EVERY RESTAURANT STARTS as a dream — and the most thrilling dining-out experiences take place in restaurants where that dream is still alive, where it’s evident that the everyday demands of running a business have not dimmed the original vision. The Ruby Brink is one such restaurant.
Situated on Vashon Island, the largest island in Washington’s Puget Sound, the Ruby Brink began as the dream of butcher Lauren Garaventa, along with two other partners, chef Rustle Biehn and bar manager Jake Heil (formerly of Portland’s Multnomah Whiskey Library). They wanted to create an inviting place for neighbors to gather in their small downtown. The restaurant was built to reflect Garaventa’s values — a belief that meat should be consumed ethically, sparingly, and with a sense of reverence — and to employ her community.
A DIY spirit of ingenuity, determination, and joy can be felt among the restaurant’s tight-knit staff. This lends an even greater warmth to the well-appointed slate-blue brick building on one of Vashon’s busiest (which is to say, actually pretty quiet) corners. Garaventa’s husband, Finn, bakes the restaurant’s heritage-grain sourdough bread daily. Biehn’s sister, Larkin, moved up to Vashon from San Francisco, where she worked in fine-dining restaurants, to be Biehn’s sous-chef.
Since opening in 2019, the Ruby Brink’s low-key elegance and low-waste principles have been a draw to tourists and a boon to locals, who know they can expect a welcoming vibe and consistently delicious food. Produce and meat (butchered on-site by Garaventa and her team) are sourced locally, the only exception being the citrus used in the bar’s cocktails. “If it’s not in season, it’s not here,” Garaventa tells me during my November visit. “We work with local farms. So right now, we have lemongrass and cilantro and garlic and shallots. But we don’t have garlic in May.”
In opening the Ruby Brink, Garaventa wanted to offer Vashon’s residents a place where food is served late, where “you could get off the 10:20 p.m. boat from Seattle and be able to get a good meal and a drink.” When it opened, the Ruby Brink was the only place on the island that served food after 8 at night, which then became midnight before the pandemic hit. They’re still open until 10 p.m. — and they’re willing to stretch that here and there. “If you come in at 10, we will feed you,” Garaventa says.
But opening the restaurant wasn’t just about the food for Garaventa. She also sought to provide some ambience on an island where most watering holes don’t prioritize decor. “I was getting drunk in bars under fluorescent lights,” she says. “It was a nightmare.” The warm, flattering low light at the Ruby Brink, particularly above the bar, was deliberate.
The restaurant was built to reflect Garaventa’s values — a belief that meat should be consumed ethically, sparingly, and with a sense of reverence — and to employ her community.
For five years prior to opening the Ruby Brink, Garaventa and Biehn ran a beloved pop-up called Meat & Noodle. The concept was simple: a piping hot bowl of rich broth served with noodles, meat, and three vegetables — a fresh one, a roasted one, and a pickled one. The bowls sold out every single time, and the success of the concept is what launched the idea for a brick-and-mortar spot. The pair wanted to keep innovating, but when Garaventa mentioned to investors early on that she might be moving away from the Meat & Noodle concept, they told her in no uncertain terms that soup was the reason they wanted to invest. So she kept it on the menu. Like everything else, it changes daily depending on the meat available when it’s made, as well as the bones, vegetables, and herbs in the long-simmered stock.
Meat & Noodle is now the Ruby Brink’s anchoring menu item, and it’s clear just a few bites in why it has drawn backers and patrons alike. On the night I tried it, the large steaming bowl of thick noodles and flavorful rich broth was topped with fresh parsley and local microgreens, pickled leeks, roasted cauliflower, and a soft-boiled egg. It felt like immunity against the bone-chilling November mist, which circulated beneath a darkening gray sky outside the restaurant’s picture windows.
I realized then that I have rarely had noodle soup that is not of Asian provenance. Of course, there's chicken noodle soup, but the diner version I recall from childhood featured overcooked rotini — rather than these satisfyingly long egg noodles, twirlable on a fork and filling enough to be your whole dinner. The Meat & Noodle soup does not contain dashi, shoyu, or udon noodles, but it’s a revelation. It has the quality of a Sunday roast, cooked low and slow for an entire day. Made as it is from ultrafresh ingredients, with a hearty serving of vegetables at the fore, it also feels clean. Why hasn’t someone thought of this? I thought, before remembering that fortunately, someone has.
Sitting beneath the dim lights of the bar, I slurped happily from the bowl while the Kinks sang, “I’m not like everybody else.” I also drank a plum shrub soda, a potent liquid memory of summer stone fruit; ate from a plate of bracing pickled green beans and grapes; sampled the creamy, slightly sweet pork rillette dotted with housemade pepper jelly on Finn’s sourdough toast; and savored the best bacon I’ve ever had in my life — really. (To the restaurant’s great credit, it’s possible to order small servings of the kinds of things one really wants, especially while drinking: toasts with various spreads and toppings, a side of bacon, a piping-hot mug of broth, tinned fish with Saltines.)
The large steaming bowl of thick noodles and flavorful rich broth was topped with fresh parsley and local microgreens, pickled leeks, roasted cauliflower, and a soft-boiled egg.
Growing up in Reno, Nevada, with a Mexican grandmother, an Italian grandfather, and parents who loved food, Garaventa was always cooking. “There was a culture of cooking everything from scratch,” she says of her household. “That’s just what you do. Everything is homemade.” She went on to work in restaurants as a young teenager, and then got interested in farming and butchery. To really master whole animal butchery, she took classes, read everything she could, and worked as a butcher on a farm on Vashon. Now, in the small adjoining butcher shop at the Ruby Brink, she oversees a team of three other butchers, all women. None are tall — a fact their workspace is built to accommodate. While I was there, I watched Garaventa’s apprentice unwrap a quarter of a pig on a worktable built for a roughly 5-foot-4-inch person. Together, the team supplies the kitchen and fills the small butcher case in the shop with loins, sausage, a few chops, and charcuterie.
Many restaurants claim to use the whole animal, but when Garaventa says she does so, she really means it. She only buys two cows and four pigs a month. Pig tails are smoked and sold as dog treats (I brought one home for mine). Beef tallow is used to make soap and hand cream, which are sold by the butcher shop register. Bones go in the broth. Ground chuck (mixed with beef bacon) becomes hamburgers on Wednesday — burger day — when the noisy lunchtime crowd fills every seat in the place. She takes her culinary cues from what’s available: “Whatever’s next is next,” she says. “I have a bunch of corned beef in the walk-in, so that’s next.”
Garaventa doesn’t develop the restaurant’s recipes, but she and Biehn make the menu together each morning. Meat is central, she tells me, but the specific offerings change each day. “Sometimes customers will say, ‘Remember that thing I had here a couple years ago?’ and I'll have to say, ‘That will never be on the menu again, sorry.’” But the only way the restaurant can stay true to its mission is by evolving with the seasons and working its way through the small number of animals it procures.
The Ruby Brink offers vegan options too. Garaventa’s best friend of 25 years is vegan and she likes to make sure there’s always something on the menu for him. Though it may seem incongruous, the restaurant is popular among vegetarians and vegans. The guiding ethos is to respect animals, providing a model of sustainable meat consumption that anyone concerned for the planet can endorse. Plus, a version of the Meat & Noodle soup is vegan, as are many salads, toasts, and other small plates. A pear rice pudding made with coconut milk was the most appealing dessert on the menu the night I was there. “As long as they don’t sit near the butcher case,” Garaventa laughs, “they love it.”
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Aya Brackett Photographer
Aya Brackett’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Monocle, Bon Appetit, and more. She has also photographed many cookbooks for notable chefs, and received a James Beard Award for her photography. She is based in Oakland, California.