For returning patrons, experiencing the “reinvigorated” Ray’s the Steaks at East River can be a sort of guessing game.

Scoping the restaurant’s interior for the first time since the pioneering Ward 7 steakhouse reopened in late January after an abrupt two-month hiatus, a dining companion of mine bluntly asked the server, “What’s changed?”

Indeed, the physical improvements seem largely cosmetic: shiny new hardwood flooring in place of the previous carpet, a new flat-screen TV, and a short wooden room divider that delineate the bar and dining areas. Much of the original low-key décor remains in place, including a number of framed soul album covers and, of course, the Jolly Roger—the tell-tale skull-and-bones trademark of eccentric proprietor Michael Landrum.

Differences in food and drink options are slightly more apparent. Consenting adults who were previously limited to a modest selection of beer and wine may now choose from an array of liquors. And the dinner menu offers some new choices, as well. One highlight is a substantial and nicely charred steak and cheese sandwich, topped with grilled onions, mushrooms, and pickles, priced at $11.49.

“It’s still a work in progress, too,” says Landrum, noting that he’s not quite done with tweaking the menu. The restaurant has also returned with a smaller staff and shorter hours (lunchgoers are out of luck).

If the changes seem rather minor, considering all the hubbub surrounding the restaurant’s temporary closure last fall, maybe that’s because of all the resources being poured into Landrum’s other properties.

Last month, a D.C.-based general contractor, Genops Group, LLC, filed a series of lawsuits against Landrum and his company, MLRG, Inc., in D.C. Superior Court, charging the restaurateur with unpaid bills totaling a combined $348,483, plus interest, for construction work at three locations, including Retro Ray’s and Ray’s to the Third in Arlington, as well as the restaurateur’s yet-unopened D.C. bakery called Ryse, located on 5th Street NW near Mt. Vernon Square.

Genops Group is run by Geary Simon, developer of the failed Dupont Down Under project and creator of D.C.’s Sonny Bono Memorial Park. Simon says he’s also performed work at Landrum’s East River location (his name is on the permit), but referred further questions to the company’s attorney, who did not return calls for comment.

Landrum had no comment on the lawsuits, adding that his own attorney had yet to formally answer the complaints.

Landrum is a famously economical guy. He says that the trimmings from his ballyhooed steaks—which eventually get ground up and turned into burgers—help to subsidize the business, allowing him to serve quality meat for decent prices. His establishments don’t have the white-aproned waitstaff of your standard fancy steakhouse. And he’s obviously opened in locations that snootier restaurateurs would eschew. All of the above makes the size of his alleged construction debt look considerable. But, as “minimally profitable” as he describes his business, Landrum says he still has the wherewithal to withstand financial tremors. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be in Ward 7 to begin with.

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The April 2010 opening of East River was supposed to be a watershed. The other Ray’s locations—the original Ray’s the Steaks and the popular Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, plus Ray’s the Classics in Silver Spring, among others—were in the suburbs. Opening on Dix Street NE, east of the Anacostia River, Landrum was coming to a ward whose only sit-down restaurant was a Denny’s. The ribbon-cutting ceremony attracted several D.C. politicos, including then-Mayor Adrian Fenty and his eventual electoral vanquisher, current Mayor Vince Gray.

Landrum’s bold move to set up shop in that greatly underserved corner of town was widely viewed as a canary in the coal mine in terms of future culinary development. In this case, the mine is a drab commercial strip otherwise lined with carry-outs. If Landrum could prove that a bona fide eatery with laminated menus and vinyl bill holders could actually survive in that environment, other operators might soon follow his example.

Landrum’s sudden decision to shut down the restaurant this past November—“[p]lease bear with us as we close briefly to reformat,” a sign posted to the darkened storefront explained—prompted speculation that his meaty little birdie was suffocating and might soon keel over.

Landrum adamantly dismissed the deathwatch as premature—calling out an article in the Washington Post, in particular, for posing “deliberately misleading insinuations” about the eatery’s future—and vowed to reopen in January just as indicated by his signage.

East River’s temporary closure also came at a time of some curious and rather widespread retooling at Landrum’s Arlington locations. Shortly after the September opening of his new steak-frites place, Ray’s to the Third—a launch, in standard Landrum fashion, both low on marketing and high on mystery—Landrum suddenly closed his existing Ray’s Hell Burger Too across the street and converted it into Ray’s Steak and Cheese, a new concept devoted to the cheese steak—or, at least, Landrum’s version of it. A sign warned, “We absolutely do not serve ‘Philly’ anything or ‘cheesesteaks.’ We do not claim or attempt to be anyone’s idea of ‘authentic.’”

A month later, Landrum changed it back to a burger joint.

To hear Landrum tell it, there was a method to all this apparent madness. In a January email, he explained, “Much, if not all, of what we have tried out and developed in Arlington recently (much to the annoyance of our neighbors there and providing much fodder to question my mental faculties) has been specifically intended as a proving ground for the East River re-formatting and to allow an intensive practicum for our team to grow and expand their skills, experience and horizons.”

The steak-and-cheese experiment, for instance: “That’s sort of why I developed that [concept] in Arlington in the first place was to have that be something that could feature very strongly at Dix Street,” Landrum says when we reconnect this week.

The immediate results of this re-tinkering? Not entirely positive. Lately, Landrum’s East River location has taken a drubbing in neighborhood email groups over service issues. Fans of his other locations have bemoaned the glaring lack of certain Ray’s staples on the new menu: no deviled eggs, bone marrow, or milkshakes, for instance. He does serve a smoky, skillet-fried chicken, however, which is unique to the East River location.

Landrum characterizes the feedback as a “mixture of disappointment and understanding” that Dix Street is just different. “From my point of view, it’s a healthy evolution,” he says.

Approaching the restaurant’s second anniversary, Landrum soon faces a critical juncture in the life of his pioneering eatery. From the outset, he says he budgeted to lose around $5,000 per month for the first couple of years. “It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds,” Landrum says. “Most restaurants don’t plan on making money for the first two years, anyway.” At some point, though, it will need to turn a buck to be sustainable. A potential legal battle would make that future profit all the more important.

Still, Landrum says he’s committed to the community. (A sign of civic involvement? He’s opening his establishment up for a candidates’ debate, cosponsored by this newspaper and WPFW’s D.C. Politics.) He says the foundation is solid.

“In terms of engagement with the community, in terms of developing a core staff there of incredibly hard-working, incredibly talented people and in terms of building the base for something that will continue to evolve—but, more importantly, will continue to endure—I’ve surpassed all my expectations.” He adds, “Not to say that everything worked out the way I thought it would.”

Photos by Darrow Montgomery

Ray’s the Steaks at East River, 3905 Dix St. NE, (202) 396-7297

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