November 4, 2016
What a long, strange journey it’s been for restaurateur Michael Landrum’s Ray’s Hell Burger. When it opened in 2008, it was the third prong in an empire of cleverly named restaurants – along with Arlington’s Ray’s the Steaks and Silver Spring’s Ray’s the Classics. Despite a general lack of fanfare, it became a local favorite almost immediately, even receiving enough buzz to attract the attention of President Obama — who lunched there with Joe Biden back in 2009. (Obama was apparently a fan; a year later, he returned with then-president of Russia Dimitry Medvedev.) For a time, Ray’s was the most popular burger spot inside the D.C. Beltway, drawing so many customers that it eventually had to expand into the adjacent building space, and then open a second location on K Street.
And then, at that height of its popularity, a dispute with the landlord forced what management termed “a quick break.” It would be almost two years before the return of Ray’s Hell Burger (although during this period, the famous burgers were still served at Landrum’s other restaurants). When it opened in fall of 2014, for the second time in less than a decade – in a new space on Arlington’s Wilson Boulevard, the home of the now-defunct Ray’s to the Third – anticipation was far greater than it had been the first time around. Still, despite the legions of adoring fans, Ray’s keeps right on doing its unassuming thing.
Even for a dive, Ray’s is truly low-key. The décor is spare to say the least, with only a few vintage movie posters interrupting otherwise blank walls. There are no waiters; customers place their orders at a counter, where they are given a red buzzer that vibrates when the food is ready. Burgers and fries are served in plain, mildly greasy, brown paper bags. The signs and menus, hastily scotch-taped on the walls behind the counter, look to have been produced on someone’s home printer.
In other words, everything about Ray’s Hell Burger flies in the face of the foody sensibility, which embraces modernity, atmosphere and often, pretentiousness. There are no frills here, and that’s just fine with the crowds that flock to Ray’s every night – many of them families with young children. Burgers come in small and large sizes, or “Little Devil” and “Big Devil.” Landrum, whose taste in restaurant names suggests he enjoys a good play on words, has plenty of fun with the Hell concept. One of his more inventive (and decadent) burgers, “The Brimstone,” is topped with a spicy, hearty concoction known as “Purgatory Chili,” as well as cheddar, onions and jalapenos. The intimidatingly named “Angry Chicken” sandwich, a play on Nashville hot chicken, is topped with an incendiary hot sauce simply called “Hell Fire.”
The burgers are simple and classic: savory meat, melty cheese and a thick bun. Obviously, these are the main draw at Ray’s Hell Burger, but the shakes are impressive in their own right. The “Elvis” is an inspired and busy combination, featuring Butterfingers, Peanut Butter, Banana, Chocolate and (why not?) Bacon. It’s one of several menu entries named for deceased musicians: two of the other burgers are the Big Punisher and the B.I.G. Poppa.
Boozy milkshakes like the “Cookie Monster” (Bailey’s and Oreos) are a welcome addition to a drink menu that more than surpasses the expectations for a hole-in-the-wall burger joint. Several microbrews are available, as is a small but dependable wine list.
How strange that Ray’s — which specializes in the most familiar of American comfort foods — now shares its space with Landrum’s latest creation, The Dug-Out, whose main dish is a sort of Georgian cheesy bread called Khachpuri. Despite the exotic name, it figures to appeal to even the most unadventurous of palates. Essentially, it’s just a soft, pillowy roll, not unlike a pita, filled with melted cheese and an egg. It seems kind of an odd direction for Landrum, but at this point, he can afford to take a risk. The citizens of the Ray’s Empire would follow him to Hell and back.