There's a 50-foot-high sign at Shilshole that says "RAY'S" to lets boaters know they've reached the entrance to the Ship Canal. It's been there since 1952, when Ray Lichtenberger operated a boathouse and coffee shop on the dock. Almost 39 years ago, Russ Wohlers, Duke Moscript and Earl Lasher bought the property and set its new course as a destination seafood restaurant.
Today the downtstairs dining room offers two main courses that are local icons: Grilled Alaska King Salmon ($34) and the Sake Kasu Sablefish ($31), the latter created here by Ray's first chef, Wayne Ludvisen.
Over the years, Ray's has rebuilt after a fire, and greately expanded as well, adding a popular upstairs cafe and a catering company. Now Ray's Cafe, a reliable destination for fish & chips and craft beer, is about to get a makeover.
Australian-born marketing consultant Ken Grant (who has a string of clients in the local hospitality industry) has been handed the assignment of rebranding the Cafe. There's going to be some remodeling this fall (after the summer tourist season), but the primary emphasis will be on a lighter, more playful menu.
"Rather than blow the whole thing up, we're going to tweak it," says executive chef Wayne Johnson, who came aboard in February after over a decade at Andaluca, in the Mayflower Hotel. He's grateful that the focus at Ray's is food and beverage, not rooms.
"We're adding some global flavors but we're going to stay seasonal and local," says Johnson. "The new emphasis at the Cafe will be on smaller portions and lower prices."
Some examples, at a preview tasting for your Eater correspondent, featured plates of seared halibut with leek-mashed potatoes and grilled salmon with curry-mashed potatoes (both $13.95); assorted grilled vegetables ($5.50 for asparagus and bok choy, $6.50 for artichoke hearts); a full order of blackened rockfish tacos with a yummy avocado cream ($13.95). Not tasted, but coming to the Cafe menu: a half-portion of the iconic sablefish for $15.95.
Ray's has 140 seats downstairs, another 140 in the upstairs Cafe and bar, and, when the weather cooperates, there's seating for 140 more on the deck, making for one of Seattle's biggest standalone restaurants. Mo Shaw, Ray's longtime GM, reminds us that there are something like 5,000 restaurants in Seattle. "We want to be on the leading edge again."
It's a question that has faced any number of older Seattle restaurants: how do you modernize without scaring away your regulars? How do you update your decor and your menu and appeal to a younger clientele? At Ray's, it looks like theyre going to try rocking the boat a little bit. Not too much, just a little bit.