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January 30, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Renovation and revamp revives Ray’s Boathouse


Tourists are still welcome to come for the view: as with the old Ray’s, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

But the crew at Ray’s Boathouse hopes a complete renovation of the Shilshole landmark will draw in a fresh crowd of diners who see the 39-year-old icon as a place to dine regularly, rather than a relic for special occasions or a grandmother’s visit.

“It was dated. A lot of people loved it the way it was, but in the real world it needed freshness,” said longtime general manager Mo Shaw. “Ballard is booming … it’s completely different than it was 10 years ago, it’s completely different than it was 5 years ago.”

When Ray’s hired a design-and-construction company to analyze its situation, the consultants found half its visits were coming from tourists, and that many local regulars had gotten out of the habit of stopping by.

“What we found was that a lot of people love us. We have a strong loyal following — there’s nothing wrong with our business, we’re a $9 million company — but we have the potential to be a $13 million company, and to do that was going to take significant change,” Shaw said.

The sleek, clean-lined new Boathouse reopened Monday night after a three-month, “north of $500,000” remodel that involved gutting the entire downstairs and reworking the menu. The biggest change regulars will notice is a new, 30-foot mahogany bar with a prime water-and-mountains view, designed as an homage to classic Chris-Craft boats. A glass partition partially separates the bar from a more private dining area, and traditional booths are on the other end along with a scattering of tables.

The space, decorated in a lot of blacks and blues, feels more open than before, and the noise level drops to conversation-friendly levels outside the bar area. The downstairs now seats 112, down from 144, but another 28 can fit at the bar.

The company’s also seeking approval for a new outdoor dining area. The casual Ray’s Cafe upstairs remains unchanged, though long-term plans call for more remodels.

The new Ray’s menu still squarely hits the high end, with entree averages in the $30s. But a new section of starts and small plates allows for more affordable mix-and-matching.

Shaw said that wine director Richard Kelsey’s goal was “very specific”: he wanted to offer one of the “most appropriately priced wine lists available in Seattle.” Cocktails range from a specialty rum flight to original creations to a handful of drinks adapted from both historic manuals and modern restaurants.

Chef Wayne Johnson joined Ray’s a year ago from Andaluca, and sous chef Joe Ritchie, formerly of Poppy and The Herbfarm, was also new to the team, as was pastry chef Lorna Stokes, formerly of Cantinetta. Coming in from the outside, Johnson said they had an easier time reworking the food and the composition of the plates, since they “weren’t locked into the mindset of how it used to be.”

The menu is still fish-focused, and Northwest seafood predominates, with Dungeness crab cakes and house-smoked salmon. But Johnson also wanted to be “more global,” adding dishes like a butter-poached lobster tail on lobster paella, and house-made pasta under Alaskan spot prawns in shrimp-curry butter. A new multicourse tasting menu started out this week with dishes like grilled mackerel with pickled sweet peppers and grilled romaine-citrus salad, and Idaho Wagyu beef in red chili ponzu sauce with gingered purple sweet potatoes.

“I really wanted to put in a tasting menu and get away from trying to do specials every night. I think what happens (with nightly specials) is, it ends up being rushed as opposed to thoughtfully, methodically put together, getting the right sauce, the right production, the pairings and composure or every plate,” Johnson said.

He’s also psyched with the “Ray’s Pacific Northwest Chowder,” where the hot broth is poured tableside over smoked salmon, potatoes, fennel and freshly tempura-battered razor clams.

“There’s a Manhattan clam chowder, why isn’t a Northwest clam chowder in that same conversation? We have razor clams, who else has razor clams?” he said.

The only “untouchable” dish from Ray’s 1.0 was the signature sablefish in sake kasu, for which the new crew simply livened the seasoning in the rice and bok choy.

Regardless, customers new or old, Johnson said, “I think the flavors are what you’ll notice more than anything.”

Anything except, perhaps, the view.

Photo: Bartender Jeff Steiner makes a Lido Deck cocktail inside the remodeled Ray’s Boathouse, by Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times



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