Ruby’s Cafe is more than a restaurant. The Mulberry Street hangout is the original hub of so called ‘Little Australia,’ and at any hour of the day, expats, yanks and tourists can be found smashing flat whites, signature Aussie brekkie and burgers, but most importantly, sharing good vibes.
We caught up with Nick Mathers and Lincoln Pilcher, the duo that founded Ruby’s to talk about the good old times in Nolita and the origins of their restaurant. Disclaimer: the two go back far enough that they can actually complete one another’s sentences.
Hey Nick, hey Lincoln. So tell us about the space that Ruby’s is in. It’s not too big…
This was John Gotti’s little beatdown room.
Downstairs, that’s where the blood was.
What about the concept for the restaurant, where did that originate?
When we got here had was no real intention to do a cafe. We were just like “We need good coffee they don’t have good coffee in New York.” So we decided to just do a coffee shop.
Way to wing it. Why did you boys settle on Nolita?
It felt like the closest thing to home. Back in the day, it was different, it really was like a little Paddington with cute little houses. It was much more neighborhoody and quiet. That was something that we were attracted to.
It had smaller kind of stores and smaller streets and was less commercial than SoHo. It’s definitely changed a lot over the years.
Has the change been positive? Tell us about that?
When you came here twelve years ago you did not see one Australian. We were such a novelty it was kind of crazy. Then you’d go to Eight Mile Creek and there were four Australians there and it felt like home, because you miss that when you’re in the big city and pretty far away from your family and friends.
Have you seen things change in the city beyond the scope of Nolita? Would Ruby’s be a different restaurant if it opened in 2015?
Everything is so curated now. Back when we started, everything wasn’t so contrived, we weren’t trying to do something, we were just doing what we did and it worked. It evolved and here we are. We didn’t have instagram we weren’t all like “Did you take the picture of the coffee with the fork in it that’s going to go on our feed!”
Love to hear that. Can you tell us about the early days of Ruby’s?
You could only fit like ten people in the room. We had hair down to here, blonde hair like surfer dudes and it was very unusual to see.
It wasn’t as trendy back then.
People would walk past like ‘What on earth is this place?” So people would just come in to see what it was and half of them would just want to come and hang out with us and they’d literally sit for hours and we’d serve them a coffee and they’d leave us twenty bucks.
They fell sorry for us and left money. I don’t know how we pulled off what we did, really. There was days when there was forty people in there, and we could only seat twenty. Every single person would be disgruntled.
Rough. Any funny stories from those early days?
I’ll never forget the day that Lincoln and I – we were young, so we had a very large night out (you can edit that out) and we had to open the restaurant. Lincoln and I came up and opened it it was packed and this was on no sleep. I’m like “Oh my god i’m making coffees and we don’t have milk. Linc – you gotta go grab some milk i’ll make the coffees,” and he’s like “Yeah I got this.” He ran out to get the milk, never came back, left me in a packed restaurant for one of the busiest days I’ve ever had. I was livid.
I never said I was sorry for that.
That’s good stuff. What about the hard times? Starting a business in New York is no short order.
There were some really long January and February nights sitting against the wall of the restaurant. I remember just staring at what used to be a car park and it used to flash this red park sign, and i was thinking please someone walk in, watching the sign just going ‘park park park.’
Are there any particularly legendary dishes from Ruby’s?
The creamy chicken pasta. We used to call that the ‘ultimate hangover cure.’ People would walk in at ten, eleven A.M and get creamy chicken pasta.
How would you describe the menu at Ruby’s?
What mama cooks. Some of our recipes are from our mums or our grandmas or our friends. It’s kind of eclectic and it’s been refined a lot, but i think it’s all about the people. We rely on personality and we are evolving which is good, but personalities are what made this place.
Good people are the best advertising, too. Word of mouth.
Little Australia has such a communal vibe, and you guys were so instrumental in beginning the scene…
Not that we thought about it, this community evolved organically.
You kept some struggling Aussie models and travelers alive too…
The staff was big, my sister was here your sister was here, lot of family.
Miranda Kerr served here Jess Hart, we had the Tozzi girls, and along came Jamo who brought some color. If we fast forward a little bit there’s Ben Doss, who did an amazing job. In the beginning it was Tom and Morgan, Morgan was working as a model booker at One Model Management, so we loved him. I think that was one of the reasons we stayed.
What does New York mean to you guys?
There is a lot of inspiration. In a way, everyone has this equal playing field on the streets of New York.
I moved here when I was 19. It’s an intense place to grow up. You have to grow up fast. You have to grow thick skin. It’s concrete so when you fall you always graze yourself.
But you also don’t grow up…
Haha, I can attest to that.
Everyone thinks they are Peter Pan.
New York doesn’t put you in a box and that’s what I love about it.
Who is Ruby?
You’ll never know. I can tell you one thing that it’s not named after a girl…