Peter Waters knows keeping it simple works. He’s the managing partner at T/aco, but also runs Ruthie’s Boardwalk Social, which serves just shy of 10 variations of grilled cheese sandwiches from a walk-up window on the corner of 14th and Pearl.
“People joke that quesadillas are the nexus of my universe,” Waters says.
During the winter, folks can also order tomato soup. In the summer, the team trades the soup pots out for a soft-serve machine. Twice-fried, Belgian-style fries are available, but not much else.
“We had success with T/aco focusing on one item with a variety of offerings,” Waters says. Ruthie’s sells The Classic, with American and white cheese and mayo, for just over $5. There’s The Mahalo, with smoked Gouda, white cheddar, ham and grilled pineapple, and an Italian Caprese with fresh mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and pesto. Everything comes smashed between a couple of thick slices from the Harvest Moon Baking Company.
But there’s more to Waters’ formula than just peddling plays on the classics. Ruthie’s is an ode to his maternal grandmother, who he spent summers with growing up at a beach house in Manasquan, New Jersey.
“My grandma would get up at god knows what hour to make breakfast,” often preparing fantastic spreads for as many as 25 people, Waters says. “She possessed a hospitality unlike anything I understood.”
He’s since come to more than understand hospitality, with T/aco and Ruthie’s both acting as clear expressions of Waters’ boots-on-the ground approach. While he’s more visible at T/aco, Ruthie’s still builds on a philosophy that suggests food is about more than just the ingredients. “With the ordering experience here, we have roughly 45 seconds to make an impression on our guests,” he says. He’s made sure that exchange is a good one.
Manning the expo window at Ruthie’s is often Dan Scott, a T/aco regular who has become part owner and operator. He’s as welcoming as they come and clearly not only understands but accelerates the place’s gracious ethos.
All the sandwiches are made on an Impinger convection conveyor belt. “The first and last sandwich we make will be identical. It gives us a chance to hire people based on personality rather than kitchen skills,” Waters says. Even with the uniformity, the meals are still clearly crafted with care.
Ruthie’s opened in 2018 as a collaboration between Waters and Josh Chesterson, who has since gone on to act as culinary director for Modern Restaurant Concepts, the folks behind Mod Market.
Waters says Ruthie’s was dreamed up in a year where turmoil and unpredictability reigned supreme.
“At the time we were looking in the realm of comfort food,” he says, the menu’s simplicity intended to be a calculated act of kindness: just enough choices, but not too many.
Last summer, Ruthie’s extended its reach, opening outposts at both the Boulder Reservoir and at the Scott Carpenter Pool concession stand. While the reservoir was only a one-year deal, it will be returning to Scott Carpenter for the duration of this summer, serving a limited menu with an increased focus on prepackaged snacks.
“It’s an awesome way to get to know the middle and high school crowd,” says Waters. A few kids have gone on to work the stand.
Ruthie’s captures the simple pleasure and nostalgia a grilled cheese can bring, delivering a menu that pays tribute to the sandwich’s nearly universal appeal. For best results, wash it down with a house-made mango lemonade.