What’s it like to wait tables at one of Seattle’s most iconic restaurants? Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement was recently game for the challenge at longtime fine-dining destination Canlis — an especially daunting task. The family-owned Queen Anne establishment is well known for its impeccable, world class service, and it’s up for a 2019 James Beard Award in that very category (winners will be announced May 6). From the valet to the coatcheck to the waitstaff, everything about Canlis is perfectly coordinated. So it definitely seems like a dubious idea to send a novice into the front of the house lion’s den as a server for a night, even for the sake of journalism.
Clement did her best, though, with some nerve-wracking moments. She describes the experience during her shift as “terrifying,” and admits to not being too adept at remembering things or carrying precarious objects. At one point, she drops a macaron on the floor to the “pity and horror” of guests. Brian Canlis (whose grandfather opened the restaurant in 1950 and now co-owns the place with his brother, Mark) jokes to the writer, “The rule is if you drop it, you have to eat it.”
While the stunt is amusing, it also gives an intimate glimpse into the inner workings of one of Seattle’s best restaurants. Training is intense, as one would expect (there are dozens of Google documents to study about menu item details, and staffers are taught to say “thank you” in 14 different languages), but the culture is more relaxed, emphasizing connection over perfection. An annual Camp Canlis allows the staff to bond, with activities including beekeeping classes, laser tag, and open-mic nights.
When it’s time to greet guests at the restaurant, those familial bonds pay dividends, since every second and detail count (tablecloths are ironed even during service). There seems to be no angry shouting or dishes smashed in frustration (at least not in front of a reporter), but the tension described is palpable and it helps that people have each other’s backs. “It’s good to freak out,” one waiter said. “It keeps you on your toes and means you care.”
The main takeaway, though: Always tip servers generously. They deserve it.