Ray’s Boathouse Celebrates 50 Years!

January 4, 2023


The Seattle restaurant that changed the game for fresh seafood and seasonal ingredients in the Northwest looks ahead to sustainability

SEATTLE—Acclaimed Northwest seafood restaurant Ray’s Boathouse will celebrate 50 years in 2023. The James Beard Foundation Award recipient and longtime local favorite restaurant will honor its history from the last 50 years January through June 2023 culminating in a month-long celebration in June. Ray’s first opened on June 23, 1973, on the shores of Shilshole Bay in Ballard.

Ray’s history runs deep in Seattle and in 1973 three partners purchased the restaurant from founder Ray and Alice Lichtenberger and opened the Ray’s Boathouse in its current incarnation, a seafood restaurant that focuses on sourcing fresh, sustainable, and local seafood and preparing it simply to let the flavors shine.

“Ray’s started with the small kernel of an idea that salmon and other fish could be broiled just like a steak on a beach bonfire grill, after reeling it into the boat from a day of fishing. Then came halibut, lingcod, sablefish, oysters, mussels, and clams. Excellent seafood that could be cooked in a way that made the true flavor of the food shine. Simple, good ingredients, cooked with herbs and salt and pepper,” said Russ Wohlers, Ray’s founding partner and chef.

This approach drew national recognition from top food critics, writers, chefs, and personalities including Julia Child who received a personal tour of the Puget Sound from Russ’ seaplane in the 1990s. It also captured the hearts and palates of locals and tourists who packed the restaurants nightly to enjoy the fresh, seasonal fare.

Russ, having grown up on an apple farm in Wenatchee, WA, knew the value of hard work as well as the benefits of eating what’s available in your backyard. He sought out seafood that he could purchase direct from fisherpeople. Ray’s had a wholesale fish buyer’s license very early and bought fish right off the boats that fished in Puget Sound in front of the restaurant.

Despite two destructive fires over the years, multiple recessions, the dot com boom and bust, and a global pandemic Ray’s has continued to evolve, grow, and adapt to the changing city around it while staying true to its roots. Ballard has gone from a small fishing community to a bustling and busy pocket of Seattle over the years, but Ray’s little slice of paradise remains as stunning as ever with a loyal following of guests and visitors.

“Our guests are incredibly special and the reason we’ve been doing this for 50 years. We’ve seen generation after generation return to Ray’s with their kids, and their kids after them. We have so many guests who become engaged and then married at Ray’s. It’s truly a magical place with a rich history and I’m honored to be a part of it and shepherd in the start of the next 50 years,” said Douglas Zellers, Ray’s general manager and co-owner.

Ray’s has an energetic and creative chef team lead by Executive Chef Kevin Murray who worked his way up at Ray’s, leaving only for a stint at Copine. Chef Kevin is steering Ray’s into the next 50 years with sustainability at the forefront of everything he does in the kitchen. To not only manage but elevate and innovate the menu of an iconic restaurant with a long legacy takes great skill, leadership and thought.

With outstanding local seafood, renewed energy within its local, independent ownership, and a strong community bond centered upon local philanthropy, sustainable sourcing, and longstanding regional purveyor relationships, Ray’s looks forward to serving many more generations of treasured guests.

Snapshot of Ray’s 50-Year History

  • Ray’s begins: In 1939 namesake Ray Lichtenberger moved his growing boat rental and bait house to the current location and later opened a coffee house. Through the 1960s Ray’s operated as both a casual fish and chips cafe and boat rental. In 1973, Russ Wohlers, Earl Lasher and Duke Moscrip bought Ray’s Boathouse and transformed it into a nationally respected seafood restaurant while maintaining its cordial atmosphere. Moscrip left to pursue other restaurant ventures and Elizabeth Gingrich joined the ownership team in 1975. Seattle Sonics star Jack Sikma would join the ownership team a few years later and is still an owner today.
  • Under Wohlers, Ray’s built its reputation on seasonal dishes prepared simply to highlight the flavors of impeccably fresh seafood and the freshest locally grown produce.
  • Ray’s became part of a Pacific Northwest food revolution by helping to introduce its distinctive regional cuisine built around Northwest products, microbrews and wines.
  • Many “firsts:” Ray’s was the first to reintroduce to Seattleites Olympia oysters, the region’s only native oyster, elevated Northwest delicacies such as singing scallops, Loughborough Inlet spot prawns, Copper River Salmon, Bruce Gore “frozen at sea” salmon and the then-novel concept of serving red wine with fish.
  • Notable Employees: Ray’s has had the pleasure of employing and fostering many local chefs and notable figures including Chris Cornell of Soundgarden who worked as a line cook in the 1980s.
  • Sustainable seafood before it was popular: In 1976, Ray’s was also the first local restaurant to purchase its own wholesale fish buyer’s license, allowing it to buy directly from the fisherpeople, ensuring the freshest catch—light years ahead of today’s “sustainable seafood” consciousness
  • Ownership from within: Two new co-owners stepped into the partnership from within the Ray’s family after Gingrich retired in 2017: Tom Olsson, a longtime Ray’s team member who started in Ray’s kitchens and worked his way to Chief Financial Officer, and General Manager Douglas Zellers, best known for managing iconic local restaurants.

For a more in-depth look at Ray’s history please watch Ray’s documentary here.

About Ray’s Boathouse & Cafe

Ray’s is a Seattle destination for the freshest, sustainable Northwest seafood with majestic views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains. The first floor Boathouse offers thoughtfully composed plates, craft cocktails, award-winning wine lists and elegant design. It elevates local, sustainable seafood with global flavors and Northwest inspiration. Upstairs, Ray’s Café offers classic seafood dishes with seasonal preparations including fish and chips, steamers, fresh oysters, clam chowder, house-smoked fish, and more for lunch, happy hour and dinner daily. rays.com

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