Ray's Boathouse: Why We Live Here

A new chef tinkers with tradition at Seattle’s quintessential view restaurant.

Ask a local if he or she has been to Ray’s Boathouse and you’re likely to hear a resounding “Of course!” followed by enthusiastic recollections of that time they went in high summer and sat out on the sprawling, glass-wrapped deck, salty wind in their hair, Puget Sound in all its sailboat-in-the-setting-sun glory at their feet. “Wait, did you mean downstairs? Oh, we’ve never eaten there.” Yup, me either.

That is, until this spring. As those locals can tell you, there are essentially two Ray’s: The downstairs Boathouse, with its linen napkins, smooth jazz soundtracks and $30 entrées; and Ray’s Cafe upstairs, with a much less pricey menu and a drop-in vibe. Most importantly, the café is home to that sprawling deck, worth the usually long wait for a table in summer months. Not because the food will blow your mind, but because the view will blow your mind: You’ll sit perched within high-diving distance of the Sound, with heart-swelling views of the Olympic Mountains over miles of rolling sea in the distance.

Ray’s Boathouse started out as a boat-rental spot in 1939, and for years, fish and chips were doled out from a casual café beside the rental shop. It wasn’t until 1973 that Ray’s became a full-fledged fine dining restaurant, and throughout the years, as the collective dining hive mind has shifted ever closer to wearing jeans and sharing small plates, Ray’s Boathouse has steadfastly held its more formal ground, although nods to shared plates are found on the menu. Still, through the years, it’s become one of those venerable restaurants where locals go to show off their city’s striking environs, knowing full well they’ll be shelling out considerable coin for a menu of people-pleasing dishes that can be pretty good. First and foremost, though: Dinner at Ray’s is about that outstanding view.

Maybe, I figured, that was then and, under Wayne Johnson, things would be different now. Johnson spent an impressive 13 years at downtown’s Mediterranean stalwart Andaluca before coming to Ray’s. Chef Peter Birk ended his four-year stint last year; before him, chef Charles Ramseyer held the reins for 15 years, finally leaving in 2007 for the now-closed Wild Salmon in New York City. A little fresh blood in the kitchen never hurts, but messing with tradition at a restaurant with such a long history is tricky; taking the kasu black cod (now officially called sablefish in sake kasu, $31) off the menu would ignite a revolt. It’s Ray’s most iconic dish, first served in the mid-1980s during the apex of Asian fusion cooking, and it remains on the menu today.

But I found an alternate cooking of the same fish to be the true star on the main restaurant’s menu: a beautifully smoked sablefish (shown left)—so moist and tender that juice ran free as I nudged it with a fork—accented with a smooth tomato fondue. This was the clear winner on our table, which also bore tough seared scallops ($30) served with lovely sides and a black olive butter I strained to taste. Most disappointing: During my late-spring visit, when king salmon is at its awe-inspiring best, our grilled Columbia River fillet was on the dry side and whomped by a dominating mustard sauce. Of the starters we tried, the supremely fresh clams ($12) in a fine, classic dill, white wine and butter broth were best.

We’d dressed up a bit for dinner—a rare opportunity when so many restaurants have gone so far in the other direction—but we noticed that, despite prices solidly in the $30 range and plush décor, many diners were decked out in Mariners jerseys or similarly casual clothing. Still, at these prices, one expects service to be polished and professional, and on that level Ray’s impresses: Servers anticipate needs and take very good care.

On a sunny Saturday night, we returned to dine upstairs at the café. I’d been a dozen times prior and couldn’t wait to share what I consider a Northwest rite of passage with my Michigan-born husband. They’ll bring blankets if we get chilly, I told him as we waited in the noisy bar area for a table outside, sipping a Bloody Mary ($8) with just enough heat to pair perfectly with an order of clams in a beer broth we sopped up with warm rolls ($11.95). On the recommendation of our server, we ordered smoked salmon skewers ($12.95; shown right) and were rewarded with supple, buttery salmon (so much better than the salmon we’d eaten downstairs!), sweet from the brown sugar brine and cold-smoked until, well, perfect. If you can see past the dated presentation—the skewers arrive stabbed into a thick, juicy pineapple slice—you’ll be rewarded: They’re outstanding.

For dinner: a plate of sake kasu ($15.95) cooked beautifully, but both too salty (the fish) and too sweet (that’s a honey soy sauce drowning your jasmine rice); and classic cod fish and chips, a fine choice ($14.95).

Of course, by the time we were finishing dinner, we were only half paying attention to our food. The sun was beginning to fall behind the jagged Olympic peaks, the seagulls were dancing in the air, and those snug blankets had been offered and accepted. There was little else in my head as we sat low in our chairs with contented smiles on our faces except “This is why we live here, this is why we live here, this is why we live here.”

Ray’s Boathouse, Cafe and Catering (click for map)
Ballard, 6049 Seaview Ave. NW, 206.789.3770; rays.com
Dinner nightly, 5–9:30 p.m. Cafe: Lunch and dinner daily, 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m.
$$ (cafe) and $$$ (restaurant)