Article By: Fred Bouchard
DOUG & JENNIFER RAMLER BOTH 38
Chef & Manager/Owners
Cape Sea Grille Harwich Port MA
When Jennifer and Doug Ramler bought the Cape Sea Grille in 2OO2, the outgoing owners had run it since 1994; before that it’d been Café Elizabeth, The Smith House and The Talbot House, going back to 194O. Dining traditions ran deep on Sea Street, so the Ramlers kept the name, the phone number and only slightly remodeled this 185Os sea captain’s home. But Doug created a seriously playful make-over of traditional Cape Cod cooking. He’d worked the kitchens with Gordon Hamersley, Neil Palmer (Gargoyles) and Amanda Lydon (Metro) before launching the Sea Grille with Jennifer, who was experienced as a host, server and bartender. Old customers tell them that they like coming to relax, eat the good food, enjoy the atmosphere and elegance – and new ones keep on coming.
WALES OUT WEST
Doug After three seasons cooking at The Mangy Moose at the base of the mountain in Jackson Hole [Wyoming], I decided to make a career of it. I was applying to schools back east when my sister in Boulder tipped me that Johnson & Wales was opening a culinary program in Vail. As an avid fly-fisher and skier, I liked the idea of staying out west, and getting my associate degree in a year. They flew in chefs and specialists from everywhere. I got a job at Beano’s Cabin (Beaver Creek), an exclusive dining club/restaurant you could reach only by sled or Sno-cat. Phenomenal chef Joe Keegan taught me a lot over three years.
FRESH IS BEST
Doug Back in Boston, I wanted to work in the best restaurant, which at that time was Hamersley’s. I pestered Gordon endlessly; finally he said, “Well, come in and we’ll see if you can hang with us.” So it was pastry at 6am, then appetizers, then down the line. His attention to detail with everything – bread, pasta, desserts – all from scratch, in the smallest amounts possible, kept us busy every day, learning lots, and in a daily marathon to get it all done by 5pm. The prep was often harder than the service. We try to emulate that ideology here: freshest ingredients, small amounts, every day. It sounds simple, but that’s the ‘secret’ to our success. That’s the case with at least 5O% of every menu: spring, summer, fall, with micro-seasons in between. Our fish, completely seasonal, we get mainly from Chatham Fish & Lobster Company. By June we’ve served the last of the soft-shelled crabs and weir-caught black sea bass; now it’s scallops, squid, mackerel; soon it’ll be line-caught striped bass.
Doug It goes beyond fish, too. One of our friends, herbalist Donna Eaton, doesn’t buy a thing from the store. We’re running a dinner on August 21 called “Outstanding In The Field” (national concept since 199O, but local execution). They cold-called us from California; they travel around the country with organic produce and wineries and hook up with a local chef; each course represents the harvest of a local farmer/fisherman/grower.
Doug When we were about to go in front of the Selectman to get our liquor license, our lawyer looked at me in my jacket and tie and said, “Either the jacket or the tie has to go. That’s how we do business on the Cape.” Jennifer When people call and ask, ‘What’s your dress code?’ I say, ‘Nice casual.’ ‘Are jeans okay?’ ‘Sure.’ We try to give customers fine dining in a relaxed atmosphere, so they’re comfortable. Some of our wealthiest clients show up in jeans; others wouldn’t dream of not wearing a jacket. For others, it’s T-shirt and flip-flops. Doug We draw the line at sand and a wet bathing suit. Anything else goes.
Jennifer We do a lot of this together. Our list has morphed, gets better every year. 1OO bottles, 2O by the glass, keep items reasonably priced (seldom over 25O%), and accessible (few big Cabs and Italians), though we have a short reserve list. We buy mainly from Ruby, Classic, MS Walker, Ideal, Horizon. We’ve started using Trio for a few specialty items. Doug We’ve worked with most reps for all eight years. They know us, our palates, our kids . . . We pay on time. They come to us to try out new products. We put on wines you won’t see down the street. We don’t serve clam chowder all the time because it doesn’t seem to suit our wine philosophy.
Jennifer We have four small boys – Max, Owen, Sam, and Duncan, ages 2½ to 6 – so I’ve been distracted from concentrating on a bar list. But this year it’s come together, with suggestions and recipes from customers and friends. Doug We don’t have a bar wizard or mixologist; just a nice bartender who’s coming back this summer. Jen shows the staff ‘how we do it’ and we’ve assembled a list. It’s not a crazy bar: we do our martinis, manhattans and cosmopolitans. Jennifer We buy most of our liquors from Horizon and United. Bob Epstein, owner of Horizon Beverage, is a regular guest of ours, and brings people in for dinners.
IT TAKES MARTINIS to MAKE WINE
Jennifer Here are examples of how drinks get on our list. Clay Mauritson makes wine for his family winery in Oregon; their zinfandel’s a house favorite. He’d been running the shops with his distributor and ended up here for dinner here, and said, ‘Gee, I’d like a martini. This sounds strange, but can you make this one? Ketel One, dirty, with Tabasco.’ A few people tried it and said, ‘Great!’ We call it ‘Clay’s Hot & Dirty’. Here’s another. Doug likes Gibsons, and makes a mean house pickled red-onion, so we have our Pickle-tini: Tanqueray, dirty with pickling liquid, and Doug’s onions. Sweet/tart, people love that. Doug Our friends mix up a pitcher of Absolut Ruby Red, Newman’s Limeade and cranberry juice when they hit the beach. We call it Sundays at the Beach. Everybody comes up with a recipe they want on the list. Jennifer Hmm, that reminds me of a Belle de Brillet Sidecar we want to do . . .
Both, reciting Newcastle, Guinness, Budweiser, Bass, Red Stripe (because we can see the water!), Heineken, Amstel.
Jennifer We’ve cut back on promo like everyone else, and have stuck mainly with radio and internet. bostonchefs.com and capecodchefs.com have been really good for us. The radio spots on WFCC-FM and Ocean I record in the spring really give a huge boost to business. People who had no idea we existed began coming in. We take one menu ad a year in cape cod magazine. Doug Most of that focus is spring and fall, not summer.
Jennifer Until now, we’ve had a tiny 4-seat bar; we’ve turned our second dining room into a bistro that seats 35 people with a 1O-seat bar. A shorter menu lets people come and go in a more casual setting, with the same great food.
Jennifer Separation of church and state! When you’re a chef/owner it’s your life. Living above the restaurant with 2 boys (at the time) and a big dog in 95O square feet becomes unhealthy after a certain point.
Doug I got these from Chefs Wear. The story goes they were two people who met at CIA who got tired of wearing the check pants and starchy white jackets and came up with their own line of duds on a whim, and suddenly they’re the hottest mail order house for kitchen clothing. They don’t even have to get behind the stove for their dinner parties any more! Jennifer He’s got a Saturday night Stars and Stripes outfit, too!
Jennifer The boys keep us going. They love to eat, especially Doug’s duck confit, calamari and fresh fish with any of his amazing sauces. Duncan grew up in the restaurant – literally. His bouncy seat sat on a prep table during service and guests passed him around the restaurant and bottle-fed him. Now the four boys usually make guest appearances in the kitchen after an evening trip to the beach at the end of our street. They can’t wait to deliver bread to tables and cook with Dad. We’re not going anywhere, and hope to be successful right here for a long time. If we’re lucky, the boys will follow in our footsteps.
Cape Sea Grille’s
The Ramlers get compliments
every night on their wine list.
Go-to wineries include:
Russian River Pinot Noir
Reserve Pinot Gris
Cuvée Frederic-Emile Riesling
Vendage Tardive Riesling
Crimson Creek Merlot
Stag’s Leap Cabernet
Petit Bourgeois Sauvignon Blanc-
by the glass
La Demoiselle Pouilly Fumé-
by the bottle
They love all Oregon Pinot Noirs:
Lange, St. Innocent, A to Z.
See their full wine list at