Almost every day at 4 p.m., the first meal at Canlis is served upstairs in the small kitchen that services the largest of its three private dining rooms. The food, most of which does not appear on the restaurant’s menu, is laid out for employees without much fuss in shallow, metal pans and Chinese, melamine bowls.
Called the “Penthouse,” the private loft is partially open to the main dining room below; both have walls of east-facing windows. The loft was originally designed to be the apartment of the original owner of Canlis, the late family patriarch Peter Canlis. The restaurant was indeed his life, so no better place to put his home.
Some of the most sumptuous dinners in the city have been served in the Penthouse (reserving the room costs $350 and requires a minimum of 35 to 60 guests, depending on the day and time of year) to customers with net assets comparable to those of whole countries. These are meals over which fortunes are celebrated, and deals are sealed, a reward perhaps for executives and a profitable quarter. The meal that precedes every dinner in the Penthouse is a far more humble ritual, a quiet, restorative moment for the people responsible for the production called dinner at Canlis.
The staff meal is perhaps the most important one taken each night, at this and every restaurant, the meal that nourishes and readies employees for a night that is as much a performance as it is dinner. Once the sauces are made, all the ingredients prepped, the linens ironed, the silverware polished, employees from both the front and back of the house line up on the narrow staircase that joins the main kitchen to the Penthouse kitchen. As a gesture of respect, the cooks fill their plates first.
In the spirit of wasting nothing, the staff often eats the cuts of meat that do not get used, like the cheaper cuts of beef or duck wings. Perishable food that has not been used by the end of the week gets served to the staff Saturday night. When executive chef Jason Franey, who in 2008 was hired as Canlis’ fifth executive chef, was asked to prepare Thanksgiving dinner on Martha Stewart’s television show, the staff dined three days in a row on the heritage birds he roasted as practice, an event referred to as “turkey-turkey-turkey.”
A surprising variety of entrees have made it to the staff meal at Canlis: fish tacos, shepherd’s pie, pad thai, bacon-lettuce-tomato sandwiches, cassoulet, pho. Workers honor the best staff meals by bestowing them with a symbolic “Canny” award (a take on the Grammy and Emmy). One of the Canny winners was also one of the simplest meals, dubbed “breakfast for dinner,” bacon, eggs, and French toast made from brioche.
The most celebrated staff meal is Korean-style kalbi ribs, whose origins go back to Peter Canlis’ early restaurant career in Honolulu. Kalbi ribs is saved for special occasions like New Year’s Eve. If tradition is followed, in a few weeks, the cooks will cover the restaurant’s distinct, copper grill with a blanket of short ribs before serving pheasant and tenderloin to the paying diners later that night.
The Canlis Restaurant, which turned 60 years old last week, is a rarity in the restaurant industry. It has lasted not just years but decades without changing, much like Dick’s Drive-In, featured last week on Crosscut.com. While on opposite ends of the culinary spectrum, the two local institutions have plenty in common. The two restaurants opened within about three years of each other.
In different ways, both are deeply invested in the community. Like Dick’s, Canlis has been scrupulously operated by the same family, and has thrived in a city that did not guarantee its success.
Canlis, its architecture, the refinement of its service, were ahead of their time, at least in Seattle, which was several decades away from tech-fueled gentrification. Canlis was sleek, urbane, and chic with an Asian inflection, a treasure more at home in a place like 1950s Los Angeles than the blue-collar Seattle of the era.
By necessity, Canlis’ menu has changed with the times in order to remain at the vanguard of fine dining. But the restaurant’s physical environment and its culture have changed very little over the years. The interior underwent cosmetic makeovers in 1984, 1996, and 2005, but the basic look has remained the same. The same trestle tables built for the restaurant in 1950, with horizontal bars for guests to rest their feet on, are still used today.
Only two chefs, Joe Ching and Rocky Toguchi, worked at Canlis during its first 50 years. Many of its employees, valets, servers, the gardener who tends the restaurant’s bonsai trees, its piano player, have spent decades at Canlis. And because the restaurant has remained in family hands, institutional memory runs deep.
Peter’s son Chris and his wife, Alice, ran the restaurant for about 30 years — a lifelong smoker, Peter Canlis died in 1977 of lung cancer — from the mid-1970s until about 2005, when sons Mark, 36, and Brian, 33, took over. (Chris and Alice’s oldest son, Matt, a minister, lives in Scotland with his wife and four children.) The staff is young. The dining room managers, the sommelier, executive chef Franey, are in their 20s or not very far beyond them. The Canlises refer to the new regime as Canlis 3.0.
While the staff is young, the crew members look older than they are, the way people do in old photographs or old movies because of the gravity they convey and the more formal clothes they wear. Canlis stops short of requiring suits and jackets for male guests, but strongly encourages them. Dressing up is a way of “protecting the night,” Mark Canlis said, of making sure the evening is special.
At Canlis, if nowhere else in Seattle, manners and wardrobes still matter. Guests are addressed as sir or ma'am, Mister or Miss. Front-of-house employees wear suits or dresses. Over the years, Seattle’s fashion-deficient, high-tech corporate culture has turned dressing up into an imposition, or worse an act of shame. Dressing down became almost a badge of honor.
Ride the elevators in any of the office buildings leased by the likes of Microsoft or Amazon and you cannot tell apart the vice presidents from the bike messengers. Jeans and sneakers in the office meant energy was spent on the work not the clothes, but they also missed the point, that dressing up was a gesture of respect for the people around you and the places you visited. Khakis, polo shirts, and golf jackets might still be the official get-up in Redmond, but there are still a few places in town where dressing up is rewarded: at Mad Men parties and at Canlis.
Eating at Canlis is about the construction of a fantasy, in which all your desires are tended to seemingly without effort, in which chaos does not exist, and all transactions occur without friction. The valet who takes your car does not give you a claim ticket, nor does the person who checks your coat. They simply remember. Diners do not have to ask for their coats or cars; those belongings simply appear at the right time. Tipping the valet or the coat checker is not expected and almost discouraged. Canlis prefers cash to be invisible.
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