Tucker's Redux

The beloved 70-year-old restaurant recently re-opened its doors after a kitchen fire caused extensive damage in July of 2015.

click to enlarge Tucker’s classic diner food is back and better than ever. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Tucker’s classic diner food is back and better than ever.
After being closed for 14 months due to a decimating kitchen fire, Tucker’s, the venerable Over-the-Rhine greasy spoon, reopened to the public on Sept. 17, two days before the restaurant’s 70th anniversary. A month into the new iteration, co-owner Joe Tucker says business has been “outstanding.”

Last July, Joe handed the keys over to a trusted employee who blacked out while cooking something on the grill, and the next thing he knew, the place was engulfed in flames. The kitchen, in Joe’s words, “melted away.”

“I can’t change what happened,” Joe says. “It is what it is, and I just try to move forward.”

Moving ahead meant using the conflagration as an excuse to update the restaurant’s furnishings. They rebuilt the floor, painted the walls, added a fountain drink machine, removed the soda cooler from the front and installed a shiny new grill. They tried to maintain the diner’s art deco design as much as possible, and walking in you wouldn’t know the open kitchen had been ravished. 

On a particular weekday, it’s business as usual. Joe flips burgers, his wife Carla rings people up, Pink Floyd plays on the jukebox and the regulars — the barstoolers — discuss conspiracies about the upcoming election. It took Joe a couple of weeks to get back into the swing of things — especially standing on his feet all day again — but he says “things are falling into place.”

The outpouring of support after the fire rallied the community together in a way that Joe says was humbling. “I’m used to giving, not taking,” he says. 

Taste of Belgium owner Jean-François Flechet created a Tucker’s gift card program, and a GoFundMe campaign raised $17,670 to mitigate the $65,000 price tag attached to necessary repairs. The Tuckers participated in a few fundraisers themselves, including one at Saint Francis church in Over-the-Rhine, where they volunteer. 

One of the many things that has always separated Tucker’s from a typical diner is their use of local ingredients from places like Findlay Market, as well as their vast vegetarian options. A BLT comes with veggie bacon, and a couple of years ago Carla added a superfood salad. 

While OTR has evolved considerably in the past decade, Tucker’s somehow remains unfazed by the progression. They still serve cheap burgers and omelets and national publications like Saveur have lauded their ability to cook delicious made-from-scratch food. 

It’s also a space that caters to all walks of life. The weekends attract busy crowds, everyone from University of Cincinnati students and stroller-pushing parents to locals who live in the neighborhood. An egalitarian atmosphere is a hard-won aspect of what makes Tucker’s so special, along with a hands-on approach.

 “We’re a real diner, we’re not corporate,” Joe says. “We know everybody who comes in here. It’s more like a family atmosphere. That’s the way it should be.” 

Carla and Joe have worked in the restaurant for 37 and 38 years, respectively. Every day, Joe can be seen manning the grill and Carla roams the front-of-the-house. Joe’s parents, E.G. and Maynie Tucker, opened Tucker’s on 13th Street in Over-the-Rhine in 1946. They moved to their current location on Vine Street in 1957, and in between they operated a Tucker’s inside the defunct Acme Hotel on Sixth and Walnut from 1950-1957. Joe’s mom is still alive — she’s 96 — and she cried when she saw the refurbished diner.

In September, Tucker’s celebrated its 70th anniversary, a huge milestone for the diner that endured a fire on top of a shooting in 2011 — Carla was injured and a customer, Ranisha Burgin, was paralyzed; the shooter was sentenced to 32 years in prison. “Like they say: If you put your left leg on yesterday and your right leg on tomorrow, then you gotta pee on today,” Joe says. “I try to live today.”  

No matter what gets thrown at Tucker’s, the restaurant will still be standing for the denizens of this city.  “Our legacy is just keep giving back,” Joe says. “It’s not about making money, it’s about having a home where everyone can come in and eat and feel comfortable.”  

TUCKER’S is located at 1637 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: facebook.com/tuckersrestaurantotr.

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