Michael Landrum had never run a restaurant before he opened Ray’s the Steaks in 2002. His only experience was working at Restaurant Nora, though not in the kitchen. Before that, his chief acquaintance with long, punishing hours was a stint in the Israeli army.
But Landrum had a vision of the kind of restaurant he wanted. His model was a couple of beloved New Haven institutions, one called Pepe’s, the other Sal’s—warm, unpretentious spots that put you in mind of a community gathering and focus on “doing one thing and doing it well.”
From the beginning, Ray’s the Steaks was an unlikely success, a sparely appointed place that dared to take aim at the area’s big steakhouses from the cozy confines of a Rosslyn strip mall. The steaks were big and good, the wines were just $20 a bottle, and customers, taking their cues from the flip-flop-wearing Landrum, came to dinner in shorts and sandals.
This fall Landrum opened Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring. The menu goes beyond steaks to embrace regional American cooking: skillet-fried chicken, a superb rendition of crab imperial, a buttery apple tarte Tatin. But food is only part of the story of a place that defies dining convention. The restaurant has restored the former Crisfields space to glory, brought an element of fine dining to a burgeoning, chain-intensive downtown, provided a gathering place for a diverse audience, and shown that quality and affordability don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
One can only guess at what restaurant number three might bring, as Landrum continues down his idiosyncratic path. Meanwhile, his big-tent, community-minded approach is one that could stand copying.