Tucker’s Restaurant Serves Up Soul Food

To eat at Tucker’s is to know the Tuckers. And by the time your meal is done, Joe and Carla Tucker will know you.

This article was originally featured in the November 2005 issue.

Hey brother,” says Joe Tucker, turning from a grill packed with burgers, chicken breasts, and eggs. Bacon crackles underneath a wooden-handled metal press. You grab one of the black vinyl stools and maybe get a menu, maybe not, the presumption being if you know enough to come to Tucker’s, you also know what’s good. (When the phone rings with a to-go order, Joe can usually start cooking based on voice recognition.) But soon enough, he’ll tell you that there’s three varieties of veggie burger you can choose from, and that his wife Carla—that’s her over by the second booth, delivering an order—made gazpacho because the tomatoes at Findlay Market looked particularly good this morning. In the back, Joe’s mother Maynie (pronounced MAY-na) washes coffee cups; she’s 85, and opened the diner’s first incarnation with her husband in 1946.

Photograph by Jim Noelker

A man in a Yankees hat pops through the front door.

“Hey baby,” Joe says.

“Hey Tucker! Can I use your bathroom?”

He doesn’t really need permission. “Thanks baby,” he says.

There’s no longer a jukebox or a cigarette machine, but for the most part Tucker’s is exactly as it was when it opened at this location—1637 Vine, just north of Liberty—back in the 1950s. The chocolate cake is under glass, sugar dispensers dot the faded brown counter, and plastic squeeze bottles of syrup are gathered in a metal tray. Coffee filters sit atop a ’40s-era Husman’s tin; tchotchkes new and old—Super Mario, a troll doll, a Mr. Red bobblehead, Woody from Toy Story—take up a shelf between the griddle and the ventilation hood. On the back wall there’s an antique clock rimmed in pink neon; over the front door is a hand-painted replica of the original neon sign from when the restaurant was at Sixth and Walnut.

“I treat them like they’re family, they treat like I’m their family,” says Hawkins. “That’s why I come here every day.”

Burgers fry, mushrooms sauté, and Joe rests a slice of American on the top half of a warming bun, softening the cheese just enough so that the heat of the beef patty will take it to full melt. But Tucker’s is not your average time-in-a-bottle luncheonette. One reason is the food, which is mostly natural (Amish chicken, beef, and pork from Eckerlin’s; vegetables from Madison’s) and made from scratch. The cooking has as much in common with the healthy hippie vibe of now-departed downtown spot Mullane’s as it does a classic diner like Hathaway’s. Joe is no short-order grill man.

“He takes time cooking your food,” says local stand-up comic Al Catone, who has been eating it for nearly all of his 27 years. “He takes pride in his cooking, and pride in his customers. I love him for that.”

“Best breakfast between New York and Chicago,” says theme park consultant (and one-time Kings Island manager) Dennis Speigel, who lives in Covington and comes in every Saturday.

The other thing that sets Tucker’s apart is people. Speigel has dined here with Jean-Robert de Cavel, while local bands and Main Street bohos cram the booths on weekends. But it’s also a home kitchen for this part of Over-the-Rhine, serving families, working folks, social service providers, and yes, the veritable “boyz n the hood” you see on every corner. “You can sit next to a CEO next to a blue collar worker next to white next to black,” says Speigel. Joe and Carla have taught inner-city people to eat portobello mushroom burgers, and starving artists to put grape jelly on their breakfast sandwiches.

The regulars span generations, the kids and grandkids of people who’ve been eating Tucker’s food for 40 years coming in with children of their own. “How’s your little boy?” Maynie asks a man in untied red Fila Ferrari sneakers at the far end of the counter. When Marcus Hawkins, a 29-year-old construction worker, says that he was “born and raised here,” he means Tucker’s just as much as OTR. As a kid, his mother wouldn’t let him wander in the neighborhood, but he could hang out at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club playing basketball, and he could get himself a meal at Tucker’s. Hawkins now lives in Kentucky, but still manages to jog or ride the bus here every day—sometimes twice. When his coffee needs refilling, he walks behind the counter to the front and draws it from the urn himself. And if he finds himself a little short…

“I can get something to eat even if I don’t have the money right then and there,” he says. “I got a payday, so when I get it, they know I’ll give it to them. And on days that it gets crowded I help out. I look out for them, they look out for me, you know what I’m saying? I treat them like they’re my family, they treat me like I’m their family. That’s why I come here every day.”

Joe, Maynie, and Carla Tucker. Maynie’s late husband E.G. opened the first Tucker’s on 13th street in 1946.

Photograph by Jim Noelker

In some weird, alternate universe—call it Bizarro Cincinnati, if you’re a Superman or Seinfeld fan—hungry customers would get themselves to Tucker’s every weekday on the Vine Street Trolley: Downtown bureaucrats and corporate workers riding up the hill, scrub-wearers and UC-ers coming down it. Or imagine…people driving from the suburbs on a Sunday morning for a six-cheese (Swiss, cheddar, provolone, American, mozzarella, asiago) omelette and a slice of goetta—which they could then burn off on the walk to Broadway Commons for a Reds game. A Reds playoff game. (Hey, it’s a fantasy, may as well run with it.)

Back in the real world, a pedestrian in Cincinnati just might settle for a summer afternoon where he could hit the Main Street shops, forage Findlay Market, and have a late breakfast at Tucker’s without taking a bullet.

It’s 1 p.m. on Saturday, Fourth of July weekend. Joe is at the grill, baseball cap covering a soon-to-be-shorn ponytail which he’s been cultivating for 18 months to donate to cancer patients. It’s crowded enough that a friend is waiting tables and Danny Cummins, whose mother worked alongside Joe’s mother for three decades, is also helping out. Fireworks and firecrackers have been popping nonstop in the West End and OTR for days, so a few more mini-explosions barely raise an eyebrow. Except now. The regulars recognize this harder rat-tat-tat as being unrelated to our nation’s annual independence celebration—unless the local patriots have chosen to celebrate with actual ammunition.

“Those aren’t fireworks,” says Joe, still tending to a stack of pancakes. He’d thought the first one might be, but there were seven more reports, including one that shook the restaurant slightly with a CLANK—a bullet hitting off a light pole, or perhaps a car. “Looks like we’re gonna be here a while,” one customer says. When there’s one quick burst of gunfire, it’s sometimes followed by another.

“When I heard the ricochet, I thought, ‘That was a .38,’” says Joe. Call it the Vine Street version of Name That Tune.

After a quiet minute, Danny braves the sidewalk. He comes back with not-so-good news: The rear passenger window of Maynie’s old red Lincoln Continental, which was parked a few doors down, has been shot out. Joe calls 911 and disappears into the back; Tucker’s isn’t very big, and his four-letter torrent on the phone is heard by all.

The 911 operator’s reaction seems to be, What’s the rush? Eight shots, no victims? No witnesses? Someone will be over when they can. It’s not a real emergency. Sadly, the Tuckers know that’s true. They already lived through a shootout two years earlier, when a 22-year-old who’d been born in one of Mrs. Tucker’s apartments—in addition to the restaurant, Maynie owns two other storefronts and 11 residential units—died from a gunshot in Joe’s arms. And of course, the 2001 riots began practically around the corner. That time, the Tuckers saw things starting, emptied the cash register, and left, then came back at 11 p.m. to board up the broken windows and retrieve a few more things.

Meanwhile, sausage still needs to be flipped, tomatoes sliced, and burger buns dressed. A few of the less sensitive (or more violence-jaded) customers wonder where the heck their food is. Carla’s on it. “Do you want some toast, honey,” she asks my wife, who’d ordered biscuits and gravy only to find that they were down to the last biscuit.

Eventually, two uniforms come by, followed by plainclothes detectives. Joe huddles with them in the back. “Still want to walk to Findlay Market?” my wife asks as we pay the bill. We do so. Green Street is paved with bullet casings, and not just from today. Hard to believe we’re no farther from the Kroger Building than The Cincinnatian Hotel is.

Tucker’s Restaurant began life as a workingman’s establishment, open around the clock because the city was. Procter & Gamble, Husman’s, Hudepohl, several commercial laundries, and many other businesses had three shifts. And there was retail—florists, bakeries, shoe shops—all around Over-the-Rhine. For two poor kids from Kentucky with two children trying to make a life after World War II, a diner seemed like a good gamble.

Maynie Gosser and Escom Garth (“E.G.”) Tucker met in Somerset, Kentucky, when she was 16 and he was 18; he came calling at her house on a date with her cousin, then came back a second time to see the girl who’d served them cookies and drinks. The couple had their first child, Bob, in 1937, and moved across the river in 1941; during the war, E.G. manufactured trailers and Maynie was a riveter, just like in the war recruitment posters. She was working as a factory forewoman for Baldwin Piano when her husband roped her into joining him at his new restaurant.

A Tucker’s regular tips his cap.

Photograph by Jim Noelker

The first Tucker’s was on 13th Street between Vine and Walnut; it moved a few doors down, to 18 East 13th, when they found a building they could afford to buy. The clientele back then were country people, like themselves, who’d moved to the city for jobs, so it was country food they served: biscuits and gravy, stew, fried chicken. A Big Tucker burger, which Joe will tell you featured tartar sauce before the Frisch’s Super Big Boy did, cost 45 cents back then.

At first the family lived right above the store, but they eventually moved out to Western Hills, the neighborhood that Maynie, Joe, and Carla still call home today. The Tucker’s that opened at Sixth and Walnut in 1950 didn’t even have a kitchen; they would cook everything up at 13th Street then shuttle the food eight blocks. When the Walnut building was torn down, in 1955, they moved the second restaurant up to Vine and finally settled in their current spot two years later.

It might be the only place in Cincinnati where you can truly say that race and class are not an issue.

Joe, their fourth and youngest child, was born in 1958. He remembers peeling potatoes and accompanying his father to Findlay as a kid, loading up the back of a Rambler station wagon with meat and produce every day. He also remembers Vine Street as an entertainment hub, almost like New York City—full of bars and jazz and theater, with heavy crowds of post-show, post-sports diners, including the Cincinnati Reds themselves. After-hours, drunks would spill out on the streets and fight. “These streets were a lot rougher in the ’60s,” Joe says.

For 35 years, E.G. ran the Vine Street store and Maynie ran the operation on 13th. Joe was working in the Queensgate railyard as a surveyor in 1978 when he agreed to help out at the diner. He’s been at it ever since. He met Carla, who had worked at the Gap warehouse in Erlanger and then ran their store at what was then called Kenwood Plaza, in 1979; they married in 1980. Did she know that she was marrying into a way of life? “Ha. No,” she says. “I always swore I’d never work in a restaurant!”

When E.G. died in 2003, Maynie turned over both the restaurant and the building on 13th Street to Bob, but she still owns everything on Vine, and still makes the sausage gravy every morning. “Mrs. Tucker keeps me coming, because she is like eightysomething years old and she’s always working,” Marcus Hawkins says. “Never gets sick.”

“I just come in to run the apartments and do dishes,” Maynie demurs, her voice still bearing traces of Kentucky. Having lost her husband after 67 years of marriage, she’s just trying to stay busy. But she has her sharp-tongued moments. “He’s spoiled,” she crows at one point, referring to her son. “I say I could work him under the table every day.” It’s doubtful Joe would disagree.

When I ask Maynie about her car window in September, all she says is that it got fixed. There’s no acknowledgment of how the glass got shattered, or that it was an extraordinary incident in any way. Joe and Carla sometimes chide her for walking around Vine Street like it’s still 1958, but the truth is she’s well-known and loved around the neighborhood. “It’s like she has a force field around her,” says Hawkins. When someone on the street asks her for “bus fare,” Maynie will tell them that they aren’t fooling her but if they want something to eat she’ll help them out. Amazingly, Tucker’s has never been robbed, and after the first night of the riots, the local teenagers formed a semi-circle out in front to keep people away. (Joe says that many of the troublemakers had shown up from other neighborhoods).

But make no mistake: As 19-year-old customer Shay Cottie acknowledges, “It’s the hood.” There are slingers, users, and not-so-innocent bystanders all around. When photographer Jim Noelker sets up to take a picture of the Tucker’s storefront, the first passerby pulls his baseball cap far down over his eyes. “Wait on that motherfucker,” he says. “Can’t afford to have my face on that.” (Never mind that the Cincinnati Police Department has video cameras set up on the same block). Another day, a police officer is in for lunch; Hawkins tells me he already knew a cop was in the restaurant walking in, because the corner boys were warning everyone.

Marcus knows that world a bit too well, which is why he no longer lives in Over-the-Rhine. “I don’t even want to be a part of it,” he says. “I’m not in that lifestyle. I got a whole ’nother choice I choose to go.” His mother struggled with addiction; on his left arm there’s a tattoo in honor of his older brother, who is in prison for murder. (What Marcus didn’t know at the time is that simply having a tattoo can hurt your visitor’s privileges.) When he was 23, he was held up in the West End by a gypsy cab driver who knew his brother by reputation and figured Marcus might have drugs or money; the assailant got $21, a cell phone, and a joint, and Marcus got two slugs in him. Then two years ago, in Kentucky, he was walking to the store and couldn’t help himself from checking out a dice game; the game got held up and he took two more bullets. “It’s got to be the choices I’m making,” he finally realized. He got rid of his gold teeth, goes jogging every day, and works when there’s work to be had. In addition to construction labor, he has a sideline selling clothes. “Thirty cents here, 30 cents there,” he says.

Marcus Hawkins

Photograph by Jim Noelker

A few weeks after Maynie’s car window got shot out, a group of kids came clean. They wouldn’t say who did it but that they knew who did (i.e., it was one of them). “They came in and said, ‘We’re really really sorry,’” says Carla. “We said, ‘We’re glad you’re sorry, but she could have been out there.’”

It was unusual that anything happened at all. “If people cause trouble or if they’re about to, we have a whole group of guys that will stand up and say: ‘We don’t do that in here,’” says Joe. “We don’t even have to get involved.”

Last fall Joe and Carla’s friend Brian Muldoon, who’s 45 and 6’9″—he knew Joe from high school basketball in Western Hills, then reconnected some years later—registered more than 300 voters from OTR by knocking on doors up and down Vine Street. “I’m not 5-0,” he’d tell the corner boys, who were sure he was a cop. But once they learned that he was friendly with the Tuckers, he didn’t have to worry. By the end of the registration drive, the dealers were sending people in the neighborhood his way.

“The people that come in, they are respectful and kind and loving to us,” says Joe. Kids routinely reach behind the counter to throw out their own garbage. When one gold-toothed, cornrowed dude tries to sneak off with an Everfresh (Joe swears by the Peach-Watermelon), Carla adds it to his bill without comment and the kid is unperturbed. “Bye Joe,” he says as he leaves.

“Who knows what they do outside, but when they come inside, it’s like family,” Joe says. He has treated them as such outside of the kitchen, working with the YMCA and as a Big Brother to several in the neighborhood, taking them into the dugout before Reds games, trying to let them know that there’s a world beyond the inner city, and that they’re not locked out from society. One of those kids was Stefan Pryor, son of boxer Aaron. “Stefan Tucker,” is how he introduces himself to me. “CEO.” Just another member of the clan.

“If everyone was like the Tuckers, the world would be a better place,” says friend and customer David Peters, a graphic designer.

Shay Cottie puts it in simpler terms: “They show everybody the love.”

Another busy Saturday. Coldplay (Joe’s choice, not Carla’s) has given way to R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant as Joe cracks eggs and cinnamon into an oval plate for coating French toast. He’s out of sorts and sleep-deprived. Tonight a bunch of friends, customers, and local bands will gather at the Greenwich Tavern for a Tucker’s benefit. “I’m not used to something like that,” he says. “I’m used to going and supporting someone else.”

In mid-July, Joe and Carla’s daughter Kristen lost her 7-week-old son Adam to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and since then the grieving grandparents have barely caught their breath. The idea is to just show them some support—to express love and appreciation for the elemental thing the Tuckers do: spread joy to others with a simple meal. “Joe and Carla, thanks for feeding us,” Poppie’s Deli owner Michelle Lightfoot says at the event. “We owe you a lot.”

The other idea is to raise enough money that Joe and Carla might be able to take a vacation, or spend time with their daughter, or do something for themselves. When you own your own small restaurant and have no employees, that’s harder than it sounds. Close for a week and you are in a hole. Close for two and you might never reopen.

Maynie Tucker

Photograph by Jim Noelker

The Tuckers live this way every day. Business never returned to where it was before the riots. Health insurance? They haven’t had it in four years. And the profit margins are miniscule. The restaurant isn’t big enough to order things like chicken wings or veggie burgers wholesale; mostly, they shop at Kroger. Some days, if you order tuna, Carla will open up two cans of Bumble Bee right in front of you; add in the cost of mayo, bread, and fixings, and the $3.25 sandwich surely isn’t making them a dime.

But what are they supposed to do? Raise prices? Move? One afternoon I saw a young mother in pink pants counting out nickels and dimes, the difference between whether she was going to order a $1.50 hamburger or a $1.65 cheeseburger. Then she used the restaurant’s phone, as so many patrons do. Those who come to Tucker’s as a destination would move with them, but the restaurant’s core clientele would be left behind. “Without Tucker’s it would be a lost community,” says Sondra Walls, a landlord and president of Walls Real Estate Investments in OTR. “A lot of people depend on them to eat.”

Besides, Tucker’s on Main Street, in the downtown business district, or even over in Findlay Market wouldn’t be Tucker’s. Tucker’s is Over-the-Rhine. All the questions that the city keeps asking itself—how to get the neighborhood off economic life support while still retaining independent character, how to keep things locally owned instead of corporate, how to improve the housing stock without displacing poor people—are writ small in a seven-booth, 10-stool restaurant. It might be the only place in Cincinnati where you can truly say that race and class are not an issue.

“Really and truly, it’s made our life richer,” says Carla. “If you lived in suburbia your whole life, you would have a very different view of the world.” The Tuckers have enjoyed the pride and independence of running their own business, and are more than grateful for what they have. “Our house, our car…I owe everything to the inner-city people,” says Joe. “They have nothing, and they give us their money to make us live. It’s incredible.”

(From left) Insurance man Al Faulkner and stand-up comic Al Catone. “This is my office away from home,” says Faulkner, who’s been a customer here for more than 50 years.

Photograph by Jim Noelker

Photograph by Jim Noelker

Refrigerator magnets of the counter in the 1950’s

Photograph by Jim Noelker

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