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In the 1950s, under the leadership of Alice and Ray Lichtenberger (the original owner, after whom Ray's Boathouse is named), thousands turned out for the annual Kids' Dock Fishing Derby on the planks outside the restaurant. Here, a pair of blindfolded officials picked up fish tagged with kids' names as part of a "drawing" for prizes. The original boathouse is in the background under the derby sign. When a group of partners took over the property in 1973, they replaced the original cafe with a fine-dining restaurant.
With fresh thinking, Ray's Boathouse set a seafood standard

I think I'm on pretty firm ground when I say that any chef cooking seafood anywhere near Seattle owes something to Ray's Boathouse. In the same way that Alice Waters' Chez Panisse in Berkeley once made everyone think about where our vegetables came from, Ray's Boathouse made us all think about where we got our fish.

In the early 1980s when an expensive seafood entrée in Seattle often meant previously frozen Australian lobster tail, Ray's focused entirely on the Northwest's own fish and shellfish. On the advice of seafood guru Jon Rowley, former Ray's chef Wayne Ludvigsen started serving pink scallops, spot-tailed shrimp, Pacific rockfish, Alaska halibut and salmon — not just any salmon, but the freshest, wildest salmon plucked at its prime from specific waters at specific times.

"What they were doing," says Rowley, "was getting the best and telling its story." Ray's was among four Seattle restaurants that served the first Copper River salmon in the spring of 1983. "The cooks cut the fish and they got excited," recalls Rowley. "Then they sent it out, and when they heard the feedback from the guests, the waiters got excited. The rest is history. But it was apparent from the first night that this was something extraordinary. Over time, things like Australian lobster tail just stopped making sense."

A new cookbook celebrates 30 years of fine dining at Ray's.
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For chefs like me, working in the boondocks outside the city, first up in Bellingham, then in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Wayne Ludvigsen — like Tom Douglas at the old Café Sport and Robert Rosellini at The Other Place — was a giant. Every step they took registered on the Richter scale from Vancouver to Portland, and we kept our ears to the ground to follow what the big boys were doing in the city. We could all feel the shock waves when that first Copper River salmon hit the grill, and again when Ray's launched a party to celebrate the comeback of the Olympia oyster.

"Up to that point," says Rowley, "Olympias had only been available in jars, if you could find them at all. Then Clam Cove Oyster Company brought us some live ones. I sent out a letter to the people who worked in the food press, and we served nothing else that night — just Olympia oysters and Schramsberg sparkling wine. It was one of the best parties I've ever been to."

Thumbnail Pan-Seared Alaskan Sea Scallops With Green Curry Sauce and Mango Papaya Salsa
Mauny Kaseburg, better known to Seattleites as "The Radio Gourmet," worked to promote Ray's in the '80s. "It was an exciting time," she says, "a time I miss. Full of hope, enthusiasm, innovation and creativity. There were so many national and international celebs and media like Patricia Wells, Tina Ujlaki and Barbara Fairchild that I took to Ray's who continue to talk about it to this day. The seafood was truly world class, and the 'sophisticates' genuinely appreciated the simplicity with which it was treated and presented. Everyone brought their best (and newest) items to Wayne . . . The fishermen knew they could trust him. Perfect seafood, simply prepared."

These days, Ludvigsen works for Charlie's Produce, selling to other chefs, but his legacy is carried on by his successor, Charles Ramseyer, who took over 10 years ago. Ramseyer recently completed the recipes for "Ray's Boathouse, Seafood Secrets of the Pacific Northwest" (Documentary Media, $27.95) a celebration of the restaurant's emergence as a fine-dining destination 30 years ago. While Ludvigsen practically grew up in the restaurant, starting out as a dishwasher and working his way up to executive chef, the Swiss-born Ramseyer trained in upscale kitchens around the globe.

With butter sauces, chutneys and dramatic plate presentations, Ramseyer has brought Ray's another step forward. The landmark restaurant that started out as an iconoclast has become an icon, a standard-bearer for a certain way of doing things. Ramseyer credits his success to management that let him "take the restaurant to another level without destroying those things that made Ray's exceptional in the first place."

In other words, it's still all about the fish.

Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999).

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