Canlis is a Seattle institution and one of the most famous restaurants in the city. It is also a bit of an enigma, in the way that many fine Seattle restaurants are enigmas for someone who grew up far from the west coast. The enigma is the informality mixed with formality. Time and time again, I have put on nice clothes for an intimate dinner at an expensive restaurant only to be seated next to someone in shorts and a t-shirt, or to be confronted with a waiter who wants to be part of the dinner conversation. This would be perfectly reasonable in many restaurants, but not one that costs over $100 per person, in my opinion.

Canlis has a reputation as one of the more stuffy restaurants in Seattle, proclaiming on their website:

Canlis is a fine dining restaurant. Most men feel comfortable in a suit or sport coat. They are not required, but they are encouraged. Certainly, casual attire (jeans, tennis shoes, short sleeve shirts) is not appropriate. The golden rule: there is no such thing as overdressed!

I was heartened by this, and looked forward to our meal there. Of course, because this is Seattle, the restaurant does not enforce this policy and so, in my suit, we were seated next to a party of people in jeans and casual shirts. Luckily, the balance of people’s attire in the room was more on the formal side, so I did not feel too out of place although I was dressed more formally than anyone else in the restaurant under 60. I did feel somewhat overdressed.

The atmosphere does lend an air to the stuffyness: It does feel like a formal restaurant. The staff is numerous and well dressed, the decor is tasteful. When you pull up, a valet rushes to your door. You are greeted as you enter and your coat is whisked off your back and put away.

This formal atmosphere was fairly destroyed, however, by the wait staff who were overly friendly, made mistakes with our order and made some fairly large blunders for a restaurant proclaiming itself as a fine dining establishment. Twice a course was served when one of our party was not at the table. This might seem like a minor complaint, but it is the kind of thing you don’t expect in a restaurant like this. There were a lot of small things that really destroyed the atmosphere: food was served to the wrong person; one server kept bumping a person at our table while serving another table; one of the items we ordered was forgotten by the server and then delivered after the course was complete. You could pardon these kind of mistakes in a lesser restaurant. We certainly haven’t experienced this very often in this price range. Other “formal” touches were there: napkins were replaced whenever someone left the table; silverware was exchanged at the end of each course.

One other thing was just odd. There were a lot of families with small children there. I have nothing against this, but I’m not used to seeing it in this kind of establishment. Especially in these kinds of numbers. There was even a crying infant there. I love children, but it really does take away from a high-end meal to see a child pretending to play the drums with his silverware at the next table, or to hear a child screaming.

All of these minor quibbles (and they are minor taken individually) could be excused if the food was exquisite. The food was quite good. Of my whole tasting menu, I had only one complaint: my scallops were not cleaned adequately; there was some very unpleasant grit as I ate them. However, they were cooked perfectly, so that is a minor complaint. The whole menu was quite good and was certainly equal to other restaurants in its price range.

Overall, I have a hard time recommending this restaurant. I think it would be a great place to bring an out of town relative if you want an interesting view and your guest is enough of a foodie that you want to skip Cutters, Salty’s or Pallisades. Beyond that, I don’t see a real reason to go there again. The food is good, but there is better in the city at the same price or less. The atmosphere is nice, but not an attraction in itself.

Going out for really high-end food should really be a treat. It should be an experience that you want to savor, to remember fondly. It should make an event extra special. Life is too short and money is too precious to feel like you’ve dressed up for nothing and thrown away huge amounts of money on a meal that was not worth it.

I didn’t hate Canlis, but I didn’t love it either; and for food at this price, it means I really can’t recommend it.

Canlis in Seattle

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