Iconic Austin restaurant Ruby’s BBQ celebrates its 25th birthday

Austin’s barbecue scene has earned breathless praise and national attention over the past several years, from Bon Appetit naming Franklin Barbecue the nation’s best in 2011 to Anthony Bourdain declaring John Mueller’s beef ribs peerless.

The spotlight has helped identify Austin as one of the country’s most intriguing food towns and has shaped our evolving cultural identity.

The recent additions to the scene may receive the majority of the press, but there existed a small group of barbecue joints that toiled for years before the smoked-meat circus came to town, among them Sam’s BBQ, Bert’s BBQ, Green Mesquite and the former Ben’s Long Branch Bar-B-Que. But it can be argued that no other Austin barbecue restaurant has integrated itself into the community and maintained its staying power as well as Ruby’s BBQ.

The restaurant, which turned 25 last month, symbolizes an Austin that many people feel has been lost to time. When people bemoan the vanishing culture of Austin, a city falling victim to its own success and the meddling of outsiders, you can point to the ramshackle barbecue restaurant opened by Pat Mares and her husband Luke Zimmermann in 1988 as evidence to the contrary.

In a town that marks time with the construction of new condo towers, Ruby’s is an institution. Mares and Zimmermann had the foresight to open their restaurant next to an Austin cultural cornerstone. The back door of the old Antone’s on Guadalupe Street was located just steps from Ruby’s back gate.

“We figured blues and barbecue were a good combination,” Mares said.

Club owner Clifford Antone would make announcements from the stage, telling concert-goers to head next door for some late-night grub following the shows. Ruby’s quickly became a regular haunt of the musicians and patrons at Austin’s Home of the Blues, staying open until 4 a.m. on weekends.

“Albert Collins was like part of the family, he was here so much,” Mares said of the blues guitar legend. “He was always generous and gracious. And (former James Brown sax man) Maceo Parker, Maceo was always a treat.”

Enter the low-slung wooden restaurant today and you’ll find old concert posters and autographed photos from bands ranging from Explosions in the Sky to the Buena Vista Social Club. Ruby’s was the de facto kitchen and dining room for Antone’s until the club relocated to downtown in 1997. Clifford Antone had a regular table near the front, where he would hold court most Friday and Saturday nights with buddies Derek O’Brien and the Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson.

“I just can’t say enough nice things about Pat Mares and Ruby’s. They moved into the neighborhood and had all this great food and would stay open into the evening,” Susan Antone said. “We had some really great times … I can’t think of too many places where I’ve had such good food and so much fun at the same time.”

An artist and former band manager, Zimmermann retired from the restaurant in 2007 to focus on painting. He died from complications of liver cancer in 2010.

Relocated Midwesterners, he from Minnesota and she from Nebraska, Zimmermann and Mares met in the early ’80s through a mutual friend and worked on the staff that helped open Kerbey Lane in South Austin.

When the couple decided to open their restaurant, they took a trip to Lockhart, where they were inspired by the classic indirect-heat brick pits at the original Kreuz Market (now Smitty’s). They commissioned their own brick pit for the restaurant, and within a year they added a second brick pit outside to accommodate the demand.

Mares grew up in a large family with Czech roots on a farm in Schuyler, Neb., working a tractor from the age of 11. She understands the importance of sourcing and processing quality meat, and soon after opening the restaurant she formed a relationship with deli manager Quincy Adams Erickson at Wheatsville Co-Op. Ruby’s originally purchased their all-natural, grain-fed, steroid-free Texas beef from the nearby grocer and have continued to serve the same quality beef from different providers over the past 25 years.

“Serving all-natural brisket is a commitment, not a trend,” Mares said.

That brisket serves as the centerpiece of a menu that includes beef sausage from Meyer’s in Elgin, lacquered pork ribs, excellent homemade sides (get the spicy beans, mustard potato salad and vinaigrette cole slaw) and a few Cajun dishes introduced by one of Clifford Antone’s friends from Port Arthur.

The restaurant offers counter service. Always has. It was a pragmatic move by the couple who opened Ruby’s amidst the savings and loan crisis of the late ’80s. They didn’t want customers to feel forced to tip.

“It was a really depressed economy in Austin, and everyone thought we were crazy to try and open a restaurant at that time,” Mares said.

Over the years Ruby’s has welcomed out-of-towners and locals, nameless students and famous folks like Dan Rather and Tipper Gore. And chances are if you’ve been in Austin long enough, they’ve catered a party you’ve been to, as they did for Ann Richards’ 60th birthday.

They’ve used their close proximity to the university to support UT’s Radio, Television and Film Department by donating food to student productions each semester, and the cozy confines of Ruby’s served as an unofficial office for the nascent Austin Film Festival in the early ’90s.

AFF co-founder Barbara Morgan first started going to Ruby’s with Clifford Antone after concerts and became a regular during her late nights spent preparing for her inaugural festival.

“It’s a special place to me,” Morgan said. “Pat and Luke were incredibly generous to our staff and donated a lot to us in the early years. We have been hosting our filmmaker luncheon there for 15 years, and it’s my favorite event of the fest each year. I am a devotee of their barbecue and their funky, authentic Austin ambiance.”

That vibe makes for repeat customers. And whether it’s a Cedar Park resident and regular of 17 years who stopped Mares to say thank you when I was in the other day or blues harmonica great James Cotton, who was in just last week, Mares speaks of all of the customers with a similar warmth.

The restaurant takes its name from a barbecue joint in Sidney Lumet’s 1960 movie “The Fugitive Kind,” starring Marlon Brando and Joanne Woodward. But that doesn’t keep customers new and old from referring to affable red-head Mares as Ruby.

“Some people even say, ‘I know it’s not your name, but I’m gonna call you Ruby,’” Mares said. “I laugh because I said I didn’t want to call it Pat’s, and now I’ve become Ruby.”

Mares responds with a demure modesty when answering questions about Ruby’s place in Austin’s cultural history and its role in the developing dining scene.

“I know some people come in and look and go, ‘Oh my God,’ because they want to go eat at some trendy, shiny urban spot, but you can’t please everybody,” Mares said. “I don’t know what you do. We’re definitely the throwback to funky old Austin.”

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