Ray's Cafe is packed on a Monday night, a mix of families with kids, older folk celebrating birthdays, and tourists wielding cameras like they are the Puget Sound paparazzi. There's a noise level and general acceptance of romper-room behavior that loans a bit of an Applebee's atmosphere to the crowded cafe room. Service is at or below that same chain-joint feel, with the waiter telling tables his name when he finally drops by to take a drink order ten minutes after diners sit down. Casual feel, poor service, and pretty good seafood: Ray's is a shining example of Seattle's skewed standards.
Beers are slow to arrive, but the menu offers a complete selection of local microbrews, as is Northwest appropriate. The menu seems to be filled with boring seafood basics, but other than too-cold bread and butter, the food is executed perfectly: fish and chips are flavorful and crisp, a seared lingcod with mushroom ragout offers flaky texture and rich sauce, and a classic Caesar salad with shrimp is just that: classic. If nothing else, Ray's Cafe nails what every tourist to Seattle dreams of: a seafood-centric menu with familiar items and even a burger, in case the seafood gets scary, a view that makes sloppy service seem a non-issue, and a reasonable price.
But is it what a local wants? On a recent night it certainly was. Chicago is meat; Seattle is seafood. It doesn't take a food lover to conjure up the clichés. Coming home from the meat-loving Midwest, I was surprised at how strong my craving was for a little local fish. My post-vacation requirements were specifically the opposite of what we ate on our trip: reasonable prices and the option for something light. After much consideration, the sun streaming through my window made me think of Ray's Cafe, where the wide view would let us enjoy every last second of sunshine.
The quality of the food was definitely the biggest surprise of the night. It's darn good. And that view of the Olympics over the Sound? It doesn't get old, no matter how long you've lived here. It's certainly the first choice for those tourists who don't understand that nearly every menu in Seattle has local seafood on it, and demand a 'seafood restaurant,' but going there on your own? If you're willing to brave the service and the interior surroundings, there's a great meal to be had, no matter where you're from.