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CINCINNATI -- The opening of Ruth’s Parkside Café in mid-October is about more than just another eatery joining its culinary neighbors in Northside.
It signals dreams realized between two longtime friends who worked together at a legendary downtown restaurant decades ago, where they learned food not only creates lasting friendships, but it sustains community.
Ruth’s co-owners David Tape and Mary Kroner, both Northside residents, check in regularly on the cavernous, 4,100-square-foot space on the ground floor of the historic American Can Building, which will house their restaurant. Ruth’s will be the only restaurant in the Can, where apartments filled quickly and commercial space is strictly limited.
Opening their first business together in their own community, in an historic building, alongside friends and neighbors, gives the duo plenty of opportunities to reminisce about the restaurant where they last worked together, Mullane’s Parkside Café on Race Street downtown.
Say the name Mullane’s to folks who lived in Cincinnati in the early 1990s and you’ll likely hear tales of spinach sautés and red beans and rice. Many diners had their first taste of tempeh in the 50-seat dining room. Long lists of one-off specials were born of a refrigerator too small to hold more than a day’s worth of food. And, despite listing strip steak on the menu, Mullane’s earned “best vegetarian restaurant” honors multiple years in a row.
As much as the food, the atmosphere made the cozy, 960-square-foot place distinct. It was the most diverse living room in town. Local art covered the walls in years before restaurant art shows were common practice. Tarot card readers offered their services at open tables; journalists claimed seats for hours at a time; City Council members bought art off the walls; and the conductor of the symphony felt as at home as his nose-pierced neighbor.
Tape, a gentle giant of a man and former Montessori teacher who ran the restaurant, nurtured the atmosphere. He hired Kroner, a bright-eyed artist and performer, to be its manager.
“He’s the monk; I’m the monkey,” Kroner said.
Who Is Ruth?
The new restaurant inherits more than spinach sauté and red beans and rice from Mullane’s. It is named after Ruth Cummings, a Cincinnati Westsider who kept Mullane’s books before and during Tape’s tenure there.
After other family members died, Cummings asked her former boss to be her caretaker. Tape agreed.
After her death in 2007, she bequeathed Tape the money that would became part of the initial funding for her namesake business.
Relationships at Mullane’s inspired that kind of loyalty.
Ruth’s chef, Kevin Worthington, started as a dishwasher at Mullane’s when he was 21. “I pretty much learned every role in the kitchen,” said the 48-year-old, who went on to work for local restaurant legends Jimmy Gibson at Plaza 600 and Jeff Ruby at The Waterfront. More recently, he spent time as a chef at Palomino and Morton’s Steakhouse. While waiting through delays in Ruth’s creation, he helped start The Anchor OTR.
Tape and Kroner approached Worthington about creating Ruth’s menu and serving as chef with a bit of trepidation, based on his post-Mullane’s success.
They needn’t have worried.
“I never even thought twice about it,” Worthington said. “How often do you get a chance to go back and work with people like David and Mary? David is probably the smartest person I ever worked for. I don’t ever remember him making a bad decision. Mary is beautiful and fun and has always been a pleasure to work with.”
A Long Overdue Groundbreaking
When Tape and Kroner reached out to Worthington in 2009, they already had their hearts set on the American Can Building. They met with representatives from developer Bloomfield/Schon + Partners before renovations began and expressed interest.
For supporters like former Vice-Mayor Jim Tarbell, the location made perfect sense.
He met Kroner and Tape in the 1980s when they worked for him in the historic spaces of Arnold’s Bar & Grill alongside a host of other creatives, he described as an “enclave of crazy people” who valued, among other things, old buildings.
“The fact that this is a re-claimed historic building is significant,” Tarbell said. “It all just fits so wonderfully.”
He along with nearly 100 other supporters, many in their 50s and 60s, showed up for a champagne toast to the new venture the day before demolition work on the space started. It was a sweltering July afternoon, but that didn’t deter a steady stream of friends who greeted one another as if they were at a family reunion and extolled the virtues of booth seating as they pored over floor plans and marveled at the massive windows that face Hamilton Avenue and drench the restaurant’s interior with light.
Many knew that Ruth’s original architectural plans, by Northside resident Tim Jeckering, had already been completely reconfigured once. Agreements over permits and sprinklers, which typically would take weeks, stretched into months of uncertainty for Tape and Kroner.
“It’s been long,” Kroner said. City permitting delays meant they eventually had to reapply for the small business loan they had already been granted.
“Before we started over, it had to be re-designed and re-permitted,” Tape said.
Getting By With Help From Their Friends
Along with delays and frustrations, Tape and Kroner found encouragement.
Between their own money, Ruth Cumming’s bequest, the small-business loan and loans and in-kind contributions from friends and neighbors, the pair has raised more than a half million dollars, enough to get the restaurant up and running.
In addition to architectural plans from Jeckering, Tape and Kroner turned to friend and local artist Jill Rowinski to design custom lighting.
“We would like a comfortable space,” said Tape, 59, who described the new décor as more trendy than the eclectic mix that defined Mullane’s. “We would really like a place where our friends can hear and see the menu.”
One of those friends, Kroner’s partner Mary Ann Meehan, has acted as chief cheerleader through every twist and turn of the start-up process.
“I just feel like I’m the one who says, I believe in the mission,” she said. Meehan, who called Tape and Kroner “food missionaries” because for nearly 10 long years they never stopped talking about opening a restaurant of their own and using it as a force for building community.
“David and I are both very community-oriented,” said Kroner, 56, who spent her post-Mullane’s years raising her own family and working in her family’s dry-cleaning business. “A business in a neighborhood is a perfect conduit to work in a community and to give. I do feel like that is our bottom line.”
If You Go:
Updates on an opening day, complete hours and other details can be found on Ruth's Facebook page.
Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner.
Reservations not required.
Access to the space is through the Blue Rock Road entrance to the American Can Building, between Hamilton and Spring Grove avenues.
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