Move by Ray's the Steaks proprietor demonstrates faith in a community

By Petula Dvorak
Friday, April 9, 2010; B01

On the west side of the strip-mall-style building on Dix Street NE, you can order a Triple Meat pizza.

You might have to repeat the order several times, because the bulletproof window separating the Pizza Hut guy from you is thicker than a deep-dish crust, so it's hard to talk through.

And that's just demoralizing and insulting, implying to the residents of Ward 7 every day that violence is anticipated at every turn.

Who can live like that?

On the east side of that same building, dining will be very different in a few days. You'll be able to sit down, which is something very few places on this side of the District will allow a diner to do. You'll be able to spread a cloth napkin over your lap and drink wine from a stemmed glass.

Your server will wear a dapper, bluish-gray vest, and you can discuss the menu with him face to face. Nothing bulletproof here.

It's a big change for this neighborhood, the opening of a restaurant so completely different from the carryout culture that has dominated every other street corner for years.

And it's a move fraught with mixed emotions.

During the fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony for Ray's the Steaks this week, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), a few D.C. Council members and lots of people in sharp suits talked about the sirloin and the joy of having a foodie hot spot right off Minnesota Avenue. They vowed that they'd be regulars.

Restaurateur Michael "Ray" Landrum, who has a string of places that play on the clever take on his nickname -- Ray's the Classics in Silver Spring and Ray's Hell-Burger in Arlington, and so on -- has fed many Washingtonians, even President Obama. But he hadn't brought his business into the District.

"It's high time that I did get around to opening a restaurant in the District," Landrum said, and thanked the community that "allowed me to take this kind of risk."

But throughout the ribbon-cutting and the speeches and the photo ops, people walking by let everyone know they weren't giddy because high-end steak is close to home. They aren't looking for a place to dine, but in a city ward where unemployment is almost 20 percent -- noticeably higher than the District's 12.1 percent average -- they were simply looking for work.

They shouted again and again. "Y'all got any jobs?" a man in royal blue high-tops asked.

"You hiring?" a woman carrying a load of groceries shouted, before looking into the restaurant window and woo-hooing: "It's nice in there! That's a place I'd like to work."

Landrum said he has hired about 18 employees who live in wards 7 or 8 and plans a staff of 40 to 50. The restaurant will open to the public next week, with a menu tweaked slightly for the new location, adding cold smoked fried chicken and something sure to become notorious: The Biggie, a tribute to the late rap artist Biggie Smalls. It's a T-bone steak, cheese omelet, waffle, hash browns and a biscuit with bacon gravy.

Landrum prides himself on value, with menu items at less than $20 and featuring some nice cuts of meat. "In my mind, they're not steakhouses. They're steak joints," he said.

After years of sucking tax revenue from District residents who cross the Potomac River and state lines for his steaks and burgers, Landrum said he hopes those customers will cross the Anacostia River and come to Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue for their Ray's fix.

Let's face it: Good steak and a few dozen jobs will not be the saviors of a neighborhood. And here's the riddle: Do we sing praise that a fancy place (sorry, but any place with cloth napkins isn't really a "joint") has come to the block or do we despair that a nice restaurant is foolhardy in a part of the city struggling with unemployment, poverty and housing issues?

As one heckler who kept shouting at Fenty said: "How is a restaurant we can't afford to eat at going to do anything for the community?"

This restaurant means that the community gets something more than a sub shop or a burger joint or all the deep-fried horrors of corner carryouts. It means that there is faith in a community, without the need for a bulletproof shield.

At a forum last month on the dramatic uptick of poverty in the District, the executive director of Southeast Ministry, Valarie Ashley, talked about the mind-set of a community and how something as simple as the Big Chair Coffee and Grill that recently opened near her office in Anacostia lifted the spirits of the entire area.

"A simple coffee shop. A place to have coffee, to sit and socialize. It meant so much," Ashley said. "It does speak to a certain level of respect and acknowledgment that people have those needs. That people deserve that."

And that was a little bit of what Sylvia Burton, 57, thought Thursday as she observed the restaurant hoopla on her way home from work.

"It's not a place I'll go all the time," she said, looking into the window at the dignitaries lifting glasses to celebrate. "But right now, where can we go after church? Where do we go when my son takes me out for a nice dinner? Way out in Maryland. Like our neighborhood isn't even good enough for us to eat in. Uh-uh. This is different. This is here, right around the corner from me."

It's sad that this is big news, but it is a start. One restaurant, 66 chairs and steaks thicker than that awful safety glass next door.

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