Ten years ago, the Canlis family celebrated a rare milestone in their fickle industry, 50 years of running the Canlis Restaurant, perhaps the most rarified and iconic dining room in Seattle.
To mark that occasion, the Canlises served 10-course meals to about 100 people, charging them $5,000 each and giving the money ($500,000) to charity. Each course represented a century from the last 5,000 years. The family hired 150 actors to dress as Vikings and other characters from world history; one of them rode in on a horse. The evening was as ostentatious as it was well-meaning.
To celebrate the restaurant’s 60th "birthday” Sunday night — Canlis opened Dec. 11, 1950, 60 years and one day earlier — the family and its staff of 80 employees chose to make a different sort of impression.
“At 60 you are done impressing people,” said Mark Canlis, 36, who with his younger brother Brian Canlis, 33, represent the third generation of Canlises to run the restaurant. “At 60, you don’t want to be in the spotlight. At 60, you are watching your friends die … at 60 I want to spend my time well.”
Far from 60 themselves, the two brothers spent many hours and days in the counsel of their parents, Alice and Chris Canlis, who are in their mid-60s, before conjuring up the evening. They decided to throw a party to honor the people behind local organizations (both well-known and obscure) that they felt were making a positive difference, people from groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, One Day’s Wages, Seattle Against Slavery, PATH, Aurora Commons, the Detlef Schrempf Foundation, D.A.D.S., The Moyer Foundation, and On The Boards, among others.
The evening was an elegant but relatively modest affair, in proportion to the sober, earnest nature of the work pursued by the guests, who wore hand-written name tags made of plain, white cardboard, a small bow of red string tied at one corner. Conversation was encouraged by a list of questions projected onto the east-facing windows that provide the restaurant’s famous views, questions like: “What makes you stop and stand in awe?” “We were born curious, but have we stayed that way?” “What creates generosity?”
The room was cleared of tables so that the 237 guests could stand and mingle freely. Servers poured goblets of wine and flutes of champagne, and passed out appetizers of croquettes, finger-sized lobster rolls, smoked salmon, and miniature, bejeweled potatoes. Lamb chops and house salad were served buffet style. Entertainment was provided by Issac Slade (lead singer of the rock group The Fray), who played guitar and piano and sang with his wife, Anna Slade, who is from Seattle.
The true show-stopping moment of the party arrived hours into the evening when Mark Canlis announced that his family will give $500,000 in charitable donations matches to local non-profit organizations in 2011, a pledge without a fixed, upper limit on any one donation.
At 60, Mark Canlis said, “you know what matters.”
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