Courtesy of Jakob N. Layman

Nick Mathers has also been serving grain bowls since 2003.

Andy Wang
November 28, 2017

With its avocado toast, grain bowls, cauliflower-rice bowl and lovely daytime vibe just steps from the beach in Santa Monica, Little Ruby might seem like one of those peak-L.A., calibrated-for-2017 restaurants. But it turns out that this new kid on the block is actually the OG pioneer.

Little Ruby founding partner Nick Mathers may be Australian and a surfer, but he’s not part of L.A.’s new crop of beachy-chic Australian café operators (see the fellas at Great White or Bondi Harvest). Little Ruby is part of Mathers’ collection of restaurants that also includes L.A.’s Eveleigh and Goldie’s, as well as Dudley’s in New York and Duke Bistro in Sydney. And Mathers is in the process of opening a separate rooftop lounge with waterfront views in Santa Monica.

Little Ruby is a spinoff of downtown New York’s Ruby’s, which has been serving avocado toast and grain bowls in Nolita since 2003. Back then, Mulberry Street was a lot different than it is now.

“John Gotti had just left,” Mathers says. “We still had the mafia guys come in wanting to grease you up.”

Little Ruby and nearby spots like Café Gitane and Café Habana turned Nolita into a different kind of destination. Little Ruby quickly became a popular hangout for downtown scenesters, including hospitality entrepreneurs who would go on to open places like The Smile, Freeman’s and Public.

Courtesy of Jakob N. Layman

Mathers doesn’t like to think of his places as cafés where people eat salads and drink iced tea. He prefers to describe Little Ruby as a modern diner that sells a lot of burgers and pastas along with the requisite vegetables. Little Ruby’s shrimp spaghetti has been a hit at Ruby’s for more than a decade. The sweet corn and bacon bowl with Israeli couscous is another popular carb-heavy dish that came over from Ruby’s.

Little Ruby “is great for hangovers, or you can come at night,” says Mathers, who adds that most of his restaurants tend to be busier in the evening than during the day.

Mathers says he won’t ever open a restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol. Little Ruby has spritzes and other low-ABV cocktails, including drinks made with Regal Rouge, an Australian vermouth flavored with native herbs and spices.

“It becomes more of a bar vibe at night,” Mathers says.

What’s different between Little Ruby and Mathers’ other L.A. restaurants is its waterfront setting and heavy daytime-tourist foot traffic.

So chef/partner Thomas Lim (who is Aussie-born and has Malaysian and Irish roots) has created new daytime delights like a breakfast bowl with brown rice, a soft egg, spaghetti squash, fermented cabbage, wild mushrooms and chili sauce. The bowl, Lim says, was inspired by the luxurious breakfast buffets at Japanese hotels, where you pile on some premium rice and put toppings and soup over it.

“We wanted to do something grain-based for breakfast,” Lim says. “It’s like a congee with texture.”

And an umami-rich dashi with mushrooms like enokis and shimejis makes this grain bowl a soul-warming morning pick-me-up.

Courtesy of Jakob N. Layman

“In Australia, all of the cafes have Asian influences because of the proximity of Southeast Asia,” Lim says. “In Australia, they also focus really hard on breakfast. A lot of chefs trained in fine dining make breakfast.”

Avocado toast is a staple of Australian breakfasts. So Ruby’s started serving it in New York without making a big deal of it, or realizing that it would become such a big trend.

“We’ve got the stigma of being the guys that started avocado toast in New York,” Mathers says. “I really don’t want to be known for that.”

Maybe it’s better not to get into this at all?

“No no,” Mathers says. “It’s true.”

Little Ruby, 109 Santa Monica Boulevard, Santa Monica, 424-322-8353