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.