SIXTY YEARS AGO along the docks of Shilshole Bay, Ray Lichtenberger began selling coffee out of his bait shop and boat-rental outfit. Into the sky he raised a huge red neon sign, flashing RAY’S, and through the 1950s and ’60s that sign came to represent a skiff for rent, and, in time, a decent plate of fish-and-chips. To fishermen arriving from the frigid isolation of the Bering Straits, however, Ray’s red beacon signaled something more. It was the portal to civilization.
In a very real way that’s how Ray’s has functioned in this town ever since. When investors bought the place from Lichtenberger in 1973 and turned it into the destination restaurant Ray’s Boathouse , it quickly became one of the first important tourist restaurants in a region pretty much limited to Canlis and the Space Needle. Among the investors were Duke Moscrip, who went on to found the Duke’s restaurant empire, and later Jack Sikma, former star Seattle SuperSonic—titans who embodied Seattle’s rise to prominence in the ’70s and ’80s.
But it was owner Russ Wohlers who steered Ray’s into the waters of legend. In 1979 he appointed chef Wayne Ludvigsen, whose obsession with pristine seafood, intuitive restraint in cooking it, and pitch-perfect imagination heralded Seattle’s new era of culinary sophistication. His was the revolutionary idea, now commonplace, that fine food requires the freshest ingredients. Through Ludvigsen’s sources, Ray’s introduced local palates to regional delicacies they weren’t getting elsewhere, things like singing scallops and Olympia oysters. Plenty of folks—myself among them—savored their first Copper River salmon at Ray’s. Ludvigsen’s kitchen pioneered the practice of buying its fish right off the docks. The guy even knew who to steal from, as evidenced by Ludvigsen’s co-opting of the sake kasu black cod that Shiro Kashiba was doing over at Nikko.
Northwest Cuisine was born, with Ludvigsen as primary midwife, and suddenly Ray’s was lauded upon the national stage. And that’s why it made front-page headlines in 1987 when an electrical fire burned the place down to the pier. A rebuild renewed its interior—now Ray’s Boathouse on the main floor, the more casual Ray’s Café up top—and its reputation, which remained solid even after a new chef, Charles Ramseyer, took over in 1993.
Fourteen Copper River salmon runs later finds Ramseyer freshly departed for Manhattan, hired away to run the splashy new Northwest restaurant Wild Salmon. Taking over from Ramseyer is his longtime deputy Peter Birk, who plans no great changes.
Seemed like a good time to see what changes that would bring.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been to Ray’s—at least once as a prom date, a few times as a barfly, several more as a tour guide, maybe half-a-dozen as a hired gun—and every time I am freshly seized by the perfume of sea salt and creosote, completely distinctive to Ray’s, that greets me along with the valet. Inside of course is Ray’s bigger distinction—that shocking pewter 180 of sky and sea and mountain range that never fails to draw a gasp from even wizened natives like me. The interior was wisely designed to recede, which it does with its neutral palette and raw beams and patented Northwest lack of pretension. No white cloths cover these wood tables, so the effect is one of timber marching to the edge of the sea. When the natural world intercedes, as it did when a great blue heron posed shrug-shouldered on a piling just offshore from our table, it is to Ray’s credit that it feels of a piece with the decor.
And then our waiter arrived and brought us crashing back from our reverie. It wasn’t anything he said or did; it was his manner—a little rushed, a little canned, a little too-many-times-I’ve-defined-sake-kasu-for-these-rubes—which stood in marked contrast with the engaged professionalism that has distinguished this waitstaff in years past. Looking around we realized that everyone seated near us was elderly, toasting an anniversary, or in from Peoria. In short: special-occasion people, not food people. It explained the perfunctory server. More than that, it explained the food.
We sank our forks into classics like that stolen kasu cod, still a mainstay of the menu, whose buttery flesh all but melted over the choy sum cabbage and jasmine rice, its sweetness gently augmented with honeyed soy sauce. A hank of clean, bright grilled halibut arrived in a Mediterranean party of tomatoes and peppers and caper berries over olive mashed potatoes—a stroke of originality amid otherwise familiar flavors. My Boathouse salad was quietly grand; a quarter-head of butter lettuce embellished with shaved almonds, dried cranberries, and large hunks of luscious Point Reyes Farmstead blue cheese.
My sea scallops—five of them—were expertly seared, dripping their rich caramel over chard and fennel and artichoke hearts, the lot of it swimming in black-olive butter pocked with fat, chewy bits of pecorino Toscano. This plate was feisty, a little bit rogue—with that lusty pecorino dancing onstage like Carmen Miranda. But this dish was the exception. The others? Predictable. Flawlessly cooked, but predictable. We’d seen them before. A plate of crab cakes swizzled with mustard gave the impression even the kitchen was bored. The Dungeness crab salad, with its toasted coconut shavings and peanuts and squirts of lime, is a faded dowager and should be retired—no matter what the elders from Peoria are ordering.
A great blue heron posed on a piling just offshore from our table.
But even as I write that, I can see it’s a little unfair. Not every restaurant has to be in the reinvention business; classics are important too. Here it should be noted that New York is receiving Ramseyer’s Wild Salmon with tepid praise. One critic commended execution of the salmon even as he dissed the fish as “the Cheerios of restaurant food.” Birk is—as promised—proving a stolid steward of Ramseyer’s traditionalist vision. And why shouldn’t he? Ray’s is so crazy popular the hosts call all reservations to confirm their tables. Birk isn’t about to fix what from a bottom-line standpoint ain’t broke.
It’s just deflating in light of Ray’s past distinction. Not as deflating, mind you, as what’s going on upstairs at Ray’s Café, whose careless presentations (a starter of broken-shelled and overdone Penn Cove mussels, an infuriatingly mediocre clam linguine featuring a few mud-filled clams) and sophomoric service (“I know fruit sauce on salmon sounds weird, but you should try it!”) have bothered me for years. Why can’t I accept Ray’s Café as a harmless family place with fruity cocktails, crayons for the kids, and a breathtaking view? Because it’s nobody’s portal to civilization.
I’ll end with two up notes: Ray’s wine list remains a marvel, and its wine program—a pillar of the new open-mindedness toward red or white with fish—approachable and fine. And pastry chef Marcia Sisley-Berger brings down the house with her careful and sumptuous finales. Everything we sampled off the long dessert list was a stunner, especially a brainy chili-lime chocolate soufflé cake with a lush texture and a shot of voltage. Portal to bliss, anyone?
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