Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Is the Ray-man Empire falling?

Not only readers of this site but friends, family, colleagues, and pretty much everyone who knows me has known my admiration over the past few years for Ray’s the Steaks, Michael Landrum’s once-innovative concept that brought upscale steakhouse fare to the common man and/or woman.  At its original location on lower Wilson Boulevard in between Courthouse and Rosslyn, you could find great cuts of steak for around $25, which included sides, and special touches, such as a shot of hot chocolate to conclude your meal during the cooler months.

By any measure, the Ray’s empire has proven a smashing success, with its first expansion in Silver Spring, and later a Presidential-approved burger shop and a neighborhood eatery in East River.  Long-promised additions to come include Ray’s the Glass (wine and bites) and Ray’s the Catch (fish).  The original Ray’s moved  its operation  up the street into much larger digs in the Army-Navy Building in Courthouse a couple years back.  At the beginning, the changes seemed largely positive: more seating (yes please!), reservations (table for 2!), and a new wine program (cheers!).

BUT, and this a BIG BUT (and one that is going to no doubt attract a slew of angry emails and comments), in spite of--or perhaps even because of--the changes which came with a bigger space, Ray’s is just not what is used it to be.  In fact, over the last several months, I've come to the regrettable conclusion that what was once my favorite spot for a casual dinner with B or for an out-of-town gathering of friends and family has lost a lot of its luster. I am writing this post with a heavy heart and a bit of trepidation.  But at this point in time, I cannot recommend Ray’s without several qualifications.

A rotating door of waitstaff has replaced what was once a stable cadre of familiar, efficient servers.  Prices continue to inch up--the modest Caesar salad is now $6.99 and the fillet is up to $31.99.  And that hot chocolate that accompanied the check in the winter months? No longer.  Dessert favorites keep disappearing too; first it was the coconut cream pie and then the cheesecake (OK, neither were available at the original Ray's), and most recently the decadent and airy white chocolate mousse (which was on the menu from the beginning). What replaced them? Nothing.

The only recent additions to the menu have been the dry aged selections, which are admittedly a bargain at a few dollars extra, but they've been hit or miss. Occupying what was once a lounge area, and later part of the "bistro" dining section is a massive locker--Landrum's latest pride, joy, and obsession--full of aging cuts of beef.

The atmosphere, which was always intended as nothing more than functional is also worn.  Scuffed tables line the main dining room (table cloths long since removed), and the air temperature on a recent visit vacillated between too hot or freezing cold.  And the dining room is now filled more with exurbanites (on the weekends) and area office workers (on the weekdays) than with your community neighbors.

And the steak itself, once lovingly prepared, now seems to emerge from the kitchen slopped onto a plate with temperature and presentation an afterthought.  While the steak can still at times be great, it is a gamble whether that steak ordered medium will be well done or rare.  And I wonder whether some of the dry aged cuts I've recently tried were aged enough or appropriately.

B and I dine at Ray’s frequently -- to the tune of thousands of dollars a year, as do many of our friends.  There have been times as of late when we've left pleased, but the chorus of complaints--some trying it for the first time, others regulars--continues to crescendo.  I truly hope this will only require a course adjustment and a return to the original emphasis on quality, value, and community.  But right now, the Ray’s empire is perilously close to falling off the cliff from neighborhood greatness to mass-dining mediocrity.

Ray's the Steaks on Urbanspoon


  1. I couldn't agree more. This used to be a favorite spot for a night out in Arlington. Great food, reasonable prices and the kind of place where I often ran into my neighbors. The last few times I've been it was downright average. After hearing my rave reviews for years my boss finally went last week. She said the staff was rude, the food only fair and she won't be back. Yikes! So much for my restaurant recommendations.

    Thanks for telling it as it is!

  2. Oh NO!!!! Ssay it isn't so... I loved this place since back in the day when they were in their small space and it was al about the food. I realize that they did lose the personal touch at the new place but I've only been twice in the new space. What a pity... I always recommend to my friends but now I'm afraid.. Hmmm.. What a pity...

  3. Thanks for the post. I have not been in about a year. Why do good places always go too big?(or too many) Hopefully they will get back on track, I am hoping to have dinner there for my upcoming 40th birthday.

  4. I have to disagree. Have been twice in the past month and everything is still just as great as it was five years ago in that smaller location. what additions do you really need to a steak restaurant? I don't know much about the dry cuts but my buddy had one and he enjoyed it.