Ruby Lee’s South


Blues, food, drinks and laughter now fill a former warehouse in a blighted section of Hilton Head Island widely known for its deteriorating vacant buildings.

Ruby Lee’s South, a restaurant locally owned by former Hilton Head Island High School football coach Tim Singleton, is now firmly ensconced in the former warehouse at 19 Dunnagans Alley, thanks to a major renovation of the structure that likely would have been impossible several years ago.

Under previous town ordinances and codes, developer Robert Graves’ vision for his warehouse property would have meant a costly demolition and rebuilding. But in recent years the town has invested in trying to entice long-term property owners in the area to redevelop.

Graves is one of the first, and arguably the most ambitious, to take the plunge.

In this particular case, the Town of Hilton Head Island not only revamped its ordinances, but also built a park and a traffic circle to try to turn the Dunnagans Alley-Arrow Road area into a walkable district of small shops, offices and restaurants. Graves, who founded Graves Construction Co. on Hilton Head almost 58 years ago, sees the Dunnagans Alley area as a diamond in the rough whose time to shine has come.

“It’s going to be a honey spot, if it’s not already one,” he said.

Graves envisions a similar renovation to what has been occurring at former warehouses in downtown sections of Savannah and Charleston — a blend of artisanal and rustic charm in formerly industrial, empty spaces.

In the past, Graves said, Hilton Head's regulations were extremely rigid when it came to redeveloping old buildings that didn’t meet modern standards. But he was pleasantly surprised last year by how cooperative town staff were with his new plans. Though many strict rules were still in place, he said, town staff worked with him at each step of the process, realizing that flexibility was needed to convert a structure built in the 1970s for cabinetmakers and construction storage into a 21st-century attraction.

“It would have been awfully difficult taking on that kind of project without a lot of teamwork,” Graves said.

One specific example of cooperation centered on Graves’ and Singleton’s plans for outdoor seating at Ruby Lee’s South, which could have killed such a project in the past because of setback and buffer rules.

“Part of the building would have needed to be torn down to redevelop the property,” said Anne Cyran, a former town senior planner, of the old ordinances. “But with the additional flexibility of the LMO (land management ordinance), we had the ability to approve an outdoor dining area.”

Town staff held several meetings with Graves Construction Co. representatives and designers to anticipate any problems that could arise, Cyran said. Graves’ son, Ling, was the general contractor, and his daughter, Pam, was the project manager and designer.

The final result, Cyran said, has been a major asset for the town.

“He’s done an amazing job redeveloping that building,” she said.

Town officials hope more renovations in Dunnagans Alley or elsewhere will follow Graves' warehouse project. However, according to Shawn Colin, the town’s deputy director of community development, there has been no movement in any area since Hurricane Matthew hit in October.

"The idea is to have anchors that lead to additional investment and redevelopment, and we hope that projects like this one serve as a catalyst for others," Colin said.

The successful undertaking is also an asset for fans of Ruby Lee’s restaurant, which Singleton started about four years ago on the island’s north end on Old Wild Horse Road.

Singleton said he had been looking for an opportunity to expand to the south end. He approached Graves, and both agreed Ruby Lee’s South would be a perfect fit. The interior décor of Rubie Lee’s South maintains the building’s rustic warehouse feel, but with a sophisticated Lowcountry twist. Adding to the restaurant’s special ambiance, local blues musicians perform seven nights a week.

“I don’t think the timing could have been better for renovating that warehouse and bringing some life back to this area of the south end,” he said. “I really believe we’re onto something special.”