When Ruben Prescott first pitched the idea of opening a restaurant to his wife, Helen, she wasn”t too crazy about it. But after 55 years in business as a Columbus staple, she admits it wasn”t a half bad idea.
Ruben”s Fish and Steakhouse opened in 1955 on the Tombigbee River to immediate acclaim. Ruben Prescott, a World War II Army veteran and paint contractor, bought a one-room camphouse on the river with money from painting jobs garnered all over Columbus, including Columbus Air Force Base and Mississippi University for Women, to purchase the three acres of land, the camphouse, some kitchen equipment and five booths.
Ed Prescott, Ruben”s younger brother, says Ruben had some basic cooking experience he picked up during the war after being injured in the European Theater, but nothing gourmet. Helen can”t recall to this day why her husband decided to open a restaurant as opposed to a paint store or any of a thousand more obvious businesses — and let him know in no uncertain terms she was not feeling it — but she says he loved his restaurant and she “jumped right in there” to help make his dream a reality.
With just a chef and a couple of dishwashers, Ruben and Helen launched one of Columbus” first fish houses. The food wasn”t instantly famous, but Ruben was gregarious enough to bring in the customers.
“Everyone in the country knew Ruben, so he had a built-in clientele. He didn”t meet a stranger,” said Ed Prescott.
Helen recalls how five booths were simply insufficient.
“We couldn”t seat ”em,” she said of the customers.
The menu was simple: catfish and hamburgers. But Ruben”s had the advantage of being on the Tombigbee River before the waterway rerouted the boat traffic.
“All the boats had to come by here and they would stop and eat. On Saturdays and Sundays you just shoulda seen how many people were on that river,” said Helen.
Robert “Uncle Bunky” Williams lived right across the river from Ruben”s and became a family friend and repeat customer.
“When it first opened up it was real busy right off because he was the first one in Columbus with a fish house,” said Williams, a former WCBI-TV children”s show host. “A bunch of us from the TV station would go there.”
As the years rolled by, the restaurant grew in every way. A dining room was added to the main building to accommodate the influx of customers coming to sample cook Mayola Rush”s creations. Rush was at Ruben”s for 35 years, running an immaculate kitchen with three to six assistants, and was famous for her hush puppies.
“She has told no telling how many people how to make (the hushpuppies),” said Helen. “Everybody makes them different. Nobody does them like Mayola.”
Ruben began raising his own catfish in ponds in northern Lowndes County. Eventually though, demand got so big Ruben couldn”t keep up with his own ponds and was forced to buy fish from other farmers.
Customers poured in from all over. The atmosphere was family friendly, grandparents and children dining during the day and the second shift from the American Busch plant, which let out at 11 p.m., stopping by at night.
Helen and Ruben sold their home on Highway 12 and built an apartment directly above the restaurant for convenience, which came in handy for those late-night rushes.
“I”ve come up those steps many a times at 1 a.m.,” said Helen, who helped clean up and do every job besides cook at Ruben”s.
At the age of 91, Helen still climbs those steps every day. When the Prescotts sold the restaurant to Steve Hinds, a Washington transplant who arrived via CAFB, in 1990, they kept the apartment. Ruben passed in 1991, but Helen is still a regular at the restaurant below her home.
Current owner Danny Blakeny, who took over from Hinds four years ago, is Helen”s new neighbor and says he isn”t leaving any time soon.
“He”s not going anywhere until I die, and that”s going to be a long time,” Helen joked with Blakeny Thursday behind the counter in the restaurant.
Ruben”s has seen boom times in the last five decades, but it wasn”t always so easy. Before the waterway was cut, the river was prone to floods, and Ruben”s was right in the way on a low-lying piece of land.
Jess Prescott, who managed the restaurant for a year in the 1970s for his older brother recalls the river flooding three times during his brief tenure.
“The roads were cut off, and if it got high enough the water got inside the building,” said Jess.
Williams says the river would get so high the motorists would be wary of driving over the bridge because floating debris would smash against it.
At some point, Ruben installed an elevator to lift all of the kitchen equipment to the upper level, but that didn”t stop the mud and the smell from settling everywhere.
“We used to have those wooden booths. Getting the mud out of them was terrible,” Helen recalled.
Flooding cost Ruben”s its holiday business the year Jess was in charge, but the restaurant always bounced back.
“It didn”t stay closed long. People wouldn”t let you,” said Helen. “The minute the river started going down they”d think that we ought to be ready.”
A regular bunch was always eager to get back into Ruben”s. It served as a hangout, with a room in the back where men would gather to drink beer — Ruben”s didn”t sell liquor at that point.
Hinds would eventually install a full bar and began serving liquor. That bar, The Loft, has come under fire in recent months after a customer died from alcohol poisoning following a drinking contest with an off-duty employee. The incident cost Ruben”s its liquor license and led to misdemeanor criminal charges for two employees.
“That”s sad. When Ruben had it, he didn”t even have a liquor license,” said Ed.
Jess says he doesn”t hold anything against the various owners for installing a bar because it likely increased their profits significantly. Helen says that living upstairs, adjacent to the bar, she”s never had any problems with noise or commotion.
“It”s always been quiet up there. We”ve never had any problems until recently when that man died,” she said.
Looking back over the years, Helen recalls many fond memories tied to the “little cement block building.” She doesn”t remember exactly what she told her husband when he told her he wanted to open a restaurant, but she says it probably isn”t “fit to be repeated.” However, most of the other parts are.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.
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