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In 2008, a year in which she was fighting for her Ward 7 seat, D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander took a heaping amount of credit for bringing Ray’s the Steaks at East River to her district, even though it’s not exactly clear what she did directly to help a restaurateur who may be losing money on the project. Alexander naturally turned up at the ribbon cutting ceremony in April, too. And now that the soul-food steakhouse is open, I’ve even heard stories of the council member showing up and demanding alterations to the interior.
To say that Yvette Alexander is invested in Ray’s the Steaks at East River would be an understatement, which may, in part, explain her quick umbrage to Todd Kliman‘s brief, very positive review of the new steakhouse in the Washingtonian‘s Cheap Eats issue. (The review doesn’t appear to be online yet, but I’ve pasted it below.) Wrote Alexander in an announcement:
We are proud to have an extremely diverse mix of residents, which include professionals, seniors, and college students like any other part of the city, so to imply that this is a sociological experiment is an insult. Furthermore, I welcome anyone to experience life east of the Anacostia without apprehension It is unwarranted to imply that you can eat good food at your own risk. We should embrace our entire city without bias or preconceived skepticism.
Alexander wasn’t the only one to balk at the Washingtonian‘s words. Blogger “Miss V” took at few shots at the magazine, too, in her Life in the Village blog:
What do you mean by ‘those unaccustomed to life East of the River’? Do you mean unaccustomed to seeing so many Black people? Black people don’t have the cooties. As a matter of fact I got my cootie shot in 2nd grade (circle-circle-dot-dot, Baby). The whole Insider Tip reads as ‘Don’t worry, White people. There’s security to make sure the scary Black people won’t bother you.’
I talked to Kliman about the Ward 7 outrage, and I have to say, he’s been extremely gracious in listening to his critics over the issue. He even sat down with Miss V to iron things out.
Frankly, I’m not so convinced he should grovel that much. Yes, the phrasing isn’t the best or as precise as it could be; it has an unfortunate anthropological tone to it, which naturally doesn’t play in Ward 7, particularly coming from a magazine called the Washingtonian that doesn’t consider Anacostia part of its coverage area.
But I’ve spoken to enough restaurateurs over the years to know that almost none of them want to gamble their investment money in a neighborhood that may not pay off. To a certain degree, Landrum’s restaurant in Ward 7 is an experiment. It’s a business experiment to try to prove that you can make a go of it in Ward 7. No other restaurateur I’ve spoken to has had the balls to do what Landrum has. I think Kliman was trying to acknowledge that.
I asked Kliman for a response over the whole brouhaha, and here’s what he sent via e-mail:
What I would say — and what I’ve said on my chats — is that it’s a terrific place. And an important place. A potentially landscape-altering place. It is an experiment, but that’s not to take anything away from it — just the opposite. Landrum has budgeted losing five thou a month for three years. That’s not nothing. Most restaurateurs are after sure things, and flatter themselves for their vision in opening in places like Slater’s Lane, in Alexandria. The prices at the new Ray’s are so low and the portions so gargantuan that it’s hard not to see an overt and very earnest, very determined gesture. Finally: It needs to be said that Landrum is doing this as much for the white world west of the river as he is for the black world east of the river — to open eyes, to force change, to rewrite the rules.
Here’s the original review from the Cheap Eats issue. Decide for yourself if this merits a rebuke from a council member:
Ray’s the Steaks at East River
3905 Dix St., NE
Why Go: This break-the-model enterprise — a sit down restaurant on the neglected eastern side of the Anacostia River from restaurateur Michael Landrum — is a fascinating study in contrasts, not to mention a bold sociological experiment. And guess what — the food’s good, too. From gratis salads of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers to trencherman-style selections of meat to wedges of great pie, a meal here harks back to a no-fuss kind of dining that has all but vanished. You can even find a $5 glass of wine.
What to get: Beer-battered jumbo shrimp, ten to an order; a neat twist on skillet-fried chicken, the bird cold-smoked before hitting the oil; the Presidential burger, the same on served at Ray’s Hell-Burger and the lounge at Ray’s the Classics; crab royale, a ten-ounce mound of lightly bound jumbo lump that’s thrust under the broiler until golden; stellar Key-lime pie; silken mild-chocolate mousse.
Best for: Simply prepared American cooking at a great price.
Insider tip: Landrum fans unaccustomed to life east of Anacostia — and apprehensive about making the trip out there — might be reassured to know that the owner had hired greeters to man the door and watch over the block.