Restaurateur Michael Landrum is cranking out more Ray's

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The new restaurant in the East River shopping center is nothing like the fast-food takeouts that are the norm in Washington's Ward 7. There will be seafood and steaks, all priced under $20, for Mom and Dad; fried chicken for the kids. The space, with its pressed-tin ceiling and shiny black granite bar, will also offer something else the neighborhood needs: jobs. Eventually, 45 people, mostly residents, will be trained as waiters, hosts and cooks. And, as at the owner's other restaurants, the staff will be eligible for bonuses and will get health-care coverage and guaranteed hours.

The restaurant, slated to open by March 1, is Ray's: The Steaks at East River. The vision -- of a restaurant that serves as anchor and hub of a community -- is that of its owner, Michael Landrum.

If you follow the Washington dining scene, you've probably heard a lot of other things about Landrum, and not much of it paints him as a pillar of the community. The 44-year-old is more famous for throwing diners out of his restaurants than welcoming them in. (The incomplete party that dares to complain about not being seated? They're outta here!) He's also notorious for refusing to cook certain cuts beyond medium, for his almost religious opposition to decor and for barring The Post's Marc Fisher from his restaurants because he didn't like a column Fisher wrote. As he prepares to open the new Ray's: The Steaks and three other places, can diners reconcile the conventional wisdom about Landrum with the picture he's trying to project?

Maybe. True, he is the enfant terrible of Washington dining. But look at the world through his eyes and a certain logic emerges. Landrum is driven by a social mission that trumps profits: to create economic opportunity. And his restaurants are designed as an alternative to the elite downtown dining scene. Landrum caters to what he describes as "real" people, with budgets and babysitters waiting at home.

"Over the past eight years, my biggest battle -- and kind of a painful battle, too -- has been fighting the stereotype of the steak Nazi," Landrum said. "My struggle has been: How do I stand my ground on my quality, my beliefs and my principles but still let the public know, or at least our public know, that we are here to accommodate, that we're receptive and responsive and, ultimately, we're working for them?"

Landrum's message appears to be getting through. Since mid-2008, revenues at his restaurants (all of them unencumbered by partners, loans or investors) have more than doubled, from about $4 million to $8.5 million. The jump is a result of his mini-empire's expansion but also of changes that are a direct response to customer complaints. The new Ray's: The Steaks, at 2300 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, is about three times as big as the original (to alleviate cramped conditions) and now takes reservations (to end long waits). The new Ray's Hell-Burger, a few doors down from where it was when President Obama came for a surprise visit, is larger, too. But this summer, it will move across the street to an even bigger location that will accommodate more people more comfortably. It will also have a kitchen large enough to turn out house-made french fries, instead of the frozen ones customers largely have deemed unworthy of the burgers. Ray's: The Glass, a tasting room featuring elaborate set menus and wine pairings, answers calls for leisurely date-night dinners and represents a departure from everything Landrum has done before.

And then there's the new Ray's in Northeast, which addresses a broader grievance: the dearth of sit-down restaurants in the neighborhood. It will have a variety of new dishes, including cold-smoked fried chicken and smoked and roasted prime rib, both of which Landrum hopes will be smash hits. On one recent day in the Dix Street location, several locals stopped by while Landrum was talking to a reporter to ask when the place would open.

"I want a steak, man," one man called out to Landrum.

"A few weeks, and we'll have one with your name on it," he replied.

The bouncer

Landrum's restaurants were not always awaited with such anticipation. Landrum had cooked his way through Europe in his teens and 20s and worked in the front of the house at such Washington establishments as Nora, Capital Grille and Morton's. When he opened the original Ray's: The Steaks in a strip mall in Arlington in March 2002, critics largely ignored it. To be fair, the joint wasn't much to look at. Launched without investors or loans, Ray's was nothing more than a few tables in a bare-walled room. The name was curious, too. The nickname Ray comes from a former girlfriend who would deliver sarcastic lines such as "The sun is shining just a little too bright. Break me off a ray."

In the first six months, business was uneven. There were four nights where he had zero customers. And many of those who did show up didn't always grasp the high-end-food-at-low-prices concept, Landrum remembers: "We did fresh-squeezed lemonade here, and we'd get complaints because across the way at Red Hot & Blue, where they served [commercial lemonade], they give free refills and we didn't."

To pay the rent, Landrum liquidated his retirement account. He also served as chef, waiter and host, though he did have a dishwasher to help. Slowly, he built the business. Fifteen months later, when Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote that the steaks at Ray's were "full of juice and savor," the place was already busy. When the hordes arrived, Landrum was able to turn some diners away.

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