The Next Generation: Seattle's Canlis

By Kathleen Squires  |  August 15, 2013

Food and family go hand-in-hand and some families take their love of dining beyond the kitchen table. The Canlis family of Canlis restaurant in Seattle has proffered four generations of restaurateurs. Known for its elegant service, stunning Lake Union setting and award-winning chef Jason Franey, the restaurant opened in its current location in 1950. We chatted with present owner Mark Canlis - who operates the restaurant with his brother, Brian - about the family’s deep history in dining.

Zagat: Did your parents encourage you or dissuade you from going into the restaurant business?

Mark Canlis: Ours actually dissuaded us. Our belief as a family was that the likelihood that any of us boys - I have two brothers - the likelihood of any of us being qualified to run a restaurant like that, or of any of us wanting to do so would be very low. And our parents were big believers that they should just spend their time raising us and not focusing on what it is that we were going do in life. Moreover, they didn't want us thinking at all that we were entitled to something like that. And so, it was always assumed that we would go off and do our own thing. Our "own thing" was welcome to be the restaurant. But if we really wanted it, we would have to try out for it, we would have to have the restaurant accept us in that way, and whoever was running it at the time.

Zagat: So, initially, were you reluctant or eager to get into the family business? Did the dissuading kind of make you want to do it?

MC: It made us open to it. But I also think it just gave us some kind of freedom. I think freedom is really an important thing. I think entitlement is a really important thing to stay away from. It was just kind of there, frankly. It was something that Mom and Dad loved and believed in and worked hard at. It was clearly a piece of who we were. You grow up with that and it's a healthy piece of your identity. So, yeah, we came back to it willingly. I came back in 2003. Brian came back in about 2005. He, a little bit more hesitantly than I did. He was very curious about it, but he wasn't sold. So we created this department for him, “The Department of Adventure.” His whole job was to explore things for our company that none of us would have the time to do otherwise. He did it for a year and he fell in love with working with and on the company.

Zagat:  How is your approach to the restaurant business similar or different to your parents' approach?

MC: Well, it's both similar and different. On the similarity side, what qualified us for the job was the very fact that we shared the same values. On the different side, I think that it's just a new generation. We all bring sort of those externalities with us - what's happening in the economy, what's happening in fine dining, what's happening financially inside the company and outside. I think our approach has been to meld two generations before us. One of mom and dad's biggest things was to differentiate from generation one.

Mom and Dad changed it from a restaurant that was focused solely on the ownership. Back in those days, a restaurant owner was what a chef is today. It moved that spotlight from the ownership to the guest. They did it in the late '70s. That turned out to be a pretty prescient, strategic move. Ours has been to embrace that, but also to also embrace the first generation, which was a lot of visionary of what is fine dining? How can we change it? What should it become? It's all just a continuing part of the story.

Zagat: Your grandfather is credited as the first to implement team-style service when he opened a restaurant in Hawaii previous to Canlis. Do you still use that system?

MC: Oh, yeah. That was a big deal. In the '40s and ‘50s, fine dining was different. It came out of the hotel era and they were pulling all their cues from Europe. And then, there were servers who were almost always men, typically French or Italian. Women did not have much of a role. There was no way a lady could become a captain or a lead server or something like that. Our grandfather was groundbreaking because he would hire Japanese women and make them the heads of a fine dining restaurant. It was kind of crazy and in particular, because the Japanese weren't really looked well upon after World War II. So that was forward-thinking. He just loved who they were and the way they served. There was a real humility to it and a real grace and ease to it. And they refused to keep their tips, so the whole tip pool idea, as far as we know, originates out of that restaurant in Hawaii in 1946 because these women were like, "No, of course we wouldn't keep our tips. We didn't earn them ourselves. We earned them as a team." That's Japanese culture. So they created this tip pool and that was considered crazy. And still, that's a huge piece of who we are.

We don't, obviously, just hire Japanese women anymore. But even today, the uniforms are all lined in that old silk of the kimonos. The idea is that our servers keep that close to them and that when they first receive their jacket when they become an employee at Canlis, there's a lot of training and a lot of story told around why that kimono silk was important and necessary to good service in the restaurant. And there's still a tip pool.

Zagat: Is it difficult for you to buck trends - for example, to remain formal in an era when fine dining restaurants are skewing more casual?

MC: I think that's half the story. Sure, there's a real casual movement. A lot of that came out of 9/11 where we wanted comfort, we wanted security and we wanted things that were known. I also think it's a function of the industry pushing toward chefs. I love chefs. I work with them and they're fantastic. Most of them don't know jack about service. That's why you've seen a more casual style restaurant - because as the temple moves to the back of the house and the focus moves to the back of the house, there's no one in the front taking care of the things that need to be taken care of. But it's a beautiful thing when someone's taking care of the front and someone's taking care of the back, and they're working together in harmony and unison.

We've had to fight the dress code thing a little bit. It's actually not that hard when you do it with guests and not at them. There's that sort of a thing where you can invite them into something cool, something authentic. And authenticity has never gone away. And our goal is to keep the restaurant authentic.

Zagat: What do you think is the one key to continuing a restaurant legacy, successfully?

MC: The family has to decide if the family is the most important thing. When I consult with other families or help them work through this sort of generational transfer thing, that is the one thing that we tell them. If the family is not number one, and if you're willing to lose the family - fine. If the business is more important - fine, great. Just have the guts to say that out loud to everybody. Family legacy is not as much about accomplishment as it is about character.

Zagat: Do you want your children to take over the restaurant someday?

MC: Wouldn't that be special? But I don't know. It would be like receiving an incredible Christmas present that you never knew you wanted, but when you opened it, you were like, "Oh, why does this feel so good?"