- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

If your idea of a steakhouse is a 150-seat cavernous room with white linen tablecloths, waiters in tuxedos and a dinner bill that makes you consider a second mortgage, Arlington’s Ray’s the Steaks might be a shock to your senses.

Ray’s is a break from the monotony of big-city steakhouses, with down-to-earth waiters, reasonable prices and that quintessential neighborhood feel. So while Ray’s may not have all the accessories its competitors have, it does serve an excellent product.

Ray’s the Steaks is small, so small that some people could easily confuse the 50-seat restaurant for a coffeehouse or bistro. The decor is simple: bare, cream-colored walls in the narrow dining room; wood and glass cabinets filled with the restaurant’s wine selection separating the dining room from the open kitchen.

Service at Ray’s is prompt, knowledgeable and helpful, with the first question before you order usually being how hungry you truly are. Waiters here do not instantly suggest the most expensive cut but ask what type of steak you like and do their best to lead you to it.

During one visit, I was even led to the one of the daily specials — a flat-iron steak, which is one of the least expensive on the on the menu at $17.95.

Ray’s menu is separated into two sections: starters/salads and a grill menu. Appetizers are not the reason people come to Ray’s, but there are still a few great items to precede your main course. The blackened jumbo sea scallops are perfectly grilled, with a hint of Cajun spices. My favorite salad is the Caesar.

What Ray’s does best is steaks. Cut and trimmed daily by proprietor-chef Michael Landrum, these select cuts come only from corn-fed all-natural cattle in Nebraska, Washington state and Kansas. Selections on the menu include the cowboy cut, a 26-ounce bone-in rib steak, and lesser-known cuts such as the flat-iron or hangar steak.

If these don’t fit your fancy, you can call ahead for custom cuts. The regular-menu cuts include a New York strip in 14- and 20-ounce options, filet mignon, rib-eye and a chateaubriand. Different selections of these cuts come with homemade sauces, such as brandy-mushroom cream and port wine peppercorn. Toppings include blue cheese crumbles; grilled onions; sauteed garlic; and au poivre — crusted with cracked black peppercorns.

One of the best selections is the house special, a 14-ounce New York strip au poivre topped with blue cheese crumbles and brandy mushroom cream sauce; at $23.95, it is one of the best deals in town.

Another highlight is the chateaubriand for two, which takes more than 30 minutes to prepare but is well worth the wait. The result is a tender meat, full of flavor and garnished with mushrooms and asparagus.

All grill items are served with heaping sides of homemade creamed spinach and mashed potatoes served family-style in cast-iron skillets. Both sides are delicious, and they blend well with any of the meat selections. If these don’t satisfy your vegetable needs, additional sides of sauteed mushrooms, grilled asparagus and broccoli crowns are available for $4 to $5 extra.

The wine list at Ray’s is one of the hidden jewels of the small restaurant. At my last visit, the list was up to 75 bottles. At least five bottles are being added each week; the goal is a 100-bottle list by summer. The wines come from a number of regions and grapes and range from $19 to the mid-$80s, so most likely, there is a wine that can satisfy any palette and budget.

Any complaints about Ray’s the Steaks usually are not about the kitchen but the noise, for dining can be loud. On a busy night, you may be in conversation not only with your party, but also with neighbors on either side. However, when the food is as good as Ray’s, who really wants to spend a lot of time talking?

Ray’s is a neighborhood restaurant, but don’t think you can walk in any night of the week and get a seat. Reservations usually fill the restaurant a week ahead for weeknights as well as weekends.

Mr. Landrum set out nearly two years ago to open his neighborhood dining spot, and he said he wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with his food but perfect it. The result is a restaurant that should have a successful future and keep attracting new diners.

RESTAURANT: Ray’s the Steaks, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703/841-7297

HOURS: 6 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday; 6 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers $4.95 to $8.95; main courses $13.95 to $41.95

CREDIT CARDS: All major credit cards

PARKING: Street and free lot parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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