Next time you’re at Georgetown’s Rugby Cafe, say ‘Hi’ to co-owner Lincoln Pilcher, a former rugby player and Ralph Lauren model. The Australian native’s string of rustic restaurants spans the country: LA’s Eveleigh is the new “it” spot; NYC’s Ruby’s is a “cool college kid hangout”, and the West Village’s Kingswood is “an equally fun big sister” to the Rugby Cafe. Pilcher’s empire is even expanding to the Middle East – a Little Ruby’s recently opened in Kuwait City.
In 1999, 20-year-old Pilcher arrived in New York to model and shoot fashion photos. Last week, he shared beer and kangaroo with Australian Prime Minster Julia Gillard. This is Pilcher’s intriguing story.
Humble Beginnings – “My partner [Nicholas Mathers], who is my partner in all the restaurants, he decided he was going to start a cafe. And I told him he was crazy because we couldn’t get any good coffee in New York and we were sick of drinking Starbucks,” says Pilcher in his cool, candid manner. “He went ahead and signed a lease and did all these things and I still thought he was crazy. Eventually I jumped on board with him and became a partner with him in Ruby’s, which we opened in 2004. It just snowballed from there.
“We started with cupcakes, bizarrely enough—selling cupcakes and selling coffee—and then we went to paninis. Then someone said we should do pastas. We did pastas. Then at one stage we started cooking burgers off panini grills,” he says, summarizing the improvised first year and a half. “There wasn’t even an exhaust system at Ruby’s.
“You’d come to Ruby’s and eat burgers, and leave smelling like the burger you ate.”
“The Bedroom Effect” – “We exported the Sydney-style, the Melbourne-style cafe. Australia is a cafe society, it’s wake up, everyone meet in the morning and have panini and coffee,” says Pilcher, describing the ambience he and partners Mathers and Nick Hatsatouris sought to export.
“We try to make it about the vibe. One of the big things we’ve done over the years is trying to create the bedroom effect, the whole lounge effect so you feel comfortable. It’s polished food in a relaxed environment.”
Naming the Burgers – “The burger, that’s what’s really hit it off. The burger in New York is different from here. We change buns, we try to keep it alive. The Iggys burger, which is in the middle,” he says, referencing a chalkboard menu on the wall. “That’s the one that’s standardized. Every restaurant has that.”
“The [burgers] at Ruby’s are all named after the beaches in Australia. So Bondi, which is the famous Bondi, and the Bronte. Then these [Rugby Cafe burgers] are all the famous rugby schools in Australia. Scots is where I went to school.”
Pilcher’s Rugby Past – For seven years, Pilcher reveled in the nonstop, rough and tumble nature of the game. “It’s super tough.” Did he break anything? “Collarbones, split-open lips. You don’t wear pads, it’s intense but the game doesn’t stop, that’s why rugby’s such a great game.”
“Rugby, yeah,” he says with a rueful smile. “That was when I was younger.”
A Glamorous Modeling Lifestyle – Pilcher’s mother, a Pittsburgh native, was the editor of Australian Vogue for 28 years. Even as a young child Pilcher was always well dressed, often sporting Ralph Lauren. He started modeling as a pre-teen, landing a contract with Ford Models in his early twenties.
“We had a great, great time, literally traveling the world and making enough money to go to the next place. It was a vagabond style of life but it was definitely fun.
“We traveled around do to shows in Paris, Milan, New York; a lot of advertising, Abercombie and print magazine editorial.”
They did let him smile, he assures me – his modeling career wasn’t about “pulling a Zoolander,” making the same face in every photo. “That movie kind of changed everything: ‘blue steel’ that’s it,” he snaps as he remembers the name for Ben Stiller’s pouty model pose. “Fun, fun, fun.”
A big budget shoot for Australian GQ was particularly memorable. “We went to this amazing island. It was three guys and three girls,” he recalls. “We were there for four days. We shot for like an hour a day because we’d shoot sunrise and sunset. We were all surfers, we were surfing. Those were the kind of trips that I liked.”
Ultimately the narrow focus of the industry wasn’t a comfortable fit. “You’re judged purely on one thing – what you look like – so it wasn’t really my thing.”
On the Restaurant Business and Life in DC – The restaurant industry seems to be a better fit, though Pilcher does enjoy keeping up with some aspects of his former life. “Broken dishwashers and beer taps, that’s Monday through Friday, and then on the weekends you can do what you want to do,” he says. The former rugby player embraces an active lifestyle of tennis, running and surfing, but his true passion is high-end photography.
“I still love taking pictures, it’s my hobby, it’s my passion,” he says, becoming energized by the turn in the conversation. “I have my studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for my pictures. It’s kind of like my little Warhol sanctuary to do what I want to do on the weekends.”
His hobbies help to offset the more trying aspects of being a partner in such a successful set of restaurants. On negotiating with providers for his businesses, Pilcher notes that “Consistency is the biggest thing in restaurants. It’s the hardest thing to do. If you are consistent, you’ll be successful.
“Avocados can be a dollar, all of a sudden there’s a flood then they’re $5 … Fish is the worst. Providers call us and they say, ‘This has gone up to this much.’ Some of the theories I’ve gotten from providers over the years,” he marvels. “It’s like, ‘You’re pulling my leg. China’s buying it all and they’re freezing it? That’s a good excuse. You just can’t get any fish and you want to charge me more for it.’”
While negotiating with providers and finding alone time for his photography isn’t always easy, Pilcher clearly enjoys his new career. His favorite aspect of the restaurant business? “The interaction with people, making people feel happy and at home.” He gets to know his DC customers particularly well, he says. “Loyalty is the big thing down here.”