Ruby Lee's- Heart + Soul + Sports
Author: Frank Dunne Jr. | Photographer: John Brackett
The problem with conventional wisdom is that it can be too conventional and often not necessarily wise. The bigger problem is that too often it convinces us to not try something, not take a chance, and we’re left wondering what might have been if we’d thrown conventional wisdom to the wind and followed our inspiration.
Case in point: Ruby Lee’s Sports, Blues & Soul Food. Conventional wisdom might suggest that its location on Old Wild Horse Road is too off-the-beaten-path. Conventional wisdom might also suggest that a group of folks with no experience in the hospitality industry cannot succeed in the restaurant business. If that were so, what would conventional wisdom have to say about Ruby Lee’s blasting its way into year number three in business?
“If you know what people want, and you want to give quality service, and you understand roles, anything can work,” said Ruby Lee’s owner Tim Singleton. The suggestion being that there are people out there who want exceptionally great food, great music and a place to dance to it, a spot to gather and watch the game, a well-stocked bar, and an atmosphere that feels more like a neighborhood house party with all your friends and less like a commercial establishment. Do you know anyone like that? In other words, build the kind of place you would want to go to, put the right people in the right roles, work hard, and you can kick conventional wisdom out the door. There is another ingredient to the Ruby Lee’s formula, however.
Ruby Lee’s is a family business, and you should never underestimate the power that intangible element can have on a business’s success, particularly a hospitality business where excellent service means everything.
The Ruby Lee’s family is Singleton, his parents Deborah and Martin Govan and his little sister Tressa Govan. I should say, the Ruby Lee’s family related by blood, because when chatting with Anna, Star and Romina, the three young ladies on staff the evening of my visit, all had something to say about the pervading homey, family mood at Ruby Lee’s for employees and customers alike.
There is, of course, another family member involved, albeit in a more spiritual way. When entering the establishment, you will encounter her in the form of a silhouette on the door. It’s one of those old fashioned, haunting kind of portraits—haunting in a good way. It makes you feel the person in the portrait is present, watching over things. “In fact, we named it after my mother,” Deborah said. Of course she is referring to the late family matriarch, Ruby Lee. “People see that silhouette on the door, and they come in and think it’s me. They pull out cameras and ask for autographs! I’m truly honored because my mother was a powerful little lady. She kept her family close-knit. Her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren.” (That is, six children, 30 grandchildren and five great grandchildren.) “She was hands-on with every one of us, and she prepared all the meals.”
Left: Live music happens every night at Ruby Lee’s with regular performances by Lavon Stevens, Target the Band, Deas-Guyz and Sterlin and Shuvette.
Listening to Deborah share stories about Sunday dinners, holiday meals and parties at Ruby Lee’s house, you’d get the sense that Ruby Lee took it upon herself to look after the entire neighborhood. And you’d also start to understand that, although they had no prior direct experience operating a restaurant, feeding and entertaining large groups of people comes naturally to the Ruby Lee’s folks. “I believe that Ruby Lee’s has that same atmosphere,” Deborah added. “Our menu, we made it based on what my mom fed us.”
As the name implies, the fare at Ruby Lee’s is soul food, all of it prepared seven days a week by Martin and Deborah. I left my choice up to Martin’s discretion and out came a plate of oxtails over rice with sides of collard greens and mac and cheese. Oddly enough, I’d been introduced to oxtails a few weeks earlier, but I won’t say where because they don’t even compare to Ruby Lee’s. Fall-off-the-bone tender, melt-in-your-mouth delicious is all I need to say. Well, that and I was tempted to order a second round.
Left:As the name implies, the fare at Ruby Lee’s is soul food, all of it prepared seven days a week by Deborah and Martin Govan.
My friend Doc, who was my dinner guest on this evening, went with the fried pork chop. I should mention that Doc makes a mean fried pork chop herself, and I often campaign for an invitation to dinner. I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but Ruby Lee’s fried pork chop gives “Doc Chops” more than a run for the money. Deborah insisted that we have the collard greens. “Best on the island,” she assured us, and we could not disagree. As for the mac and cheese, I’ve never really been a fan, not even in college. I am now.
Some of Ruby’s favorites include a three-piece fried chicken plate, Ruby’s Platter (four crab balls, five wings and fried okra), shrimp and grits, and a rib-eye steak with two vegetables. Also very popular are the trio rice bowl with shrimp, sausage and chicken and the dirty rice bowl with ground beef. Everything is delicious, satisfying and served in ample portions, to put it mildly. Don’t worry about that though, because you’re going to want to stay and dance the calories away.
There’s live music every night at Ruby Lee’s with “all the Hilton Head greats,” as Singleton describes the lineup of performers: Lavon Stevens, Target the Band, Sterlin and Schuvette, Deas-Guyz to name a few. “I’m trying to recreate the atmosphere we had on Hilton Head years ago with places like the Golden Rose,” he said. On this night, we were treated to rhythm & blues classics by Candace Woodson and the Domino Theory Band, and even had a chance to chat with Woodson, a tiny lady with a huge voice and an awesome band behind her. Even she echoed the staff’s sentiments about the friendly, family atmosphere. “It’s why I love playing here,” she said.
Left:Candace Woodson and the Domino Theory Band entertain a lively crowd on a busy Tuesday evening in November.
Right:The Seafood Platter featuring fried fish, shrimp and a crab cake with french fries and cole slaw.
If you’re thinking, aw, everybody says they have a family atmosphere and all that stuff, I say think again. This was my first visit to Ruby Lee’s and I believe I’m the last of my circle of friends to have tried it. So I’d heard all the hype. I tried to go in objectively, but objectivity went out the window with conventional wisdom in a hurry. I left feeling like I’d made a new friend. Believe it. This place is for real. Get there. Ruby Lee is waiting for you.
“I feel her spirit is here day after day because the atmosphere—people coming together no matter what our color, shape, size, age. People are people, and that’s how she treated everybody,” Deborah said. “I wish the entire world could be like Ruby Lee’s. And that’s from my heart.”
Ruby Lee’s Sports, Blues & Soul Food is located at 46 Old Wild Horse Road, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926. For more information, call (843) 681-7829 or visit RubyLees.com or Facebook.com/RubyLeesSportsBluesSoulFood.