If you like beachy, sun-drenched lunches dreamed up by self-confessed surfer dudes — avocado toasts, kale salads, light pastas, organic banana bread, and the like — but don’t want to stray from Soho, then you’ve probably already discovered Ruby’s (442 Third Avenue; 212-300-4245). But if you’re still waiting on a table at that petite bastion of calm on Mulberry Street, good news: A second branch opened in Murray Hill this summer.
“I’m excited,” says Nick Mathers, partner and co-founder of Ruby’s. “Our landlord owns that building too, and when he heard we were looking for a new place, he suggested it to us. So far, it’s been going pretty smoothly for an opening. Touch wood. There haven’t been a lot of dramas!”
With a menu reminiscent of its Soho sister venue, and with a similarly relaxed vibe, the Murray Hill location has set out to make its own mark. “It’s Ruby’s, but we wanted it to have its own feel,” explains Mathers. “We’re focusing a bit more on the drinks program. We have some cocktails on tap and a really nice wine list. It’s a bit more grown-up.”
Cocktails include the Ruby’s Spritz — a vermouth, prosecco, citrus-scented glass of bubbles — and a summer-greens juice that looks like yoga in a glass but has a glug of sake to bring the edge.
“There’s a crispy rice bowl with grilled haloumi that I love,” says Mathers. “There’s lots of herbs, lemon, tomatoes, topped with a fried egg — all good! And you’re still gong to find some great burgers!”
More than anything else, the burgers put Ruby’s on the map a decade ago, making it a must-try on the New York City meat circuit. Unlike most of its rivals, which focused on meat-only patties, the Ruby’s burger blended beef with balsamic, onions, peppers, and sweet chile sauce. And in addition to melted cheese, you can have your burger topped with pineapple, a slice of beet, a fried egg, and avocado. (These are the toppings you should absolutely get on your next patty, by the way.)
“Back then,” Mathers recalls, “we made a lot of burgers. I had this idea in mind, a memory really, of a burger I had back in Australia, at a deli near Whale Beach. We made hundreds of different versions before we settled on our menu. After that, I could hardly look at a burger because I’d eaten so many. And in those days, we didn’t have a hood in the kitchen, so everyone who walked in the café would walk out smelling of burgers. But, luckily for us, I guess they thought it was worth it!”
Ruby’s also made a name for itself serving nut milks, passion fruit preserves, kale salads, and chile-flecked avocado toasts before they became staples for every café with a chalkboard and an Instagram account.
“We were making the things that were really familiar to us from home,” says Mathers. “Flat-white coffee is just how coffee is! My mum always drinks flat whites, so I didn’t think twice when I put it on the menu. There are sausage rolls, Vegemite…things Americans didn’t really know about so much. That wasn’t a calculated thing. We were just making what we knew.”
For Mathers, the journey from the beaches of Sydney to downtown Manhattan was conceived as an elongated layover.
“I was 23. I was on my way to London to see my girlfriend, and I came via New York because I’d always wanted to visit and I had a few friends who lived here — a photographer and a model,” he recalls. “They said if I got a bike and rode around I’d never want to leave. I did get a bike in Central Park, and I rode around the city all day, and then I knew I wanted to be here. Everything just felt right. It was like a dream.”
Mathers’s dream led to a fortuitous introduction to Tim Sykes, a fellow Aussie and future Ruby’s business partner (along with Thomas Lim). “I met a girl in a laundromat who invited me to her birthday party, and that’s where I met Tim,” Mathers says. “The only question in my mind was how to get a visa to stay. That’s where Ruby’s came from. I started it as a coffee shop, then it became a little café, and that’s the story.”
Mathers has used his success with Ruby’s to branch out into other ventures, but this second outpost of the place that started it all is his first foray into expanding a brand.
“I’m excited to be doing it. It feels like coming full circle, really. But one step at a time,” Mathers cautions. “It’s really important that we don’t just plant a Ruby’s somewhere. It has to belong to the place. It needs its own individual twist, its own design, its own menu. That’s what exciting about it to me. Well…that and the burger.”