Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
[Photo: S. Pratt]
Maître d’ and Director of Service David Kim has been with Canlis for over twelve years. We asked him what it's like getting a table at Canlis right now and the the art of front of house.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
My parents emigrated from Korea in the early 70’s and decided to make Seattle their home. I have lived in this city my entire life and have worked in a dozen different restaurants in the area. In 1999, after college, I started employment at Canlis as a server’s assistant. In 2007 I took the position as Service Director and Maitre’d.
It's 8pm on a Saturday. How long's the wait for a party with no reservations?
2 hours. Thankfully, by that time, Walt Wagner is jamming on the piano. James MacWillam’s cocktails rank among the best in the city, but there is no comparison to Walt. He’s insane. Dinner is worth the wait, but Walt makes the wait just as memorable as the rest of the evening.
Saturdays are our busiest night, so it’s not the best night to walk in and find a table. We do serve the full menu in the lounge, though, and because it’s a bit less formal, many guests prefer it.
Any celebrities you care to name?
Yup. That’s one of the fun parts about a famous restaurant. The celebrities that I enjoy hearing about most are the ones that came to Canlis before my time. Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gretta Garbo. The Duke claimed table #1 (the owner’s table) as his personal table but Peter Canlis wouldn’t have it. That was a different time, but today, many of the stories are the same.
Tell us about some of your favorite regulars?
We have so many loyal and regular guests. Their stories have written history in this place – but we make it a point not to share names. Relationships are based on trust, and the first thing they trust us with is their name. Canlis doesn’t take that lightly.
I’ll never forget one regular in particular who insisted I go to New York to meet the finest Maitre’d in the country. When he heard we’d be visiting for the Beard Awards he made arrangements for a few of us to dine at La Grenouille. I had no idea what to expect and I was pretty nervous being in New York for the first time. We were welcomed by Maitre’d Armel Gren, and he quickly transformed my nervousness into suddenly feeling like royalty. I learned so much just by observing his composure, mannerisms, and kindness. Armel is a class act, a role model. It was an experience that I will never forget. We have much to learn from our guests.
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
Window requests. Honesty, being next to a window is not always the best table in the house. The biggest challenge is creating the right feel in the dining room. There are so many personal preferences and details to consider when figuring out how to seat 200 guests. Table location is important, politics, even preferences on noise levels. A Maitre’d has to understand the purpose of the dinner. Occasions such a proposals, business dinners or a family gathering all have different ideal tables. Sometimes the situation calls for a round table, or an intimate table, or for a table that seats side by side vs. across. Some prefer to sit closer to the piano and others away from it. It’s a puzzle. It’s like painting. I love it.
Finding balance can be a challenge. I love what I do and I enjoy the high commitment that it demands, but turning work off can sometimes be tough. It’s a rush for sure, but something has got to give – usually, that’s my social life.
What are your personal favorite things on the menu?
It depends on the season: The 26-ingredient miner’s lettuce salad with bibb lettuce dressing screams spring. The truffled egg with risotto and white truffles is a decadent holiday gift beyond description. But chef has this seared diver scallop dish with Hawaiian prawns, tapioca, fava beans, vin jaune and mint. It’s tight. That, or the muscovy duck. The duck is ridiculous.
What about when you're not at work?
I golf, even though I am not that good at it. It’s the fresh air, the constant tweaking to become better and the time away with friends. Then I go out. Have to eat, have to see what’s happening in the industry. There are so many great people in this business – so many great meals. And, if I’m truthful—Carcassonne, a tile-based German board game. Board game or iphone – I’m totally hooked. Brian Canlis is my arch rival. We’re both pretty good?if you want in, let me know!
So, what's your most important gatekeeper tool?
My most important tool is a relationally intuitive staff. Many of my team have never worked in restaurants before. We hire them for their emotional intelligence, their character, their ability to relate. Canlis has always had an incredible service staff. I’d be lying if I didn’t give them the credit here: they are intuitive, caring, perceptive ninja-relaters who give me great intel on what the guest is expecting, and how we can best serve them.
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