Canlis to celebrate its 50th birthday

Fifty years ago, restaurateur Peter Canlis moved from Hawaii to Seattle, built a striking, Roland Terry-designed restaurant overlooking Lake Union, and gave this city a gift: its premiere dining destination. Though Peter is gone now, it is a gift that keeps on giving, thanks to his son, Chris, and daughter-in-law, Alice, who took over as hosts in 1976.

Three years ago, the couple invested $2 million on a restaurant facelift, hired a new executive chef to revitalize the menu, and did away with the servers' elegant but unwieldy kimonos.

Today, Chris and Alice Canlis deserve all the credit they can get for breathing new life into an old classic.

In a city where restaurants seem to open and close in the time it takes for a Canlis valet to retrieve another Lexus, 50 years in business warrants putting on a grand celebration. On Dec. 11, the Canlises - along with friends and customers paying $300 each to join the festivities - will do just that.

Billed as a birthday "Jubilee," the seven-course dinner is expected to raise $50,000 for local humanitarian groups. Orchestrating this elegant meal will be executive chef Greg Atkinson, whose inspired Northwestification of the Canlis menu has brought new acclaim to this much-acclaimed dinner house.

Talk to Chris and Alice Canlis, and you'll get an unexpected taste of their deep spirituality - their personal mission to "give back" some of the many blessings' they say they've received. This year alone, the Canlis family has raised more than $500,000 for good causes. Talk to them about their restaurant, and you'll inevitably turn to "The Canlis Experience" - an experience that is less about food, mood and view, they say, than about the importance of customer service. "We tell our staff that Canlis is a place," says Chris, "but when people come in, it's about to become an experience. The customer is what brings Canlis to life. The guest is center stage."

Reminiscing about a childhood in which the restaurant played a large part, Chris says, "I remember that my father was a presence in everything. I grew up being taught it was personality and personability that made a restaurant work." Alice, says her husband, grew up with first-hand knowledge of Southern hospitality. "We're a good team because we both had that heritage. It comes from a different source but it's the same message: guest-centered."

Making it work takes continued effort, and that effort has clearly paid off. Business is better than ever, with sales reaching 50-year highs.

Canlis has long been viewed as the province of the rich and the aged, where one can expect royal treatment but must be willing to pay a king's ransom for it. While still among the city's most expensive dining venues, today the atmosphere is far more relaxed, the menu prices high but far from outrageous. In the year 2000, Canlis is only one of a crowded upscale-restaurant field, and those who've been around know one thing is certain: Here, at least, you get what you pay for.

What you're paying for is a valet who greets you with a smile but not a ticket, and has your car magically waiting at meal's end. You're paying for servers like Mieko Hanson, employed since 1967, a woman who, according to Alice Canlis, "is a mother/mentor. She takes young servers under her wing and, in her wonderful Japanese way, encourages them, rebukes them."

You're paying for Walt Wagner, who has been tinkling the ivories in the bar since WHEN, and never tires (or at least never appears to tire) when asked to play "Happy Birthday" for the umpteen-millionth time. You're paying for a Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning wine cellar deep as Johnny Hartman's voice, and a personable steward to steer you in the right direction, whether that leads to a $30 merlot or a $1,000 Bordeaux.

Most of all, you're paying for an experience like the one described by lifelong Seattle-area resident Annie Thiemens, a career waitress who recently celebrated her WHAT wedding anniversary at Canlis. She and her husband had never been to Canlis, but were familiar with its legend as a rarified retreat for the Who's Who-crowd. Says Thiemens: "It was one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life. The food was great, but what I liked most was that they made me feel like a queen. I felt as if we were just as important as anyone else dining there."

When Canlis opened, says the man known in-house as "Mr. C," the motto was, "Where Peter Canlis is your host." "We've tried to make a family connection with our guests. And that has never been more important than it is today."

That "family connection" extends not only to the Canlis family but to thousands of local families who consider Canlis a second home when it comes to celebrations.

At 52, Gary Glant is a third-generation Canlis customer. "I remember Peter Canlis graciously greeting us at our table. He seemed like somebody who could be comfortable in the presence of Frank Sinatra - he had that '50s sort of swag. We'd celebrate all of my grandparents' anniversaries and birthdays in Peter Canlis' small dining room," says Glant, who recently celebrated his son Adam's 16th birthday in that very room.

"Adam's friends just loved it. It was a big treat for them. They got dressed up and they all got it!"

That a fourth generation of Canlis customers is "getting it" is exactly what the second generation of Canlis owners is pinning its hopes on.

That, and the fact that the Canlis family connection is expected to continue with the next generation. Though their eldest son has found a higher calling - he's studying to be a pastor - younger sibs Mark and Brian are in line to take over where their grandfather began. Brian, who like his brother Mark before him won a four-year ROTC scholarship to Cornell University's School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, is now a college senior. Mark is completing four years of Air Force service and will soon head to the Big Apple to test his chops before coming home to be the next "Mr. C."

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail address is:


Jubilee benefits

Proceeds from the Jubilee dinner will be shared among charitable organizations including the Pike Place Market Foundation's Farmers Relief Fund, Seattle Habitat for Humanity, Fellowship of Farmers International, the Seattle Foundation and Seattle Works.