There are many things to love about Ray’s the Steaks: excellent house-butchered cuts of Angus and Hereford beef, an interesting and affordable wine list, and smaller-than-expected checks.
“Guess how much,” I say to my friend as I peek at the receipt. She thinks back over our bountiful meal for three, which included starters, three steaks, and desserts plus a $50 bottle of wine.
“At least $250,” she says.
“Nope—$156.” She almost chokes on the square of peanut-butter fudge that comes with the bill.
Michael Landrum’s steakhouse has had a devoted following since it opened in 2002 as a tiny dining room in a Rosslyn strip mall. In those early days, you were lucky if the wait—on benches outside—was only an hour long. Ray’s the Steaks was everything the old guard of DC steakhouses isn’t: low on decor, high on value, and come-as-you-are casual. I’ve seen Landrum man the dining room in seersucker shorts and a fisherman’s hat but never a suit.
To accommodate the crowds, Ray’s recently moved to much larger quarters, a soaring space with three big dining rooms in the Navy League building nearby. Landrum has made more smart changes: allowing phone reservations (before, you had to visit in person) and hiring Mark Slater, the affable sommelier who curated the wine list at Citronelle for more than a decade. One night, swinging by a table to discuss a wine pairing, Slater held forth on everything from the Washington National Opera’s production of Turandot to Trader Joe’s, where he buys cheap wine to drink at home.
Despite the changes, the place feels much the same as before: bare white walls, a skull-and-crossbones flag over the open kitchen, and a subtle disdain for those who like their meat well done—the page-long explanation of meat temperatures that comes with the menu says to allow 35 to 40 minutes to cook it that way. The conversational din is so loud that you might have trouble hearing the person next to you. Service is still super-fast, which was understandable at the old Ray’s, given the line of hungry customers, but might leave you feeling hurried here.
Many of the dishes that gave rise to the early popularity are still around: a sherry-tinted crab bisque loaded with fresh lump meat (a certifiable deal at $4.50), shrimp scampi liberally strewn with fresh garlic, and steaks such as a hulking cowboy cut weighing at least 28 ounces and my favorite, the Black and Blue—a New York strip with a peppercorn crust and covered in a mountain of blue cheese. Cast-iron skillets of nutmeggy creamed spinach and mashed potatoes come free with the entrées, and sauces such as a fabulous brandied mushroom and a thick, tarragon-flecked béarnaise are a dollar each.
You’ll find plenty of new additions. There are hits from Landrum’s Silver Spring restaurant, Ray’s the Classics—buttery crab royale, “devilishly good” eggs stuffed with steak tartare—and the budget-friendly lineup of butcher specials, which might include a ropy and flavorful picanha steak with bracing jalapeño sauce or meltingly tender Guinness-braised short ribs.
Ray’s weak spot is consistency. One night a side of mac and cheese was wonderfully sharp and cheddary; another evening it tasted like straight flour. The crab royale might shine with the simple, sweet flavor of lump meat or arrive so salty that you can barely taste anything else.
The sometimes erratic kitchen has not dampened the enthusiasm of the crowds. One recent night, torrential thunderstorms didn’t stop fans from packing the place—on a Tuesday. Even with all the new space, there’s often a wait for a table. At least now you can sit inside.
This review appears in the August, 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.