Joe Tucker doesn’t want to talk about who started the fire in his restaurant last year because he’s already forgiven him. The guy’s gone now anyway, off to God knows where.
“He had his problems,” Joe told me as I swiped a biscuit through a bowl full of grits. “I guess we all do.” Spoken like a true saint. But if you know this guy, even a little bit, it’s not too surprising.
Joe and his wife, Carla, are the closest thing to saints I’ve ever met. I’m Catholic so I go looking for saints. But my attendance at church is sparse these days, and it’s at Tucker’s where I feel the spirit in me. The restaurant has been feeding Cincinnati’s tired, poor, and huddled masses since Joe’s parents, the late E.G. and the still-kicking Maynie Tucker abandoned the hills of Kentucky for the hills of Cincinnati and opened their first restaurant in 1946. They soon became the go-to mom and pop for Appalachian migrants and black factory workers. In more recent years it’s been a favorite of art students, gangbangers, and punk rockers; P&G execs, politicians, and monks from nearby St. Francis church.
It didn’t matter who you were at Tucker’s—everyone was treated the same. Carla helped the neighborhood kids with their homework; Joe took them to Reds games if their grades were good.
My mom left Cincinnati for Florida back in 2001. A decade before that, my dad passed away. So aside from old friends, the city where I grew up has no roots for me now. But then again, there’s Tucker’s. Joe, with his beat-to-hell Bengals cap and black, flour-stained T-shirt, remembers my name whenever I pop in, no matter how long it’s been. Carla does, too.
Despite all that, Joe and Carla have a restaurant to run. When I arrived, the dining room was filled with people who’d shown up for what was billed as a “friends and family” get-together, a thank-you to all the people who’d helped raise Tucker’s from the ashes. And there were a lot of people to thank: loyal customers and fellow restaurant owners who fronted bills, raised money, volunteered time, and even sold T-shirts to make sure the place reopened.
One of them was Kathleen Norris, the founder of a big-time real estate company, and a devoted regular. After watching the Tuckers struggle to hire the right people to reopen, she took the reins, helping them find a reputable architect and other contractors, many of whom did their work pro bono. One of those contractors was Jim McMahon, the owner of a design company, who restored the stainless-steel stools, counters, and flattop. “Real nice guy,” Joe told me, with an accent that’s retained its sweet Appalachian roots. Joe swears he’s going to pay him back one day, but I doubt Jim is in any rush.
A few booths over sat Chris Heckman—a stay-at-home dad who’d made a weekly ritual of taking his son, Otto, to Tucker’s for French toast. After the fire, Chris launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $18,000 toward repairs. “With so much gentrification going on in this neighborhood, you can’t afford to lose a place like Tucker’s,” he told me. “The new restaurants opening here are expensive, but Tucker’s is an every week kind of place.”
This isn’t the first time the people of Cincinnati have shown their love of Tucker’s. Years ago, when Joe and Carla’s 7-week-old grandson, Adam, died of SIDS, they held a fund-raiser to give them time off to grieve. They held another after Carla was shot in the shoulder a few years back (a drug dealer entered the restaurant to kill off a rival and hit her instead). When riots in Over-the-Rhine threatened to destroy the business in 2001, neighborhood kids stood guard, making sure no one messed with Tucker’s. They knew that, unlike the factories and the bakeries and the groceries that had abandoned this area decades ago, this white Appalachian-owned business had always been there for the mostly black families who remained—for all families, really.
Sometimes, though, things take their toll. Joe’s quick to mention that he’s a recovering alcoholic. He fell off the wagon after Carla got shot, but he’s been back on three years running. But who doesn’t have their demons? Everyone has struggles and a hunger for something real. The Tuckers are here to assuage that hunger. Someday, they hope their children, and their children’s children, will do it, too. So how could Cincinnati not save Tucker’s? How could a city turn away a family that accepts its people no matter who they are; no matter what they’ve done? How can a city look away from a family that always forgives?
1637 Vine Street
Cincinnati, OH 45202