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Restaurateur Michael Landrum is cranking out more Ray's
It wasn't that power went to his head. Landrum had his reasons. First, unlike most newly reviewed restaurants, his didn't need the business. Cash flow was, at last, steady, and Landrum says he wasn't interested in taking a big salary. Eight years later, he still lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a modest brick building near the restaurant and drives a 20-year-old BMW.
But there was another, more important, reason: Landrum didn't like the people who were showing up.
Diners in search of the new hot restaurant are just the kind of diners Landrum dislikes: the "toxic" guests who bully a 20-something hostess when their table isn't ready or talk just that little bit too loudly about the strength of their stock portfolio. Over the years, Landrum has flamed guests and critics who crossed him on the restaurant discussion board DonRockwell.com. In one 2006 post, he threatened to leave Arlington when his lease was up and move to an area where "1) people's jobs are not more important than their family, 2) people are not defined by their own sense of self-importance and 3) the [expletive] do not outnumber the decent people by a factor of 10-to-1." Rockwell has deleted other Landrum rants.
"The truth is that rich people suck. Important people suck," Landrum said. Not all of them, of course, but the "people who define themselves by whether they are wealthy or important. They are the worst to have to work for."
The rules at Landrum's restaurants are the same now as they were eight years ago. Anyone who Landrum decides has been rude to his staff is asked to leave. So is anyone who uses profanity or threatens an employee, a la "You haven't heard the last of this!" The number of guest evictions tends to reach a high after one of his restaurants receives a review, Landrum said. Last spring, after Ray's: The Steaks moved to a larger location and was re-reviewed by critics, Landrum kicked out as many as three customers a week.
In an industry where the customer is almost always right, such episodes can be unpleasant, even for innocent bystanders. Shallah Jewel, a former Washington restaurant publicist, witnessed Landrum ask a party to leave Ray's: The Steaks last summer. She said she didn't fear retaliation for talking about it because she mainly frequents the no-reservations Ray's Hell-Burger.
According to Jewel, one man in the group complained that the group's table wasn't ready. "I didn't think the guy said anything disrespectful or rude, and Michael turned around and started yelling: 'You can't talk to my hostess in a rude way. They are a part of my family. This is my house. You are not allowed to do this,' " she remembers.
Jewel admits that today some restaurants are too quick to appease difficult diners. But, she said: "It's the hospitality industry. Michael's intentions do seem honorable. But the reality of the way they are put into practice is, well, odd."
Still, some restaurateurs respect how Landrum bootstrapped his way to success. "He's a local independent that has brought good, small restaurants to the area. Financially, he's been very smart," said Jamie Leeds, executive chef at Hank's Oyster Bar and gastropub CommonWealth, who knows Landrum professionally. But she added, "he has his own way of doing things."
A broader view
Landrum isn't in the kitchen these days. Instead, he spends his days shuttling from one new property to another. On a recent weekday, he spent the morning with a contractor at Dix Street: The granite bar needed to be shifted so guests could eat comfortably, and the ice maker needed to be moved to keep the noise level low. He also wanted to know where the wafflemaker would go.
Landrum is feisty as ever. But there's little doubt that his new restaurants, slated to open in the next six months, are geared to accommodate a broader range of diners.
Take Ray's: The Game, in the Obama-era Hell-Burger space, which will feature meat such as venison, elk and duck and, if all goes according to plan, duck-fat fries. On a tour of the space, now under construction, Landrum showed off the new wood beams, paneling and a custom-built stone archway that aim to create what he called a "hunting lodge" feel. "With the Game, we need to show people the way a little bit, to give an atmosphere that's appropriate for what I'm serving," Landrum said.
He paused. "I guess I'm evolving," he said with a mischievous smile. "Actually, I might be ready to add some decor to some of the others."
Landrum's evolution will certainly be on display at Ray's: The Glass, in the same building as Ray's: The Steaks. It was conceived as a wine bar and lounge; hence the name. But Landrum and sommelier Mark Slater, formerly of Citronelle, are launching a version of the kind of restaurant that Landrum loves to hate. Ray's: The Glass will offer reservations and private dining rooms where diners can order one of several "ambitious" set menus created with wine in mind, Landrum said. One menu under consideration is the Knickerbocker, a traditional steakhouse dinner that might include oysters, prime rib and a blue cheese-and-tomato salad. Another is an Argentine-inspired Feast of the Beast that might offer sweetbreads, blood sausage and grilled short ribs. Landrum hasn't yet named a chef. (He imagines a setup similar to that of Georgetown restaurant 1789, where the restaurant's brand sets the tone for the food but the chef has lots of latitude for creativity.)
The restaurant still will offer value; tasting menus will start at $45, Landrum said. "But it answers a need that Ray's: The Steaks isn't capable of answering with a two-hour dinner."
Is Landrum crossing to what he would call the dark side? Not really. The new Ray's: The Steaks brings Landrum's signature franchise to an underserved community. Ray's: The Catch, to occupy the current Hell-Burger space, will follow Landrum's aggressive value formula. A nine-ounce portion of salmon or tuna with three sides will go for around $16. "Seafood is the biggest scam in the restaurant business," he said. "I'm going to show the guest how much I work for them."
Still, there is one big problem looming on the horizon. With four new restaurants ready to debut, the critics will soon be in for a visit. If the reviews are good, a crush of new diners will follow.
Let another round of trouble begin.