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.