One of the last people to sit at Table 36 was a young airman who called Canlis from overseas to make a reservation for himself and a date.
He had saved up to buy her a dress and take her out while he was home on leave. He wanted her to know how much he appreciated that she stuck by him while he was deployed.
When the restaurant’s owners — and some guests sitting near the young couple — heard the story, they made sure that young airman didn’t pay a penny for the night out.
Perched above Lake Union, the landmark restaurant is known for the swagger of late founder Peter Canlis. But third-generation owners, brothers Mark and Brian Canlis, developed their business strategy in another type of service — the military.
“People … want to credit Peter Canlis for creating this incredible restaurant, and he did and that’s worth saying,” said Mark, a commissioned Air Force captain, but for the past 40 years, Chappy Creighton has had as much of an influence on the classic restaurant.
Creighton, a Marine Corps chief warrant officer who spent 35 years in the service, was the brothers’ other grandfather. Creighton died in 2010, but his “classic Southern-conservative military values,” Mark said, live on in the restaurant’s culture.
Both Canlis brothers are military veterans and celebrate the confluence of Peter’s and Chappy’s influence.
“It isn’t either/or,” Mark said. “What if you had all the swagger and sex appeal and the ‘50s vibe of Peter Canlis, and all the heart, hospitality and warmth of our other grandfather?”
That marriage of styles is working. Canlis has been celebrated as a restaurant of the year, best chef and grand winner by various organizations including Food & Wine magazine, Gourmet magazine and Wine Spectator.
Canlis also won its first James Beard award in May after 10 nominations, and was the only winner in Washington state.
“If you study food as this precious fine dining thing, you’re doing a great disservice,” Mark said. “I remember eating grasshoppers at boot camp and thinking, ‘I am so dang hungry.’ It sucks, but you learn to like the way that it’s hard.”
That perspective — appreciate things even when they’re hard — has helped the Canlis brothers continue to grow the family business. The company had $9.5 million in sales last year — an impressive year for a restaurant — and has 95 employees.
The family’s history of military service goes as far back as World War II, but the brothers joined the service out of necessity.
They had $25,000 to put toward their college degrees, about enough for a year. Their father, Chris Canlis, who served as a Navy instructor pilot, told them they’d have to come up with the rest of their tuition.
The brothers earned ROTC scholarships at Cornell and were commissioned Air Force captains. In joining Canlis, they transitioned from one type of service to another.
“The key to running a restaurant is running a great team,” Brian said.
They learned how to lead a team while serving in the Air Force.
“There’s not a lot of jobs out there where your first day out of college you have something like 60 or 70 people underneath you,” Brian said.
That forced them into leadership positions at a young age.
“You’re forced to make high-pressure decisions,” Brian said, “to think on your feet, to think about your troops and all those things we do every day in this restaurant.”
When they returned to Canlis, the brothers started doing military-inspired staff meetings. They also gave the restaurant’s departments military-sounding names, like the Department of Growth and Appreciation and the Ministry of Service and Hospitality.
“I learned more about running a restaurant in the Air Force than I did at Cornell, one of the best schools in the world for restaurants,” Mark said. “The strategy is around people and leadership, how to connect with someone and communicate with them and disagree, love and honor and serve them.”
The brothers and their father, Chris, are among the 575,000 veterans living in Washington state, according to figures from Veterans Affairs. The state is home to 45,000 active duty military personnel, according to the Department of Defense.
Canlis operates with a code of honor inspired by Chappy Creighton. When he returned from the war, he made it a practice to buy a drink for anyone who came by in uniform. Mark and Brian, and many guests at Canlis, carry on the practice.
“That’s what’s special about it,” Mark said. “People are still out there on the front lines. There’s no ticker-tape parade, but it’s still their lives, and they don’t make a lot of money, and they don’t get thanked a lot.”