words STEPHANIE CREECH | photography DEOGRACIAS LERMA | photography assistant SARAH COCHRAN

p01_article_jr_wineJeff Ruby has forever changed Cincinnati’s dining and entertainment industry. His talent for transformation was first apparent when the Jersey boy arrived in town in 1970, took a very tired Holiday Inn cocktail lounge, and turned it into the city’s hot spot. Today, Ruby owns and operates restaurants in two states with a third on the horizon, where he serves the finest of fine diners, including a long list of celebrities.

Even after living in the Queen City for several decades, Ruby holds fast to his Jersey ways. Some may see his larger-than-life personality as an act, but Ruby explains, “I’ve got to be who I am.” His massive NCAA Championship rings coupled with his persona do contribute to his resemblance to Godfather Don Corleone or Tony Soprano, but from where this writer sits, Jeff Ruby is more Jay Gatsby than Don.

Examining the restaurateur closely, one can hear the voice of The Great Gatsby narrator, Nick Caraway, speaking, “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.” Like Gatsby, who grew up on the wrong side of town, Ruby overcame a challenging upbringing. As a young boy, he endured a mother who drank and presented him with four different stepfathers. Jokingly, he refers to them now as his “four-fathers.” Despite the turmoil that came with living with his mother, Ruby loved and cared for her until the day she died.

Not allowing his childhood troubles or anything else to deter him, Ruby is often heard saying that “it takes testicular fortitude” to get where you want to go. For him, the light’s always green, all things on go.

This level of tenacity was evident at the age of fifteen when Ruby left home. He found himself working at Perkins Restaurant & Bakery in Asbury Park, New Jersey, sleeping at the Y, and even, at times, living under the boardwalk on the Jersey Shore. But his strength of character enabled him to go from a high-school-football spectator on the sidelines, to a New Jersey all-state player, and finally, to a Cornell University linebacker.

p01_article_jr_spicesThe life of Jeff Ruby is a life of passion, a passion that drives everything he does. It is this intensity that results in each guest experiencing the incredible sensorial encounter that is Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment.

According to Ruby, the restaurant business is about so much more than food. “It’s live theatre. Its purpose is to stimulate and entertain,” he explains. With his team of designers, Ruby approaches every restaurant project like a Broadway production—or perhaps more accurately—like a rock concert. The consummate lover of music, he likens the Ruby experience to “the Jimmy Hendrix experience, but without the drugs.” It’s that kind of skill, style, and charisma on which the Jeff Ruby Experience is built. “People don’t come to my restaurants because they’re hungry,” he says. “They come to be entertained, to celebrate.”

“The ambiance, every bite, every sip of wine…” It is all carefully crafted and combined to ensure that “when you leave a Jeff Ruby restaurant, you don’t just leave with a doggie bag; you leave with a memory.” Consequently, says Ruby, “Those who want to work for my restaurants don’t come for an interview. It’s a casting call. This is a culture, not just a job.”

Ruby interviews every cast member and takes the time to get to know each person on his team. He builds an emotional relationship with each. “I’m close to them. They’re important to me. They’re the reason I have such a successful lifestyle and the reason our guests keep coming back.”

Ruby is very clear that those who come to his restaurants are not customers—they’re guests. “Funeral homes have customers,” he says. “We have guests.” And family takes care of their guests. He genuinely appreciates the role his employees play in that hospitality and service. “Great food without great employees doesn’t work. The food by itself can’t touch our guests, but great employees can. Wherever I go, people compliment my staff, not just the steaks.” His whole approach to gaining and retaining valued guests is summed up in the words of Diana Ross and The Supremes’ “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” which Ruby is only too happy to sing.

p01_article_jr_cigarsRuby’s employees aren’t the only “family” who contribute to the success of the Ruby enterprise. His own children are also involved. Daughter Britney Ruby Miller is director of operations for Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment while sons Brandon and Dillon manage The Precinct and Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse Louisville, respectively. Each is successful in their own right.

It is obvious that Ruby, with his pin-striped Jersey-ness, is the brand. Ruby’s spirit, character, and tastes are found in every aspect of the business, from the Jeff Ruby Red Table Wine, a proprietary special blend, to Ruby’s own private-selection Woodford Reserve Whiskey. And an after-dinner bourbon can be made truly special when enjoyed with a private-label Jeff Ruby cigar. The star of any Jeff Ruby restaurant, however, is the dry-aged prime beef, which has to meet the Ruby standards in respect to aging, sourcing, and cattle genetics—only two percent of available beef make that cut. Each first-rate steak is prepared to perfection and enhanced with Ruby’s rub, a legendary blend of herbs and spices.

Cincinnati is fortunate to have one of the nation’s pre-eminent restaurateurs. In an unforgiving industry, Zagat’s 2013 America’s Top Restaurant Survey rated Jeff Ruby Steakhouse and The Precinct with higher overall scores than any other steakhouse, beating out heavy hitters in New York City, Chicago, and Las Vegas. In July of 2015, the partnership of Business Insider and Foursquare named the number-one steakhouse in each state, with Ohio’s top choice, not surprisingly, being Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse Cincinnati. More, the four current Jeff Ruby establishments were each recently honored by Wine Spectator for their superb wine lists.

p01_article_jr_bourbonFood and entertainment are not Jeff Ruby’s only contribution to the Cincinnati community. He is known as one of the region’s most generous and caring business owners. “If you have enough money to have the things I’m blessed to have, you should give some of it back to the community that gave it to you.”
A longtime supporter of organizations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Anthony Munoz Foundation, and Wounded Warriors, Ruby puts his money where his heart is. Recently, Ruby made a silent auction donation to The Cure Starts Now’s eighth annual ‘Once in a Lifetime Gala’. The benefit was held with the purpose of raising funds to find a cure for the rare form of pediatric brain cancer, DIPG. One item that was put on the block was a perfect Cincinnati night out for eight, including a stop for dinner at Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse in the private room, the Wine Cellar.

Ruby is also a champion for teenage boys in the community who are growing up without fathers. He cheers them on at area high school athletic events and treats them to Cincinnati Reds and Bengals games. Serving as mentor and role model, Ruby provides valuable and heartfelt guidance, opportunity, and direction, asking only that the boys stay out of trouble in return.

We could all learn lessons from Jeff Ruby—lessons about determination, family, community, but mostly about savoring life. The Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment is the magic that draws people in, while the experience they share and the memories they create keep them. Like Gatsby, the light’s always GO for Jeff Ruby—he never stops.