It wasn’t so long ago that everyone was pretty excited about Lai Rai. The Belltown Vietnamese restaurant-slash-bar got shoutouts on King 5 and the Seattle Times, which singled out chef Christopher Ritter for praise. He “clearly has chops,” Times food writer Tan Vinh wrote in March. “The Philly native, who also did a short stint at Serafina in Eastlake, has a firm grasp of Asian umami and can mingle eastern and western flavors without the result feeling forced.” The headline called Ritter a “rising star.”
When Eater Seattle attended a media event at Lai Rai in March, the food was definitely impressive. There were fun riffs like a crossover between a banh mi and a cheesesteak, and the pork ribs were falling-apart delicious. The drinks and desserts were on-point as well. Owners An Nguyen and Ocean Nguyen had clearly hired some top talent.
But though the website hasn’t been updated, and neither has Google Maps, Lai Rai unceremoniously closed its doors after August 13, Ritter tells Eater Seattle, partly because the owners, who were new to the restaurant industry, “stumbled on some things and maybe made some bad choices.”
One issue that Vinh noted in his Times review was that though the menu was ambitious, the atmosphere was more in line with a Belltown nightlife spot than a grown-up dining destination. “I’ve come here at 4 p.m. and found the lights turned so low, and the music cranked so high, I thought I’d walked into Ladies’ Night. I could barely read the menu, much less carry on a conversation with a companion two feet away,” Vinh wrote.
Ritter, who was hired last December, a few months after Lai Rai first opened, agrees with that assessment. “There was a disconnect between the atmosphere and the ambitions of what they wanted out of the kitchen,” he says. “I recognized the confusion of the concept. And I think most people, both working there and as customers, recognized that, too.”
The chef thinks that it’s possible for a single place to serve great food and also cultivate a somewhat club-y atmosphere, but for that sort of ambitious vision to work out everyone working there has to be on the same page; Lai Rai “just never came together as a whole.”
Eater Seattle reached out to co-owner An Nguyen for comment and will update this article if we hear back. On Tuesday, September 12, the restaurant was dark but there were still tables and chairs inside and no sign indicating it had closed. When we approached the door to look in, the camera above the door started squawking in alarm.
Ritter’s next step could be a restaurant of his own. He lives in the University District, which is dominated by student-friendly counter-serve places, and he thinks “there might potentially be space for something a little nicer, like a place that you might want to sit down and have dinner.” Any restaurant he opened would likely focus on seasonal ingredients and draw on his Japanese American background. But that could be a long ways off. “I don’t have anything firm lined up right now,” Ritter says.