When Mark and Brian Canlis announced in March 2020 that they were closing their iconic window-filled dining room for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, it marked only the third time — outside of remodels — in more than 70 years that Canlis’ dining room went dark. Canlis closed for one night after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and for one night in September 2015 right after the Ride the Ducks crash. But during the pandemic, Canlis’ closure lasted nearly 500 nights.
That ends this month. Canlis will reopen July 1, with a new chef, Aisha Ibrahim, leading the kitchen, ushering in a new era for one of Seattle’s oldest, most storied restaurants.
“It’s with so much pride and a deep sense of gratitude that we invite you back to dinner, back to a restaurant you used to know,” Mark wrote in a letter announcing Canlis’ reopening. “Or maybe you’ve never known it. I can promise you this: it wants to know you.”
The Canlis brothers took advantage of the dining room closure to remodel — in ways big and small, from the kitchen to the flatware and dishes on each table — and brought in an archivist to catalog and organize the 70 years of Canlis history.
But even though the dining room was closed for 15 months, they “never stopped serving,” Brian Canlis says. Perhaps more than any other restaurant in Seattle, Canlis had the resources and creativity to use the pandemic pause as an opportunity to experiment, the brothers say; and they tried 18 business models during that time: drive-thru burgers, a bagel shed, delivery, CSA boxes, to-go cocktails, piano livestream, a bingo show, a drive-in movie theater, the Canlis Crab Shack, Canlis Community College, a Swiss-themed yurt village, Canlis Canteen, the Camp Canlis-themed yurt village, care packages, Tree House, The Weekender, a yurt village drive-thru, and a newsletter called “The Spam.”
Some were more profitable than others. “Crab Shack was just a lost enterprise,” Brian says. “We spent a lot of money building it and we realized it wasn’t making money every day. It’s hard to pour your heart and soul into something that is failing financially. It was winning when it came to joy. The community loved it, our staff had jobs, those are wins.”
Each new pivot came with unique branding and a full website. Some had merchandise. At 14,000, the Canlis Community College had a larger enrollment than the University of Washington’s incoming freshman class, Brian says with a chuckle.
“This year was an experience in having the freedom to be wildly creative and create different business models that we never would’ve been able to do otherwise,” Brian said.
Canlis’ creative pandemic pivots made national headlines and helped the restaurant retain its full waitstaff — a point of pride considering the sheer number of restaurant workers who lost jobs during the pandemic. The national press elevated Canlis to a level where Brian says they’re now poised “to lead the conversation in this country” about what fine dining should look like because “people are looking at Canlis in a way they’ve never looked at us before.”
But above all, Mark says the third-generation family-owned restaurant remains committed to the ethos of founder Peter Canlis. The reason Canlis exists, he says, is to “inspire people to turn toward one another. We figure, the best way to do that, if you’re us, is to run the best possible restaurant we can.”
We spoke to the Canlis brothers about the future of their restaurant and what fine dining means in the post-COVID-19 era.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you want people to feel when they step back into the Canlis dining room?
Brian: The recipe that works in this country if you’re going to survive as an old restaurant is to keep repeating the thing that you did the first time that made you famous. You’re basically selling nostalgia, which is not a bad thing; it’s super fun, people love it. They want to have that same dish they had 10 years ago on their anniversary because they want to relive that moment.
And [while] that’s a cool business model, it’s not what our grandfather [Peter Canlis] wanted to create … he was a rebel and this place had a rebellious spirit. We want to keep pursuing being one of the best restaurants in the world. Not trying to be a restaurant from 1950 or 1960 or whatever decade you connected with. We are the same family with the same values and the same heart, you can connect to that. But when it comes to what you’re going to eat or experience or style of service, we’re always going to change it.
Mark: I think the best compliment we ever got was, “This place is better than it’s ever been,” and, “I love how you’ve kept it the same.” Meanwhile, everything is different. What they’re connecting with is, “This place was special to me back then, and it feels special to me now. Thank you.”
Are you thinking about what the future of fine dining will look like?
Brian: We’re actively trying to create it.
Mark: It doesn’t matter what we did in the past. It matters how we honor it, how we respect it. But also, you’re not raising your children to be your grandparents, you’re raising them to be your children, based off the legacy of those grandparents.
Brian: You always say the ratio of the rearview mirror to the windshield is about right. You have to be able to look back. It’s important for context, but it’s not how you drive. Which is why a lot of old restaurants don’t exist. The rearview mirror is way too big.
Mark: That’s when you find men in clip-on bow ties and tuxedos pretending it’s the ’40s. I love to walk into an old steakhouse, but that’s not our thing. That never was Peter’s thing. He wanted to be cutting-edge on food, service and the feel of a place. That’s what we’re supposed to do today.
You recently hired a new chef, Aisha Ibrahim. The reopening and this new menu, does it feel like another pivot?
Brian: Creatively, it does.
Mark: It feels like the grandest thing we’ve ever done. It’s the hardest. Imagine saying to Broadway, “OK you shut down a year and a half ago and now you have a new play.”
Brian: Running a fine dining restaurant for 200 people a night is extraordinarily complex.
Mark: It takes all of us doing our very best just to run it night to night. We want to make it better than it was. So you’re shutting down some famous Broadway show and opening up a new one and say this one will be better. That’s our business plan. Every night we do that.
How did you decide it was time for fine dining again?
Mark: In the same way Canlis was a little early to the game in terms of shutting down and switching gears, I think we wanted to be on the other end of that spectrum coming back. All the time staying humble. I think it’s time. I do think fine dining is what Seattle needs. We need to start turning on in ways that bring people together.
Brian: We love science, and you look at science, it’s safe. So fine dining? It’s what the city needs again. We need to bring back time around the table in the most considered, elegant fashion. People need to celebrate. When we opened reservations the other day, we sold 4,000 seats in the first hour or two. People are ready, they want it.
How are you going to welcome guests, Canlis style, while incorporating COVID-19-safe protocols?
Mark: Right now [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines] say no one needs to wear a mask if you’re fully vaccinated. Our crew is. So we may wear masks, we may not, it depends on what the governor says and CDC says. We’ve thinned the dining room out with more space between tables. We’re not doing large tables [six people max per table] and not doing private parties in the beginning. We’ll have small parties in a dining room that feels gracious. It will feel like Canlis on a slow night. As things open up we’ll get back to our normal show.