I’m not sure why I continue to be fascinated with service industry outlets that are so stubbornly non-user-friendly. Maybe it’s my past retail experience that’s fatigued my belief in the maxim, ‘the customer is always right.’ Or maybe it’s inspiring to be around places that are so good at what they do that people will put up with all of their peccadillos. Maybe it’s because food is one of the last bastions of fierce independence and proprietary pride. All I know is that I should be offended when I go to Bahn Mi (where you get the coffee they serve– strong, sweet, and syrupy with condensed milk– and no, you can’t have oil and vinegar on your sandwich) or Murky (where they tell you what you may order, and where they simply stopped brewing decaf) or any purveyor of Peruvian chicken (where you can have anything you like, as long as it is chicken and fries), but I’m not. If a banker or doctor or grocer or retailer ignored my wishes or refused to listen to me, I’d never go back. But give me something yummy and a slap in the face and I’ll beat a path to your door.
“Ray’s The Steaks” has not only an cringingly awful name, but an impeccable reputation for the very finest steaks in the DC region. This is in spite of the fact that the proprietor (whose name is actually Michael) is a notorious curmudgeon and his staff is a wee bit inhospitable. Furthermore, there is little parking, no valet, and the restaurant itself is noisy, small, and dominated by the open kitchen. Outside, a hand-scrawled sign makes the situation as clear as gin:
No Parties Bigger than 6
No Incomplete Parties
And the posted menu goes to great lengths to let any potential diners know that you simply cannot have most of the steaks cooked ‘well’. We once stopped by the half-full restaurant late one evening for some dessert (their pie is otherworldly) and were turned away. And yet folks will wait in a small mob outside to get in, night after night after night. Powerful people with suit pockets full of money will stand in the cold with everyone else. It’s just that good.
So the other day as we were completing a morning of errands, we decided to stop by Ray’s. Not for a steak, but to check out the new and already-famous burger joint that ‘Ray’ opened next door. Except that it’s not next door. A piece of paper taped to the window of Ray’s pointed the way a few doors down. Where we discovered why we had trouble finding it in the first place: there is no sign. Just a small dining room behind a locked door. That’s right, the world’s best burgers aren’t available for lunch. What were we thinking? Why would they want to open at noon, when hungry office workers go foraging for food? Instead, they proudly lock the door until all of those customers are on their way home at night. And I’m sure the place is packed whenever they do open the door. It’s Ray’s of course.
Maybe in a world awash with choices, we subconsciously yearn for someone to limit our options. Maybe we like feeling as though we’re in on something secret. Or maybe all of this brusque customer service hearkens back to a bygone era. All I know is, I long to be a part of something so refreshing and compelling that people would jump all manner of hurdles to get to it.