As coronavirus rates spike around the United States after reopenings of restaurants and more, Seattle’s storied Canlis isn’t returning to indoor fine dining anytime soon. Instead, third-generation owners Brian and Mark Canlis say they’re opening “the safest restaurant in the country,” one with temperature checks for both staff and patrons, set amid tons of sand in the parking lot.

The Canlis brothers say that the latest data on the relative safety of outdoor dining in terms of reducing COVID-19 transmission guided their new iteration: the Canlis Crab Shack, opening in the restaurant’s parking lot starting next Thursday, serving an upscale version of a traditional crab feast for $59.95 per person by reservation only. Anyone without a mask will not be allowed on premises, and masks must be worn when not seated at the table, per Crab Shack rules.

Temperature checks — of both the staff before shifts and diners as they arrive — will be taken before lunch or dinner begins. Requiring patron temperature-taking is a step few restaurants have taken yet, but, Mark Canlis says, “It’s not a political statement — it just says we care about people.

“A temperature check is the new dress code for Canlis,” he continues. “It’s the thing you do to honor the people around you.”

Further coronavirus precautions for the Canlis Crab Shack: To keep contact as minimal as possible, it’s reservations only and ticketed in advance. Per current government mandate, tables are set at least six feet apart, accommodating parties of five or fewer. Tables also have built-in hand sanitizer pumps. The menu is a set one, the same for all parties, again to minimize contact. “You sit down and the food just starts coming,” Brian Canlis says. The number of staff serving any given table will be “greatly minimized,” a vast departure from the intensive indoor service of Canlis pre-COVID-19. “We’ve been engineering: How little can we touch the table?” he continues. “How can the guest communicate to us from a distance that they want service?” Payment will also be contact-free.

Canlis staff and the Canlis brothers have carried out construction themselves in the parking lot, spreading around several tons of sand and adding a wrecked speedboat as outdoor décor. Umbrellas and coverings allow service rain or shine, save for serious storms. The installation is a temporary one, for the next couple of months, they say. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the James Beard award-winning restaurant has already done stints serving burgers and fries as first a drive-through, then a drive-in movie theater. A dinner delivery service, instituted early on, continues now and into the foreseeable future. Fall may bring another project, yet to be determined.

“It’s clearly not Canlis,” Brian Canlis says. The restaurant’s team, he says, goes through a periodic exercise, “saying, ‘What does fine dining look like today?’ And we go ‘Ugh!’” A business model with seating at 50% capacity is not a profitable one, he says — a conclusion many restaurateurs at all levels in the industry have reached. But when it comes to Canlis in its original, high-end, service-intensive indoor form, “We have every intention of bringing it back…” he says. “The reality is it could be a year or two.”