Chris & Alice Canlis

May 1997

Food Arts presents the May 1997 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alice and Chris Canlis, wife and husband, for their fearless pruning of Canlis, the deep-rooted Seattle presence, and helping it turn a lustrous new leaf. Repeatedly moving the family’s 47-year-old restaurant forward with periodic updates and renovations while retaining its role as a loyally patronized Seattle institution has taken vision, certitude, and more than a fair share of high-rolling gambler’s risk. The Canlises completed the restaurant’s latest remodeling late last year, a $2-million face-lift that transformed the Cold War-era ambience into a “reflection of the year 2000,” Chris says (see page 108).

Canlis had undergone renovations and enlargements before, most recently in 1984, but this time it was different. Alice and Chris were confronted by a choice: sell the restaurant or press ahead. They laid the groundwork for an updated Canlis at a soul-searching family meeting in 1993 with their three sons: Matt, now 24; Mark, 22; Brian, 19. “We asked them if they were willing to risk our net worth to make the changes happen,” Chris recalls. “All five of us decided we were.”

The next step toward the new Canlis was elevating Alice from her favorite job as full-time mother to president of the restaurant’s management team. “Alice is the visionary; she sees what’s not there,” Chris says. “She’s a change agent.” As an example, Chris points to STAR (Seattle Top Area Restaurants), a marketing and support organization Alice formed with some of the region’s highly regarded independent restaurants.

“When we made the decision to move forward, we wanted to keep the restaurant and family intact and our influence in the community strong,” Alice says. “We didn’t want to change who we were, but we also knew we had a problem being seen as a stuffy, old, tired, smoking, jacket-required place.”

Seattle had few established à la carte restaurants when Chris’s father, Peter Canlis, opened a version of his three-year-old Waikiki success, The Canlis Broiler, on the mainland. The year was 1950, which was the first year since Prohibition that restaurants in Washington state were allowed to serve liquor by the drink. The restaurant’s grill-driven menu, open kitchen with a copper-hooded grill, kimono-clad Asian-American waitresses, attentive service, and magnificent views of Lake Union and downtown Seattle from its hillside perch attracted the city’s establishment, who marked life’s passages with ritual dinners at Canlis. With the latest changes, Chris, who took over the restaurant after his father’s death in 1977, and Alice hope to add a new generation of members to the Canlis club while retaining the loyalty of longtime customers.

“In the social sense, Canlis has always been regarded as snobbish,” says John Hinterberger, a chronicler of the city’s restaurant scene for The Seattle Times. “The renovations were done to help soften the restaurant’s image.”

“Looking around the country,” Chris says, “we saw that many restaurants that had been my father’s peer restaurants—those that provided fine dining, elegance, and were dressy—were dying off. We saw traditional restaurants that were hanging on to traditions yet losing their identity and others that were changing and losing their identity. We had to figure out how to bring the past into the future with out letting go of our foundation.”

While Alice ventured to rethink Canlis—including hiring a consultant to tweak the grill-heavy Pan-Pacific/Northwest menu—Chris worked to maintain the restaurant’s day-to-day operations. “Canlis is a celebration that flows out of the dynamics of our marriage,” Alice says. “Like us, it’s steady and dependable, yet like us, it’s also vital, fun, and full of spice.”

The couple met on a blind date in Alice’s hometown of Pensacola, Florida where Chris was serving as a Navy pilot and flying instructor after graduating from Stanford University in 1967. They married in 1971. After receiving an M.B.A. in finance from Stanford, Chris worked at Wells Fargo Bank for two years. But when his father became ill in 1976, he returned to the family business, which at the time included Canlis restaurants in Honolulu, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon. The satellite properties have since been closed; the flagship restaurant has been steered toward the millennium.

“We’re buckled in for the ride together,” Alice says. “Our numbers speak for themselves, but I wouldn’t want those numbers without our relationship.”