Food & Drink

Ray's Is Ray's

But Is It Worth It?

Ray's Is Ray's

Kelly O

One of the many, many fish.

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Kelly O

A few weeks ago at Ray's Boathouse, I ran into a friend who works for ESPN. He is a person who rides his bike long distances for fun; he wears fleece. He doesn't have a boat, but he seems like he should. Despite all this, he has a fine sense of humor, he is not passive-aggressive, he knows when to go at a four-way stop, and he is someone you're always happy to see. To find him upstairs in the cafe at Ray's on a sunny day was pleasing, if not at all surprising. He and his hale-looking friends had already eaten and were preparing to depart. How was it? I asked.

"It's Ray's," he said with equanimity.

Ray's is Ray's. Ray's has been Ray's, underneath its vertical red neon R - A - Y - S sign, for forever. Destroying the very building that houses it could not destroy the Ray's-ness of Ray's; Ray's burned down, was rebuilt, and remained Ray's. You would have to burn down Puget Sound itself, or at least the part radiating out from Shilshole that provides Ray's famous floor-to-ceiling (and, on the deck upstairs, floor-to-sky) view.

For while Ray's may be Ray's, Ray's is also its view. "The VIEW!" people rhapsodize. "The view." And the view is shocking: one hundred and eighty degrees of sparkling water, including those people standing up on surfboards and oaring themselves along without falling over, sailboats heading into or out of the locks, lumbering cruise ships or tankers further out, and, beyond that, the so-green-it's-black firred ridgeline, followed by—when the light's right—not just mountains but misty layers of mountains, mountains you can magically see back between. Olympic mountains—pleasing even to the tongue.

People who've lived in Seattle for more than a certain period of time—and all people who own boats, and the vast majority of people who wear fleece—are on a first-name basis with Ray's. These people have been to Ray's for dinner, downstairs in the fancy restaurant, for intergenerational birthday celebrations; they've been for lunch or brunch or summertime supper with friends or a date upstairs on the deck, or for happy hour drinks and snacks inside the upstairs bar. They have eaten fish, and it has been Ray's.

This past winter, former Andaluca chef Wayne Johnson took the helm at Ray's. In May, a PR rep for Ray's said that some new menu items "weren't quite finalized yet"; a week ago, they still hadn't been. Ray's is Ray's, not Wayne's; it's been Ray's since 1945, when Ray Lichtenberger opened a coffeehouse to go with his boat rental and bait shop on the site. To make changes to the menu at Ray's is to change course on a very long voyage.

Let us note, however, that to say a thing is what it is—this can imply a certain level of resignation. No one expects the food at Ray's to knock their socks off; for that, there's the view (the VIEW!). But two dinners at Ray's recently left something to be desired.

Ray's burned to its pier and was rebuilt in 1987, and the upstairs cafe feels very much of that era. There are skylights (which are nice), and Fleetwood Mac might be playing (which is nice?), and there are fish everywhere: a giant swirly-painted fish at the top of the stairs, a copper fish on a freestanding fireplace, a metal mesh fish over the bar, wooden fish schooling above and around the kitchen, fish sconces, fish restroom signs. (They are probably all salmon; I'm no ichthyologist.) More than one man in the bar was wearing a Hawaiian shirt. On a sunny evening, a few tables were available indoors, but people waited (and waited) in the packed bar for seats out on the deck.

And by god, it was lovely out there. If our sunglassed server seemed like he could barely be bothered to try to misinform us about the wines by the glass—both the grüner veltliner and what proved to be a nice, pale, dry rosé were sweet, according to him—there was the view. When he brought the drinks, we opened our mouths to order, but he veered quickly away. Later, when we didn't want more drinks, he didn't want any more to do with us.

A prawn cocktail ($13.95) came with "rustic cocktail sauce" that was more like an overly smoky-tasting salsa. A half-order of calamari ceviche ($7.95/$11.50 full) was small, but we didn't finish it; the rings were slightly rubbery, the tentacles were very slimy, and instead of tasting fresh and bright, it was unpleasantly sour. Dungeness crab and shrimp cakes ($19.95) were of the uniformly mushy style, with no chunks of either in evidence; they were in a strange arrangement, with Old Bay aioli smeared on the plate, then a few fried artichokes and Yukon Gold home fries, then a salad on top with the cakes laid on that. There was also roasted red pepper and chili oil; if you wanted to dip a bite of cake in the aioli, first you had to unearth some, but it was very oily under there. A small plate of grilled Alaskan halibut ($15.95) was a pretty piece of fish, but on its bed of braised leek mashed potatoes with its beurre blanc, it looked heavily white and out of season, sitting in the sun.

Downstairs, Ray's formal dining room is made of shipshape dark blond wood, upholstery and wall-to-wall carpet reminiscent of a tasteful hotel chain, and, mainly, the view. Tables are spaced so that everyone can enjoy the absurd amount of shimmering water; sunset from here is difficult to believe.

The service was a thousand times more engaged (and also not wearing sunglasses), but things still took a noticeably long time. Bread, for instance, didn't arrive until after appetizers, which took quite a while themselves (and at these prices...).

But like the decor, the menu feels stuck in time. The Boathouse salad ($9), with its blue cheese, almonds, and raspberry vinaigrette, was reminiscent of many you've had at a wedding. A dish like chilled Gulf prawns ($12) with soy-poached zucchini, shiitake mushroom dust, cilantro, and coconut molasses harks back to an era of lots on the plate without much thought for how the flavors get along together—the combination was as odd as it sounds. A Ray's Classic Sampler ($37) had a Dungeness crab cake (still no hunks of crab), a tasty piece of sablefish in Ray's classic sake kasu (probably on the menu since before the fire, but still good), and not-overcooked Alaskan king salmon. Both the crab cake and the salmon had pools of thick, creamy, crowd-pleasing aioli, which quickly grew skins on them. Seared sea scallops ($30) were set among chard, artichokes, fennel, and too much black olive butter, all with pieces of pecorino cheese floppily half melting here and there. Unlike Ray's, it seemed completely at sea about its identity.

Later, I e-mailed my friend who said "It's Ray's." While I knew exactly what he meant, what, exactly, did he mean? This is what he wrote:

"Ha, well, Ray's has been around forever. And it really hasn't changed over the years as far as I can tell. The ambience is pretty great and a no-lose on a sunny day. But my meal was very unremarkable. Actually, I think I had a seafood salad that was very mediocre. Disappointing, considering we had out-of-town guests there who ordered the same thing. So, Ray's fell down a notch."

Maybe these days, Ray's isn't quite Ray's. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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biffp 1
I love the place (and the sign), but the food is mostly misses. The late night happy hour is nice during the summer, although a little heavy. If Anthony's ever puts a Beach Cafe next door, I'd be over there a lot more often. fyi, they are paddleboards.
Posted by biffp on September 13, 2012 at 2:33 PM · Report this
Take your out-of-town friends for a stroll through Ray's, just to admire the view, then eat at the Cuban sandwich shop across the street. The food there is exponentially better. Or, if you must have the view while you eat, try Agua Verde —the view is just as good and the food is marginally better.
Posted by cheakamus on September 14, 2012 at 11:36 AM · Report this
julie russell 3
I think of Ray's the same way I think of dining at the Space Needle...the food is mediocre and probably overpriced, but always pleases my fam when they visit.
Posted by julie russell http:// on September 14, 2012 at 11:44 AM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 4
Never eaten there. Used their bathroom once, and checked out the menu. Wasn't impressed. Grabbed sandwiches across the street and ate at the beach. Though I suppose that only works on sunny days.
Posted by Matt the Engineer on September 14, 2012 at 11:59 AM · Report this
kid icarus 5
Impeccable review as always. You are a hero.
Posted by kid icarus on September 14, 2012 at 12:17 PM · Report this
Have a long island iced tea on the deck outside and leave it at that
Posted by jeffy on September 14, 2012 at 12:22 PM · Report this
Sounds about right. I'd go to the cafe for the late night happy hour when I lived at the marina. At half price the food was acceptable and back in the day there were not many late night dining options in Ballard.
Posted by restlessnative on September 14, 2012 at 1:24 PM · Report this
Dr_Awesome 8
My dad used to eat at Ray's back when he lived at The Lockspot Apartments and went salmon fishing out in Elliot Bay. Back when Ray's was a lunch counter catering to the fishermen.

It's a little different now.
Posted by Dr_Awesome on September 14, 2012 at 2:14 PM · Report this
Fnarf 9
Take your elderly parents or grandparents to Chinook's instead. Pretty much the same deal all around, except the food's pretty good.
Posted by Fnarf on September 14, 2012 at 3:23 PM · Report this
Mittens Schrodinger 10
Actually, Anthony's right next door has as great a view, an outdoor patio that is lovely, and somewhat better food (and a later happy hour).
Posted by Mittens Schrodinger on September 17, 2012 at 3:57 PM · Report this
Cocktails at sunset. That's it. No need for anything else.

It amazes me that these types of places don't attract top chefs. How amazing would it be to dine on a seasonably relevant and well cooked meal with flavor intensity and great service while taking in the utopian view?
Posted by worldcitizen on September 17, 2012 at 4:21 PM · Report this
#11, view restaurants rarely have great food. But I think Ray's is better than the review implied. In particular that Boathouse salad is damn good, and I always like the fish.

Something else I like about Ray's is that it's quiet enough to have a conversation in the place. And the service is very good. The "competition" to Ray's would be Palisades in Magnolia, which has an even better view but no intimacy at all. I like Ray's food better than Palisades too.
Posted by Mister G on September 17, 2012 at 10:47 PM · Report this
Texas10R 13
Good times have been had by many in my circle of friends. The upstairs and downstairs experiences are different enough to classify as different venues. Still, with my out-of-town visitors and I suffering (downstairs) service that was beyond embarrassing in promptness and demeanor, it's hard to justify the visit on view alone.
Posted by Texas10R on September 20, 2012 at 8:35 AM · Report this
Ate there just the other day for the first time (even though I've lived here my whole life) with some out of town guests. The mussels were outstanding (that broth!). The sablefish WAS excellent (though I didn't care for the sauce so much, not my style), and I thought the crab cake was alright, but my salmon with the Sampler was definitely overdone. The service was not great up to the point at which our real server showed up (the hostess and bar staff were too brisk and obviously apathetic for my taste), and she was awesome actually.
The chocolate cake was unreal, it was so good that I actually dreamt of it the next night. My primary qualm is that there's no parking unless you go valet, and I hate valet service. I was fairly happy altogether - but I also wasn't paying. Had I faced the bill, I would have not only been unimpressed, but furious. At prices like that, service should be impeccable and so should the food.
Posted by HolyFool85 on September 20, 2012 at 4:40 PM · Report this

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