Restaurant: Canlis – Part 1/4
Cuisine: Fine Dining/Modern American/Pacific Northwest
Last visited: July 20, 2013
Location: Seattle, WA (Queen Anne: Upper)
Address: 2576 Aurora Ave N
Transit: Dexter Ave N & Wheeler St
Phone: (206) 283-3313
Price range: $50+
1: Poor 2: OK 3: Good 4: Very good 5: Excellent 6: FMF Must Try!
- Since 1950
- Chef Jason Franey
- Traditional fine dining
- Modern American cuisine
- Formal ambiance
- 180-degree views of city
- Multiple award winning
- White table cloth dining
- Live piano music
- Extensive wine list
- Reservations recommended
- Private dining available
- Business dress code
- Mon. — Fri. 5:30pm to close
- Saturdays from 5pm to close
- Closed Sundays
- Twitter: @Canlis
- See – Canlis Part 4/4 (Full post)
**Recommendations: Chef’s Tasting Menu (7 courses for $125). The classics are The Canlis Salad (optional to have it prepared table side), Peter Canlis’ Prawns, Peter Canlis’ Steak Tartare, Twice Baked Potato, and Canlis Soufflé.
It is bound to come up when thinking of fine dining in Seattle, and it was my most anticipated restaurant for Follow Me Foodie to 2 Days in Seattle. It’s one of Seattle’s premier fine dining destinations located on a cliff overlooking the city, Lake Union and the Cascade Mountains.
Canlis opened in 1950 when Peter Canlis wanted to build “the world’s most beautiful restaurant.” Grandsons Mark and Brian Canlis took over in 2005 and the restaurant was given another face-lift.
It’s an institution, and while some say it’s a restaurant to “check off the list” and “try once in your life,” it deserves more credit. It’s a restaurant that doesn’t change often, but when it does, it’s worth revisiting – especially in the last few years with Chef Jason Franey in the kitchen.
From the outside it looks rustic and almost cabin like, and the inside has a similar feel. The intent in the redesign was to bring the outdoors, indoors. The space looks grand and spacious with floor to ceiling windows and 180-degree views of the city, but it still comes off a bit stuffy. It’s a two story restaurant with ample seating, so it might not feel as intimate, but it also doesn’t feel empty since most the seats are filled.
This is traditional white tablecloth fine dining, which is hard to find these days especially along the West Coast. Many North American restaurants move away from the traditional, but it still has its place. I can appreciate a live pianist, carefully ironed tablecloths, and formal service with attention to detail, which is what you’ll get here; but for some it’s uncomfortable and pretentious. They take service seriously and treat it as an art form, which is not necessarily “long lost” today, but evolved and less formal. More important is they understand hospitality which never gets old.
It is a special occasion and corporate account place, and as a tourist dining at Canlis for the first time I had nothing to compare to, but I could see it gradually progressing. They cater to old clietele while trying to draw in new customers, so it’s an interesting balance and careful line they walk. They are sensitive to loyal diners and respectful of family traditions, yet they are set to please every customer walking in.
Other memorabilia included a working black rotary phone dial that sat beside Peter Canlis’ favourite table, which he also treated as a bit of an office desk. It was an honour to sit there. Another characteristic was the small copper charcoal broiler in the centre of the restaurant, where in the past, the head chef would spend most of his time. It was the first restaurant to have an open kitchen in Seattle, although now its main purpose serves as a piece of history, since Executive Chef Franey prefers to be hands-on in the behind the scenes kitchen.
Brian and Peter Canlis are still physically at the restaurant and even the staff is a family that rarely changes. The head office is located upstairs and it may have a structured and somewhat corporate feel, but I could see precious moments. From couples celebrating anniversaries, to tables for one, which you know used to be made for two, it is a special place.
It was a pioneer in Seattle’s fine dining scene and arguably invented it for the area. Times have changed so they can’t rely on the past to build a new clientele, but their efforts are persistent and new blood helps.
36 year old Jason Franey is Canlis Restaurant’s fifth-ever executive chef in 63 years. It can mean many things, but obviously few changes are made. Franey trained under Daniel Humm of 3-Michelin Star Eleven Madison Park (named #5 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013), although they worked together even prior at Campton Place in San Francisco. He joined Canlis December 2008, and since then he has been named one of Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs and The People’s Best New Chef Northwest. He’s also been a finalist for the James Beard Best Chef: Northwest award in 2012 and 2013.
I had the pleasure of meeting him and taking a tour of the kitchen and property, which anyone can do upon request. Although renovations have been made, there’s an old fashion feel and charm to it. Since the Canlis brothers took over from their parents, they have upgraded the interior design, plates, stemware, kitchen and most importantly, chef. Together they’ve given Canlis a new breath of life while keeping the heart and soul of the restaurant.
The menu was the same as the restaurant, in the sense that it was trying to please the old and the new, which is challenging. They kept some signature Canlis dishes including The Canlis Salad (optional to have it prepared table side), Peter Canlis’ Prawns, Peter Canlis’ Steak Tartare, Twice Baked Potato, and Canlis Soufflé, although minor changes have been made to improve the recipes. Unfortunately I missed out on these signatures by ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu, but I would go again to try them.
The Chef’s Tasting Menu is who Chef Franey is, so if you’re there for his talent and inventive food I would recommend this menu. However if you’re there for history and tradition and prefer to play it safe than the Canlis staples are still available. From grandmother’s recipes to modernist techniques, one would think the chef and owners play on opposite teams, which is far from the truth. There is emotional investment in the classics which are nostalgic for long-time customers, so it’s risky pulling it in a new direction too quickly, but they’ve been successful with the gradual changes and upgrade.
For the size of the restaurant and volume they do, I was surprised the food didn’t come out “banquet-like” or mass-produced. Their kitchen team rivals a busy hotel which allows them to pull off the all encompassing menu and cuisine, which Franey likes to call “geeked-out comfort food”.
It was a little New York in the context of Seattle and its New American meets Pacific Northwest cuisine. He does not specialize in molecular gastronomy, although the menu is driven by science and a variety of progressive techniques. He takes recognizable dishes, gives them eclectic flair using a mix of local and international ingredients, and presents a polished plate. The food is simple, but fine tuned, and he puts just enough components on the plate before they start to cancel each other out. Not all the dishes are created equal, but all were enjoyable and well prepared.
I came with high expectations and I was not disappointed, although I enjoyed the food more than the room due to personal taste for both. They invested heavily in the design of the restaurant over the years, and it is distinctly Pacific Northwest with its wilderness appeal, but I still found the food exceeding the structure and style of the room. For this caliber of restaurant, the service is one to be reckoned with and I wouldn’t be surprised if people came for that alone.
Canlis prides themselves on the past, and while that can get old, they continue to stay relevant. The modern vision initiated by third-generation Canlis brothers and Chef Franey has given the restaurant a new wave of hype impressing new generations and first-time visitors. On the surface it may seem like they are finding ways to keep up with the new, which may have been true at some point, but now they are the new.
The personal touches are constant reminders of the restaurant’s history, which was never really a humble beginning. They started on a strong foot, and although I’m unfamiliar of what happened in the time in between, I see it for what it is now. They may have gotten too comfortable and let themselves fall behind in past years, but they are aware when it happens and change it. It has over 60 years of experience and it shows.
Canlis is “old news” made new again and it hasn’t reinvented Seattle’s dining scene, but it’s revived itself and made heads turn once again. It is a comeback restaurant that has always been there, but has learned to preserve old memories rather than rely on them. I can’t criticize history and tradition, and those make them who they are, but it now strives on creating new memories and being better than its old self.
With restaurants like these (see Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, The Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn, Aura Restaurant at Nita Lake Lodge) I often find myself charmed by the history, or more impressed with the incredible views, but based on this menu and where I was sitting (centre of restaurant with a non-obstructive view) I couldn’t really tell you what I saw outside.
Note: The Chef’s Tasting Menu is 7 courses for $125. Photography by Brenda (some are mine).
On the table:
To be continued…
… sneak peek…