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Ruby's BBQ owner long pursued love of music, food, art

Luke Zimmermann, 1949-2010

Isadora Vail

Luke Zimmermann, who with his wife founded Ruby's BBQ restaurant a modest storefront north of the University of Texas campus that quickly became a fixture among musicians and students died Saturday after a short bout with liver cancer. He was 61.

He will be remembered for his booming voice, generosity and grace with his customers, friends said.

Zimmermann and Pat Mares founded Ruby's in 1988, despite warnings from friends about opening a restaurant during rocky economic times in Austin.

The restaurant quickly became a favorite of jazz and blues musicians who played Antone's, once located close to Ruby's.

Music brought Zimmermann to Austin from Minnesota in the 1980s, Mares said. The two met through a mutual friend, married and, within a few years, opened the restaurant that is known among aficionados for its steroid-free brisket.

Mares said some of her best memories are hanging out with Zimmermann outside the old Antone's before it moved downtown.

"The space right by Antone's was available, so we just took it," Mares said of the restaurant near 29th and Guadalupe streets. "We loved going to Antone's, and (Zimmermann) wanted to open up a place that served good, homemade food."

Musicians Buddy Guy, Maceo Parker and Pinetop Perkins still stop by the restaurant, Mares said.

Zimmermann left the restaurant about three years ago to pursue a love for art that he hadn't explored in nearly 30 years, Mares said.

Several years before, he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. In late March, doctors discovered a tumor on his liver that was inoperable because it was on a portal vein. Chemotherapy was unsuccessful.

Susan Antone, sister of Antone's late owner Clifford Antone, said Zimmermann was a true artist through his barbecue.

"He was just a really nice guy, and he's going to be sorely missed," Antone said. "Even though we are across town, we still get requests for his food."

When Zimmermann wasn't painting, he was watching football, baseball or basketball, Mares said. He also loved cats and enjoyed feeding several strays in the neighborhood.

The couple never had children, but Mares said that throughout their marriage, they employed dozens of 20-somethings at the restaurant, and they developed close relationships with many of them.

"He was really an eclectic person, and just like his mama said, he really liked doing things the hard way," Mares said. "But that was just how he was. He'd make quick decisions, but if I needed him, he was right there for me."

ivail@statesman.com; 445-3763