By Bob Tagert
Ralph Davis – Grad student turned Restaurateur
Ralph Davis is one of our own. He grew up in the Alexandria area and attended Hammond High School in the western part of Alexandria. After graduating in 1967 he attended old Dominion University and graduated with a degree in political science. He did not want to look for a job as he had plans to attend graduate school. Back in those days, Old Town Alexandria was just beginning to lose its seedy reputation as new restaurants and shops began to occupy old warehouses that fed the merchant ships that once came to the Port of Alexandria. It wasn’t until 1969 that bars and restaurants could sell liquor by the drink, and until around 1977 you could not be served if you were not seated. Little did Davis know then what an integral part he would play in the hospitality world in Old Town.
During the summer, Davis worked at the old Alexandria hospital on Duke Street. When he got off work he would unwind at the original Warehouse restaurant. Davis ran across an ad for a bartender at the Wharf restaurant that had opened in 1971. The ad read, “No experience necessary, must have a college degree.” This caught his interest so he investigated. The owner of the Wharf and Warehouse, Cliff Cline, told Davis that he could teach anybody to tend bar but he couldn’t teach them to be smart. Back in those days, the sit down bar that adorns the front of the Wharf today was not there, and the only bar was a small service bar in the main dining. He took the job.
As Old Town began to become more popular, business began to boom. With the need for quality help, Cline offered the hardworking Davis a management position. After some thought, he decided that he would remain for one more year and then pursue his grad school dreams. He would work for Cliff Cline for the next 13 years.
Old Town was fast becoming “the place to be.” There was no Pentagon City, west Alexandria or Arlandria. The closest place to go for entertainment was D.C. The first Woodrow Wilson Bridge only opened in 1963 connecting Maryland to Virginia and we began to discover the uniqueness of Old Town. There was nothing else like it.
There was entertainment at many of Old Town’s establishments, most of which are gone today. The Seaport Inn at the corner of King and Union streets featured acoustic guitar, as did Masons at the corner of King and Fairfax streets. The Fish Market had dueling pianos on one floor, Daryl Ott and ragtime on another floor and another piano and banjo player in the back room. The Wharf had it all with their second floor bar and stage…Mary Blankemier band and her beautiful voice, Al Williams and his saxophone, Mary Anne Redmon with her strong vocals and Eva Cassidy before she became famous.
As more and more folks discovered Old Town, Cline opened 219 Restaurant and offered Davis the job as General Manager. After six years at the Wharf, Davis was in complete control of the new restaurant. “I was all in at 219,” he tells me, ”It was a great opportunity for me. I learned a lot over the next seven years. I ran the operation on a daily basis hiring and firing employees, developing the menu and wine list and being responsible for the p&l statements. “We would take three day trips to New Orleans to sample the food and see what we wanted to bring back to our restaurant.”
Working for others is fine and Cliff Cline was a great mentor and boss but Davis started thinking about his own place. Alexandria had invested in the revitalization of Mount Vernon Avenue and Davis jumped at the chance to open his own restaurant so he bought Brunell’s American and Italian Restaurant on Mount Vernon Avenue. In 1985, after three months of renovation he reopened as RT’s Restaurant featuring his Cajun and Creole menu items. It was the first restaurant to open in that end of town and after a very positive article by Washington Post food critic, Phyllis Richmond; the place became a favorite of locals and Capitol Hill alike. “We had people lined up down the street,” Davis remembers. RT’s got national notoriety after President Clinton and Vice President Gore and their wives had dinner together at RT’s in 1991. This was at a time when Presidents and Vice Presidents typically did not dine out often.
In 1987, wanting more time for himself, Cliff Cline began to sell his restaurants. The Warehouse had been renovated and renamed Hamilton’s and was on the market. Davis took in business partner Hussein, and the two of them purchased Hamilton’s. After being closed for a few days they reopened with the former Warehouse name and with some of Davis’s signature dishes. With Hussein in place to manage the Warehouse, Davis opened Polo Grill on route 1 in Lorton in 1991. In 1994 he opened RT’s Seafood Kitchen in the Courthouse Plaza in Arlington. It was more of a casual and relaxed place.
In 1997 Davis went full circle and bought the Wharf. By this time, the bar up front had been built and the entertainment was giving way to more dining seats. Davis remodeled the entire restaurant but most notably the second floor. The bar and stage were removed and the old warehouse wood was covered in soft white and blue wallpaper. He also upgraded the menu by transplanting some of his recipes from RT’s.
In 2001, at the age of 53, he opened Circo, an Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria, in the Courthouse Plaza in Arlington. Over the next few years the restaurants outside of Alexandria were sold to consolidate their interests in Alexandria where Davis lived.
Sometime later around 2014, his son Matt began to show an interest in the restaurant business. Matt started at the bottom and trained in every facet of the business including working with the chef at the Warehouse, waiting tables and bartending before moving on to RT’s as one of the managers.
A little while later Davis decided it was time to sell the restaurants in Old Town with the idea of going back to where he started and having the opportunity to work with his son Matt and his good friend Jake who had been brought on board as another manager. Davis put the Wharf and the Warehouse on the market hoping to find a buyer that would keep all the employees. He eventually struck a deal with an existing restaurant group who did keep all the employees. Davis was the only one to leave.
Today Davis still is hands on because he knows no other way, but he does give Matt enough room to express his own ideas and grow. “Matt and Jake bring new ideas and energy to the business,” Davis says. Together they hope to make RT’s better than ever and that Matt continues the legacy that they have created over the last 32 years.