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Good for the Soul: Ruby Lee’s Tim Singleton

Ruby Lee Owner Tim Singleton shares a few pointers for making authentic Lowcountry cuisine.

Story by Barry Kaufman + Photography by Mike Ritterbeck

UNIQUE ATMOSPHERE Ruby Lee’s South serves up an old, sophisticated juke joint ambiance.

Tim Singleton is not a man to give away secrets. The methods and wizardry at work in his kitchen, where his chefs Miss Laverne and Robert Singleton craft a menu of timeless soul food staples, are kept under the strictest confidence.

It’s hard to blame the guy. After all, these are techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation, carefully cultivated over a lifetime spent in the kitchens of native islanders. Every restaurant has secret recipes that they don’t want to give out. But Ruby Lee’s recipes aren’t just kept quiet for professional reasons. The food here is a love letter to the culture that has long called this island home.

“My menu is based on the things I’ve fallen in love with over the last 40-plus years of my life, ever since I’ve been eating food,” Singleton said. “Ruby Lee’s has become a nice boutique restaurant on Hilton Head. We’ve been able to find a niche; we’ve been able to thrive and become something that’s sustainable for this culture — black, Gullah, native Islander, however you want to label it. I try not to box myself in. I try to serve any and all.”

Serving any and all means pairing traditional Gullah favorites from oxtail stew, oysters, catfish and fried chicken against more mainstream fare from burgers to steaks. Even those more accessible dishes pack a subtle kick of soul-food flavoring, courtesy of the one secret ingredient Singleton is willing to share: patience.

“The old folks used to say, ‘Don’t rush the pot.’ Everybody wants to turn the fire up and blaze it, and it just doesn’t have the same flavor,” he said. This patient approach means everything is cooked to order and held to the same standards of not rushing the pot. That can mean some extended wait times, particularly when the summer tourist season packs the place with visitors traveling in large parties. Unlike most restaurants, however, visitors come here looking for an extended wait time. “That’s why we have the music. That’s why we have the ambiance. We are not a fast-food restaurant. . . . From top to bottom, whether it’s our collard greens or our mac and cheese, whether it’s good old garlic mashed potatoes or candied yams — one of my favorites — we take our time and get it right.”

From the ground up, Ruby Lee’s South was built to be a place where you take your time and enjoy the experience. That same philosophy went into the design behind TimBuk2, the restaurant’s sister cigar bar. “I love the cigar bar. I like to go back there and hide,” Singleton said with a laugh.

COMFORT FOOD The oxtail stew at Ruby Lee’s must be tried. The meat is so tender, it melts in your mouth.

That dedication to patience, whether in the time it takes to create soul food perfection or in the extended break offered by a quality cigar, harkens back to a simpler time in Hilton Head Island’s history, when life moved at a tranquilly languid pace.

“Obviously we didn’t invent burgers, but we invented the flavors we use in our burgers. It’s the same with our Ruby wings. We didn’t invent wings, but we sell more spicy Ruby wings than the law should allow,” he said, again with that ever-present laugh. “I can’t take credit for being the originator of any of this stuff. I have two incredible people in the kitchen.”

Singleton is quick to give credit to his chefs, knowing that his own talents in the kitchen are far outweighed by his talents as the front-of-house greeter and smiling face of the restaurant. “I try not to get back in the kitchen. I critique, I taste, I can cook anything on the menu, but I try not to get in the kitchen much anymore. I have two people back there I trust to make things happen and they do a great job for us.”

It’s hard to argue, given the mouth-watering menu that deftly leaps between soul food and American fare while always staying true to the Gullah roots. “It’s comfort food that warms the soul, sticks to the ribs and is healthy. There’s a misconception that soul food is unhealthy,” he said, pointing out the copious vegetables in each dish and noting that the restaurant avoids using heavy creams and the like. “We just take our time. I’m really proud of it. Couple that with ambiance and music, it all works.”

GOOD FOR THE SOUL Find many Southern favorites at Ruby Lee’s, including mac and cheese, fried chicken, green beans and cornbread.

Ruby Lee’s Classified Recipes

What’s the secret ingredient to the soul food classics at Ruby Lees besides patience? What secret time-test recipes have been used to fill this mouth-watering menu? We don’t know, frankly. And Tim Singleton wasn’t about to give any of his recipes away. We did convince him to share a few pointers with us.

Fried Chicken Our fried chicken recipe is really simple…. Actually, I’m not going to talk about the fried chicken.

Shrimp and Grits Little butter. Little peppers and onions. Just a hint of flour to create that thickness of gravy. Little season salt, pepper and our special accent. Throw sausage in there and brown it, put shrimp on that and brown it. It’s not a long dish, just 5-8 minutes, 12 minutes max. Cook it on low and let it steam and let the flavors cross-pollinate. It’s a beautiful thing. Let it simmer and put it over hot, buttery grits. We do stone grits here and that’s something I’m really proud of.

Catfish We do a 9-ounce catfish fillet, simply seasoned with season salt and our special accent. Flour it. Fry 3 1/2-6 minutes. It’s perfect. Flaky white fish. I didn’t tell you our all-purpose accent, but those three things will get you a good piece of fish. Some people use corn meal, but I don’t. I think it’s too gritty.

Mac and Cheese Boil noodles. Grate sharp cheddar cheese. We cook ours on the stove top first with some salt and pepper and our accent seasoning we create. Some people use heavy cream, we don’t. Heavy cream makes it sweeter. Can’t forget your eggs in there, because that holds it together. Put it in a pan and bake it 8-12 minutes. Don’t rush that either. It comes out fluffy and delicious. I’m sure I’m missing something, and I’m happy I am.

Live Music @ Ruby Lee’s South

Sundays: The Headliners
Earl Williams featuring Alexander Newton
Target the Band
Target the Band
Candace Woodson & The CW All Stars, Stee & The Ear Candy Band (Ruby Lee’s North)