All photos by Ryan Hueter

SLIDESHOW: Ray's is back

By Ryan Hueter, UW News Lab

To rebrand a restaurant that has been a Seattle institution for 40 years is no easy task.

To do so while maintaining the operation of a sister café and catering service on the same property would be difficult.

To accomplish all that while renovating a building that sits out over the water on piers would require a daring entrepreneurial spirit.

Well, Ray's Boathouse managed to do all of the above. And starting today, people can see the results for themselves.

Ray’s will celebrate the grand opening of its new dining room Monday, Jan. 28, coinciding with the debut of a new menu. The overhaul of the dining experience is the first major change at Ray’s since the dining room was last renovated in 2001.

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A view of the dining room

For 40 years, Ray’s has been a Seattle staple and an institution of fine dining. Especially for those who live in Ballard, seeing Ray's neon red sign on the way to Golden Gardens is like saying hi to an old friend.

The downstairs dining room iconic boathouse is still in the finishing stages of a three-month remodel process, aimed at rebranding and updating the dining experience at Ray’s.

“We’ve ripped off the rearview mirror and we’re moving forward,” Ray’s general manager Mo Shaw said.

After closing on Oct. 15, the dining room has undergone significant changes, with the installation of a 30-foot bar that looks out over Shisole Bay, and subdued nautical touches throughout. The dining room is awash in deep blues and creamy whites, like the waterline rising to meet a cloudy sky or a sandy beach.

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Behind the bar, overlooking Shilshole Bay

The changes have carried over to the menu, as well.

“We will continue to focus on, of course, [being world-class seafood restaurant,” Shaw said. "That’s certainly how we are, what we are –- but with new, fresh elements that have been added to the menu.”

The refreshed menu will still feature some of the core dishes at Ray’s such as scallops and sable fish, but with a different twist as envisioned by executive chef Wayne Johnson. And even the new dishes retain Ray’s commitment to being world-renowned for its seafood offerings.

“I still want to be really focused on seafood,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been with Ray’s for nearly one year and this is his first opportunity to put his stamp on the menu at the boathouse. He and his staff have spent the past three months perfecting a number of new dishes, including a Pacific Northwest chowder with smoked salmon, and a lobster paella.

Johnson has been considering adding paella to the menu for a long time, finding an affinity for the dish after taking a trip to Spain two-and-a-half years. Now, he feels the time is right.

“I didn’t want to just put a paella on the menu,” Johnson said. “I wanted to wait until we really had the paella, and we really worked hard on making sure that this lobster paella with the poached lobster tails is worthy of being on that menu.”

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Even the waiting room has been refurbished

The process of rebranding the restaurant has been in the works for some time.

After the Ray’s ownership group -- which is composed of Russ Wohlers, Earl Lasher, Elizabeth Gingrich, and Jack Sikma -- decided in September 2011 to rebrand their restaurant, Shaw enlisted two Seattle-based companies to help reestablish Ray’s as a leader in Seattle restaurants.

“Our goal is to attract the Ballard demographic -- because it has changed very much -- while maintaining our loyal, wonderful guests that we’ve had for all these years,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to alienate anybody, but we do want to attract a new, younger demographic. That is really our ultimate goal.”

To accomplish that vision, Shaw picked Ken Grant of MotivatedBranding to lead the re-envisioning of the Ray’s dining experience and Mallet Inc. to head the architectural, construction, and culinary aspects of the renovation.

“We’ve done so much work generally within the hospitality and restaurant industry that we feel we have a pretty effective finger on the pulse of what works and what doesn’t work,” Mallet CEO and founder Eric Hentz said. “Ray’s had a pretty dated experience ... We wanted to radically change the dining experience out there.”

The centerpiece of the refurbished dining room is the 30-foot bar, which is intended to look like a vintage Chris Craft boat deck. Other nautical touches include brass detailing and upholstery that reflects what one might see on a luxury yacht.

“We wanted to make all of those sorts of associations –- elegant, wood tones, warmth, naval colors,” Hentz said. “Really drawing out of that 50s, 60s pleasure-boating aesthetic and extrapolate it broadly into the restaurant. We felt like we could do that and walk that difficult line between a sophisticated restaurant and one that’s just fun and hip at the same time.”

The capacity of the new dining room is down a little bit from 140 to about 110, because of the space that has been lost to the bar. But Shaw believes the bar will help Ray’s attract a younger crowd while also appealing to the faithful patrons of the restaurant with a striking view of the bay.

The layout of the dining room has been adjusted to orient patrons with a view of the water. Crescent shaped booths line the back wall, allowing patrons a clear view of passing marine traffic.

“The connection to the water is a big piece of our brand,” Shaw said.

Ray’s is also in the process of getting permission from the shoreline commission to build outdoor seating connected to the dining room.

It’s not surprising that Shaw was already looking ahead to the next piece of the redesign process. Ray’s will turn celebrate its 40th birthday on June 23rd. The business has sustained through two fires, and it has always maintained a progressive approach, a mindset that trickles down from the ownership through the entire organization.

“We’ve been so successful for 40 years,” Shaw said. “And for them to recommit to the community and to all of us that work here, that we can only be better, and that’s our plan, to be world-class.”

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