Canlis: The hidden, human scene behind the dining institution Seattle doesn't really know

Eating on the Edge: It's the city's premier restaurant, the one where people sometimes feel they would be out of place. Behind the scenes, it's more Seattle than most of us would guess.

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A plate of food is prepared for a staff member at Canlis.

Eating on the Edge: It's the city's premier restaurant, the one where people sometimes feel they would be out of place. Behind the scenes, it's more Seattle than most of us would guess.

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 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.

When servers change tablecloths, they fold the old one and unfold the new one so that the top of the table is never exposed. When a particularly short guest arrives, hosts and hostesses are trained to place pillows behind their backs so their feet comfortably touch the floor.

Recently, the Canlises brought in dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet to teach servers how to walk gracefully through the dining room. Servers are taught not to appear rushed or in a hurry. They are not allowed to wear jewelry or perfume. If they have tattoos, those must be covered.

“This,” Mark said pointing to the dining room, “is the stage. Everything you do is part of the performance. If I’m rushed, you (the customer) feel stressed. If I’m chewing gum, smacking my lips, it’s the same thing. If I’m wearing some big, shiny piece of jewelry, the attention is on me. We want all the attention to be on you.

“Out here it all has to be magic; we don’t want you to feel the craziness going on 20 feet away (in the kitchen),” he said. “When you’re eating here, time stands still.”

For all of its self-assuredness, Canlis is also an institution that dearly wants to be loved. While famous for its food, its service, and consequently its prices, the restaurant has not always been embraced by the city, Mark Canlis said. Just as some of the most confident, self-possessed people are secretly insecure, Canlis too is still in search of itself.

“We are known of,” he said of his family’s restaurant, “but I do not know if people understand us. Generally people fear the restaurant. I understand the price point is an issue … We want to serve people who can afford to eat here and those who can’t afford to eat here. Obviously not everyone can afford to eat here, or afford to eat period. We’d like to make the ones who can’t feel like they can. If you have to wait 10 years to have dinner here, we’ll wait for you.”

Serving people who can’t afford Canlis was a big part of its 60th birthday celebration, which ended last weekend with a party that honored dozens of local charities. The brothers used Twitter to distribute clues during a two-month-long scavenger hunt for 50 copies of the restaurant’s 1950 menu; those who found the menus were treated to dinner at 1950 prices. The 50 winners will compete later to win a free dinner every year for life. The catch is they have to give those free dinners away to someone else. One of the most expensive restaurants in Seattle also wants to be known as the most generous.

Last summer, Canlis hosted an impromptu, neighborhood cookout in Little Howe Park near Mark’s home on Queen Anne. He and his family and 80 or so employees blew up balloons, put up signs, and grilled flank steak for, it turned out, 1,500 people.

“We were just trying to be real,” Mark said. “It dawned on us that Seattle did not treat us like we were their own.”

Canlis serves some of the most refined, fanciful, artfully constructed food found anywhere, but the food that is served at the staff meal (also called the family meal or crew chow) is typically simple, familiar food derived from the basic ingredients of the kitchen. Surplus and leftovers sometimes make their way to the staff table; that does not mean the food has to be bad.

“If you make a bad staff meal,” said chef Franey, “it’s not cool.”

The staff meal is a collaborative effort by the various line cooks. The pastry chef bakes the bread; the grill cook prepares the meat; the salad chef mixes the greens, and so on. Last Friday, the staff dined on brisket, fresh baked bread, brownies, grilled broccoli, and Canlis salad, the only item that also appears on the menu.

The house salad (the recipe is here) is made of romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, bacon, green onions, Romano cheese, fresh mint, and oregano; the dressing is made with olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and a coddled egg. The Canlis salad is one of the few dishes served continuously without alterations since the restaurant opened in 1950.

The brisket came from one of the eight heads of cattle the restaurant commits to purchasing twice a year. Canlis procures its grass-fed beef from a small farm in the town of Brady, in Grays Harbor County. Unlike many restaurants, Canlis does not overtly broadcast this fact.

The current fashion in fine dining is to display the names of suppliers on the menu, sometimes the farm, sometimes the farmer. Menus include terms like troll-caught, grass-fed, free-range. An ingredient’s provenance is like its pedigree. The food, rather than the diner, is front and center. Canlis, as a rule, does not do that. If asked, they will happily report their methods of sourcing, but to report it on the menu would be impolite somehow, a burden to the diner, a breach of faith.

“We source things well,” Mark said. “We want you to expect it.”

The challenge of buying and eating local when it comes to beef is using all of the animal when most diners typically want just tenderloin and other choice cuts.

“Everyone wants to eat local but people don’t know what it takes to get local,” Franey said.

For every 70 pounds of filet mignon and New York strip, there are about 500 pounds of lesser cuts, the shoulder, the rump, the tail, the tongue, the offal, the brisket. Canlis shares its beef with other restaurants. It also counts on its staff.

Friday’s staff brisket was braised until fork tender. It was sliced thick and served with carmelized onions. Most made the brisket into sandwiches with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Some ate it with steamed rice from a well-used, automatic rice cooker.

Asian DNA is large in the Canlis legacy, which began in Honolulu, which is to Asian-Americans what Atlanta is to African-Americans, a metropolis in which the minority is the majority. In Honolulu, your barber, your mailman, your dentist, your Congressman, is probably Asian. The waitresses in Peter Canlis’ first restaurant in Honolulu, called the Broiler, were Japanese. The first two chefs to run Canlis were Asian-American, an unusual circumstance for a high-end restaurant in those days. Among its senior staff, manager David Kim and sommelier Nelson Daquip, are of Asian heritage, as are several servers.

One of them, a Vietnamese immigrant named John Wei, was discovered by Brian Canlis several years ago managing a Quiznos sandwich shop in downtown Seattle. Brian, who loves Quiznos and frequently eats there, was a customer one day when Wei served him. Wei brought Brian’s sandwich to his table. Brian watched as Wei walked back to his station, picked up a napkin off the floor, folded a newspaper, and pushed in a chair, all in time to get behind the counter and greet the next customer with a smile.

“It’s rare we hire people with a lot of fine dining experience,” Brian said. The Canlises prefer employees who come without bad habits, whom they can teach.

Brian gave Wei his card and asked him to call and come by the restaurant for an interview. Not everyone at the restaurant took him seriously when he told them he had discovered someone at Quiznos. Wei “had the heart,” said Brian, who hired Wei shortly after their meeting. Sure enough, Wei, nicknamed Johnny Tsunami by his co-workers, became one of the restaurant’s most decorated employees, thereby cementing himself in Canlis legend.

After the staff finished eating around 5 p.m., employees gathered in the Penthouse for a meeting. Chef Franey reported the kitchen had 10 ducks left. Dining manager Alison Kramer reminded servers a high-ranking executive of Starbucks was due to dine that night as was one of the scavenger hunt winners, who happened to also be a food blogger. Another employee delivered a short lecture about oysters. Brian reported the latest results of the menu hunt. Mark closed the meeting by urging his staff to “treat them like the king of the world. It’s what we do best.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at