Credit: Photograph by Darrow Montgomery

Before it became base camp for an army of celebrity chefs, the District’s restaurant scene was ruled by steakhouses—big, gaudy ones where the size of your porterhouse determined your status. These were steakhouses for politicos, lobbyists, fundraisers, and influence peddlers, folks eating large on someone else’s nickel.

With stints at Morton’s and the Capital Grille, Michael Landrum got to know the scene so well that, when he started his own steakhouse, he undermined the entire bloated concept. Landrum’s original Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington was the anti-Palm: zero ambiance, but affordable, wet-aged cuts of beef.

Landrum has since become a local celebrity. But even as he opened one Ray’s after another, he was constantly planning a project to give back to his community. First, it was going to be part of his Ray’s the Catch concept in Arlington. Then it morphed a stand-alone project in Ward 7: Ray’s the Steaks at East River.

If the original Ray’s was the inverse of a D.C. steakhouse, then the one in East River, I’d argue, is a true D.C. steakhouse­—run and managed and fussed over by longtime Washingtonians. You know, the ones marginalized not only by the federal government, but also by the local transients who’d rather drink battery acid than cross the Anacostia.

“I opened a restaurant where I could serve the food that I really love to eat myself, working off the core menus of the other Ray’s restaurants but with a much more down-home, well-seasoned, and easily accessible—but still unique—approach,” says Landrum.

Ray’s the Steaks at East River may be D.C.’s first soul-food steakhouse. You won’t find creamed spinach here. But there are collard greens, mac ’n’ cheese, and sweet-potato fries. It’s a steakhouse that serves fried chicken —organic, free range chicken that’s smoked then fried. It’s a steakhouse that serves a rib-eye for $18.95 and gives you a house salad and two sides. It’s a steakhouse designed around value and respect, not power. “The exact same portions on our classic cuts are served with prices adjusted downward to allow for as many people from the community to enjoy a great steak as possible,” Landrum tells me.

So what’s in it for Landrum? Here’s his grand, and grandiloquent, answer: “To have the pleasure of seeing the incredible potential of those around me explode in an expression of talent, achievement, and accomplishment that otherwise might never be given the opportunity to shine.”

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