Leave the torch burning late at Canlis for tiki drinks

The 1950s style of drink makes a comeback, modified for modern tastes.

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James MacWilliams with torch

The 1950s style of drink makes a comeback, modified for modern tastes.

Former Belltown barman James MacWilliams, who used to dazzle late-night diners at Wann Izakaya, has moved to a far, far better bar atop Queen Anne: Canlis. And as Seattle's most venerated shrine of elegant dining celebrates its 60th anniversary, it fell to MacWilliams to research and resurrect the cocktail scene of the 1950s.

In that era, tiki drinks were particularly exotic. Founder Peter Canlis was friends with "Trader Vic" Bergeron as well as the legendary Hawaiian mixologist known as Don the Beachcomber, so it was natural that the restaurant, in its earliest years, served them.

The drinks eventually faded from view (as did the kimono-clad waitresses) only to be revived now, modified slightly to suit current tastes for drinks that are less sweet. No extra charge for the fireworks, or the fancy garnishes.

For all that, my personal taste turns to the Negroni and its various Campari cousins. Among them, the version at Canlis that features a newcomer to American's shores, Bonal. It's a century-old recipe that starts with mistelle (grape must whose fermentation is stopped by adding alcohol), infused with quinine and gentian and whatever else they find growing on the slopes of the Grande Chartreuse mountains of southeastern France. This one's called "Yes sir, Mr. Canlis," a mixture of Gentleman Jack, pineapple, Pernod and Benedictine topped with a brûléed banana meringue.

"Have a drink with us," a customer might have said 50 years ago to Peter Canlis, no doubt assuming he'd have something simple like a rum and Coke. "My usual," Peter would signal. "Yes sir, Mr. Canlis," the waiter would say, and return 10 minutes later with this elaborate cocktail. Tastes like a toasted marshmallow.

Just remember: At Canlis, you cannot be overdressed.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).