Written by Barry Kaufman | Photos by Rob Kaufman
When stepping inside Ruby Lee’s on Old Wild Horse Road, it’s easy to get a sense of déjà vu. The wood paneling on the walls and up the bars, the oil paintings of classic African-Americana and the wide stage in the corner for live music all create the same relaxed vibe that made the original Ruby Lee’s and later the south end iteration of the restaurant such an icon.
Similarly, the food offers up much the same experience as it had in the past.
From oxtail stew to fried chicken, it’s a revamped soul food menu that offers an updated take on timeless Southern dishes.
And of course, there’s the iconic silhouette of Ruby Lee herself, still adorning the front door, keeping an eye on the proceedings.
“It’s all about respecting that name and honoring her, having that legacy live on for my kids and their kids,” said owner Tim Singleton. “That’s why I’ve got a lot of work to do to climb back in the good graces of her heavenly spirit.”
So much of Ruby Lee’s seems familiar, but there is a distinct change in Singleton. Behind the sunglasses, the eyes seem a little wiser. There’s a little more gray in the beard than when he opened the original Ruby Lee’s in 2012, and Ruby Lee’s South in 2016.
The determination to honor his family’s legacy remains strong.
But then, having your shortcomings broadcast to everyone in Beaufort County would light a fire in anyone’s belly.
“People go through ebbs and flows in their lives. I just get mine on the front page because I’m Tim Singleton,” he said. “Unfortunately, the sensationalism of certain stories about certain people always gets enhanced. You know, I don’t know who doesn’t have tax issues.”
Here’s the part of the story you heard: Tim Singleton, lifelong island resident, was arrested on March 4, 2021 by agents of the S.C. Department of Revenue. He was charged with failing to file tax returns and for operating without a retail license. You most likely saw his mugshot — it was everywhere after the arrest.
Here’s the part of the story that didn’t garner as much media attention: According to the S.C. Department of Revenue, the charge for operating without a retail license was dismissed. Three failure-to-file taxes charges were consolidated into one charge, to which he pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to time served (one day) and paid a $128.75 fine. Prior to the sentencing, Singleton paid $25,000 and agreed to restitution.
“I’ve stood up, and I’m very accountable for it. I’m embarrassed by it, actually, because I’m not an accountant or a bookkeeper or any of those things,” he said. “I never claimed to be, but my name is on everything. So, guess who’s responsible?”
Singleton holds no ill will toward the state or the officers who arrested him, saying they were simply doing their job. He is grateful to his vast support system which was there for him during the year and a half that he sank into depression.
And he’s eager to turn the page and continue telling the story of Tim Singleton. And that story is written all over the menu at Ruby Lee’s.
Every time someone discovers the soul food flavors that Ruby Lee brought to her cooking, brought into the 21st century by the chefs at the restaurant which bears her name, that story gets told anew.
“That is my validation right there,” said Singleton. “Whether it’s an old white guy or a young Black kid, everybody’s licking their fingers. That’s validation.”
If you can’t find redemption in a bowl of oxtail stew, then you won’t find it anywhere.
For Singleton, carrying on that culinary tradition is something he’s not doing for the present, but for the future.
“I’m really proud that my son and his buddies who graduated from college are here now and they’re carrying that load,” he said. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to support other livelihoods… they’re learning the business, and they’re responsible to carry on this legacy anyway.”
Back in his original location, (the re-opening was last fall) humbled by his mistakes, Tim Singleton has emerged from a year and a half under the microscope, eager to move forward.
“I’m on the other side of it now. I’m proud of Ruby Lee’s. I’m proud of my supporters,” he said. “I’m proud to be not only a Black man in the state of South Carolina and the United States of America, but a Black leader, a Black father. That is great. And that’s all that matters.”