, with the Ruby clan all grown up, Jeff got to have his steak and eat it, too. He’s maintained a great relationship with his kids—and now, they’re the core of his team professionally.

“I waited for my kids to grow up before expanding the business,” he said. “Now they aren’t just the reason I want to expand. They are the reason we can expand.”

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

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