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Winter 2004 | Volume 26, Number 5 | Features
Dinner at Canlis

Never mind the million-dollar view of Lake Union and the Seattle skyline, or the delectable smells wafting from the kitchen, this celebrated restaurant has 54 years of stories to tell.

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT some of our guests tonight,” says Chris Canlis, owner of Canlis, the legendary Seattle restaurant. He’s speaking to his staff on a booked-solid winter evening.

It’s only an hour before opening, but instead of rushing, Chris gathers his employees for a moment of pause. Welcome to the inner workings of one of the nation’s finest dining establishments.

To generations of Seattle residents, Canlis is arguably the reigning “big-night-out” restaurant. It’s a dressy place where dinner for two can cost more than two big bills. However, when the owners greet you by name and a palate teaser like chilled melon soup is delivered to your table — compliments of the chef — you begin to understand: There’s no place like Canlis.

“This is when we develop our values as a staff and build community with one another,” says Chris, a longtime Fellow of Seattle Pacific University. “We call this meeting ‘inspiration.’” You could also call it story time.

The staff, some of whom have worked at Canlis for 10, 15 and 20 years or more, are gathered around the room. A few sit on window ledges, and others pull chairs close to a lit fireplace. They look more like a large extended family than the servers, chefs and sommeliers of a prestigious restaurant, but that’s exactly how Chris and his wife, Alice Canlis, prefer to run things — as a family.

Chris looks down at tonight’s guest list and grins. “Ah, this is one of my favorite customers,” he says. “But the relationship actually began after we made a mistake. A number of years ago we forgot to give him the cake he ordered, so I took it over to his house myself.” As a result, says Chris, the customer has been a longtime patron.

“Now, I don’t recognize the name of this guest,” he says, looking genuinely puzzled. “But the database says she’s been dining here for 45 years. Whoever has this table, will you please find out her story?”

More than anything else, it’s this sense of story that lingers at Canlis. After all, the restaurant is more than 50 years old, and in restaurant terms, that’s ancient. Canlis has been named one of Gourmet magazine’s “50 best American restaurants” and, says Alice, “Saveur magazine called us ‘the youngest 50-year-old restaurant in America.’ We loved that.”

If the restaurant’s walls could talk, they would tell stories of visits from famous guests, such as the Premier of China, the King of Tonga and a long list of celebrities. Of course, there would be the funny, even awkward, stories too — a given in the restaurant world. Who could forget the night that a well-known sports personality threw his wife’s fur coat into the fireplace, or the woman who refused a marriage proposal in front of an entire dining room?

The restaurant’s own story began in 1950 when it was founded by Chris’ father, Peter Canlis. By the time of the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle, Canlis was wildly popular and had already been featured in National Geographic.

Chris says his first memory of the restaurant was in 1954, when NBC’s Today Show was filmed live from Canlis, but he says he never aspired to be a restaurant owner. After meeting Alice while working as a naval flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida, he earned an M.B.A. from Stanford University and worked at Wells Fargo Bank. When his father died in 1977, Chris and Alice accepted a new calling and assumed ownership of Canlis. Says Alice, “I think God really went out of his way to bring us here.”

Perhaps the biggest advantage of being one of Seattle’s longest-running restaurants is the refinement of its cuisine — and, oh the cuisine! On this particular night, Canlis co-chef Aaron Wright is working on a new seasonal menu. “I love to find the art in food,” says Wright. “We push for the unique and the distinctive.”

He brings out a pewter tray where his newest masterpieces sit atop a bed of rock salt and multicolored peppercorns. It hardly feels appropriate to ruin such a work of art with a knife and fork, but who could resist the Alaska Weathervane Scallops with citrus butter or the Teriyaki Tenderloin with ginger and garlic?

With the restaurant situated less than a mile from Seattle Pacific, the Canlises consider SPU a neighbor. In fact, Chris plans to enroll in a business ethics class at the University next quarter, as a student and as a guest lecturer and mentor who can provide real-world examples. You might spot him in the Student Union Building, too. Approximately once a week, he brings his “office” to the SUB. “I work down there, just to be around the energy of students,” he says.

Some of this work includes planning Canlis’ charitable giving, about which the couple is passionate. They recently raised $50,000 for charity at the restaurant’s 50th anniversary party and more than half a million dollars at their 1999 New Year’s gala.

The Canlises are supporters of Seattle Pacific University, too. Both are members of SPU’s Society of Fellows, through which they hosted an exclusive cooking class for women Fellows two years ago. They also hire many Seattle Pacific students and graduates. Says Chris, “We look for character. We have hired a lot of young people from SPU to work here, and they have influenced the Canlis culture.”

The lights are dimmed, and the first guests arrive — an unspoken cue that it’s show time. “Mr. C, will you help me with my tie?” asks Chris Kattenhorn ’03, Canlis’ director of marketing. Kattenhorn began working at Canlis while he was a student at SPU. The elder Chris walks over and expertly adjusts Kattenhorn’s necktie. “Just like a family,” he says, smiling.

What is the secret ingredient for Canlis’ success? “There has to be integration between the values of the owner and the values of the business,” says Chris. “That includes ethics, business purposes and even personality. You can’t be one thing at home and something else here.”

“At first,” says Alice, “We didn’t think that you could have that integrated kind of Christian life in the restaurant world. But we were so wrong in our thinking. You can bring Christianity into almost any lifestyle, any workplace.”

Now that the couple’s son, Mark, has taken a more active role at Canlis, you might say the restaurant has begun a new chapter — but the story certainly doesn’t end here. “We want to continue as a place where past history evolves into future stories,” says Chris. “The Creator is still creating,” adds Alice. “He’s still creating me, and he’s still creating you.” And perhaps through the lives of this extraordinary family, he’s still creating Canlis.


Recipe: Peter Canlis Prawns
Recipe: Mrs. C. Salad
Recipe: Spinach and Apple Salad With Dried Cranberries


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