In Seattle, where superior customer service is synonymous with Nordstrom, five-star hospitality belongs to Canlis.
Known as a great place for special occasions and a regular hang out of Seattle’s elite, Canlis is a fine-dining restaurant with a stunning Lake Union view, a wine list as thick as a dictionary and a salad recipe that’s been featured in cookbooks, food magazines and on morning news shows.
- Concept name: Canlis
- Location: Seattle
- Year founded: 1950
- Founder: Peter Canlis
- Known for: Impeccable service and hospitality, Lake Union views
- Best-selling item: Canlis salad, Peter Canlis prawns, lamb chops
- Current owners: Chris and Alice Canlis and their sons, Mark and Brian Canlis
- Annual sales: $6 million plus
But it’s not the salad, the view or the latest food trend that have had guests praising Canlis for decades. It’s the restaurant’s service. From the ticketless valet system where the right car appears when you’re ready to leave to a wait staff that calls you by name, Canlis has appealed to generations of diners since the restaurant’s founding in 1950.
Tess Staadecker, a Seattle native now living in Honolulu, called Canlis her favorite restaurant in the world. “It was gorgeous,” she recalled of that first meal on her 16th birthday. “From the tableside service to the magic valet, they did it all and made me feel like a Queen. Beyond the delicious food, live piano music, and amazing wine list, you feel taken care of and appreciated.”
“Walking into Canlis you feel like you are going out to one of the best meals of your life while simultaneously feeling as if you are being welcomed into a friend’s home,” said Will Guidara, general manager of New York’s Eleven Madison Park.
Peter Canlis set out to create a great restaurant in 1950, offering elegant service and food to attract movie stars and international travelers, and building the 165-seat restaurant on Queen Anne Hill overlooking Lake Union.
Peter Canlis Prawns, the famous Canlis salad — a twist on the classic Caesar that includes lemon, mint and oregano — and lamb, salmon and seafood dishes with flavors now known as Northwest cuisine, drew rave reviews and made the restaurant a hit.
Success in Seattle led Peter Canlis to expand his concept, opening Canlis restaurants in Portland, San Francisco, and Honolulu, and signing a deal for six restaurants with Conrad Hilton. But he let the lease run out in Portland in 1979 and the expansion deal fall through because he wanted autonomy to run the restaurants.
Later, his son Chris and Chris’ wife Alice closed San Francisco’s Canlis so Chris could spend more time with the family. Chris’ uncle ran the Honolulu Canlis, finally selling it in 1989.
By concentrating on one location, Chris and Alice Canlis and their staff of 90 made Canlis a food destination from the mid-1980s through early 2000. But while the food was good, Canlis wasn’t one of the Seattle restaurants foodies flocked to for its innovative, cutting-edge menu, admitted Mark Canlis, Chris and Alice’s son.
That’s one area that Mark, who took over in 2003, and his brother Brian, who joined the family business in 2005, have changed. They hired the restaurant’s fifth chef, Jason Franey, in 2008, a move that elevated Canlis to the “must-visit” list for local critics. Previously, Franey was the executive sous chef at Eleven Madison Park in New York.
Nancy Leson, who covers the food and restaurant scene for The Seattle Times, said: “Canlis never lost its relevance, but what it has now is a certain amount of shine. It’s able to hold its own with any other of the best restaurants in Seattle and most certainly surpasses all of them when you’re measuring all of the things that make a restaurant wonderful.”
“Canlis is a testament to what restaurants once were, and a reminder of what they can be,” said Guidara, who dines at Canlis every time he visits Seattle. “I can’t wait for my next meal.”