Canlis is such a special occasion destination that it qualifies as a Seattle bucket list activity. It’s been the fanciest restaurant in the city since opening in 1950, and even though nothing aesthetically has changed about the iconic dining room overlooking glistening Lake Union, a trip to Canlis feels different from years past.
While the restaurant is still a marvel in mid-century modern architecture filled with chic furniture, folks dressed to the nines, and palpable adrenaline, every encounter with staff seems markedly more down to earth. On our previous visits before the pandemic, servers used to steam tablecloths with portable irons and deliver the same script to every table like programmed robots. Now, sommeliers crack jokes about getting hammered on recent trips to Manhattan as they pop the top of your hazy pét-nat with a cheap wine key. Plates are placed on the table with synchronized precision like before, but it just happens seamlessly in the background instead of with overwhelming pomp and circumstance. In other words, Canlis has chilled the f*ck out.
This relaxed shift feels more aligned with the parts of Canlis we love the most, a.k.a. the Canlis that puts on summer pop-up parties in the parking lot, with a hot tub, mai tai slushies, and the best nachos we’ve ever had. When Canlis puts on a fine dining show that also doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s both a good meal and a good time.
For $165 per person, you’ll choose three options from three different courses. Each course (except dessert) has a meat, fish, and vegetable option. While the food here doesn’t blow us out of our chairs, the portions are a little bigger, and the menu is much more memorable than what Canlis used to serve—which makes sense when you consider that they hired a new chef in 2021. An amuse-bouche of milk toast sandwiching scallop mousse and frizzled leeks is something we wish was served by the basket at every dive bar in town. We’re also fans of the marbled striploin, complete with a sticky, charred Walla Walla onion that's accompanied by a saucer of beefy jus with wild rice for sipping. Meanwhile, dishes like caramelized sunchokes with meyer lemon followed by squashy cubes of pumpkin glazed in sake lees aren't just meatless modifications—they make this place a vegetarian destination. And chewy slices of smoked cacao nib nougat draped over a heap of sweet milk ice cream would be a near-perfect dessert, if only it hadn't gotten a little soupy in transit.
There are other places around town where you can get a big-ticket dinner that tastes better, like Archipelago or Cafe Juanita. But at Canlis, it’s really about the whole package. You’re not just here to pay way more than you usually would for a small morsel of steak. You’re also here to wear a gala-type outfit that would otherwise rot in a closet corner with your forgotten Halloween costumes. You’re here to grab a cocktail in the lounge before dinner and listen to the classical pianist play baroque takes on Taylor Swift songs. You’re here to have at that bacon-laden minty romaine salad with croutons and pecorino matchsticks that’s been on the menu for 70 years. Don’t expect to be stunned speechless, but do expect to share a fantastic night out with anyone from your betrothed to your boss. Especially if your boss picks up the check.
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The menu changes seasonally, but this is an example of what might be available.
You’ll receive a few complimentary bites at the beginning of the meal: raw kanpachi wrapped in shiso leaf, a chawanmushi with mushrooms in a beefy jus, and two little fried milk bread croutons sandwiching scallop mousse topped with fried leek swizzles. While the shiso overpowers the kanpachi, the scallop mousse snack is excellent in its creaminess and crunch. If only we could ring a bell at any point throughout the evening to have someone bring us one.
Another treat is a bowl of spot prawns topped with thinly sliced oca root, the latter being a vegetable we’ve never seen at any other restaurant in Seattle. Even though the spot prawns are a bit forgettable, it’s hard not to enjoy them.
The Canlis Salad has certainly stood the test of time, but at the end of the day, it’s a pretty standard pile of greens. The combination of crisp romaine, fresh mint, halved cherry tomatoes, bacon, and pecorino romano in a tangy, eggy dressing is a lovely BLT in a bowl. We just wish we could get it for lunch on a weekday with grilled chicken for $12 instead of it being included in a $165 tasting menu.
Gone are the days of Canlis serving skimpy portion sizes. This is a very substantial plate of toasty sunchokes that come in a meyer lemon sauce with crackly grilled nori sheets. It’s kind of like what would happen if sunchokes became home fries.
While the fish here is cooked perfectly and the dashi broth (made with $100-per-sheet kombu) is soothing and pure, the lack of punchy flavor makes this dish verge on forgettable. You’re better off ordering the sunchokes for your first course.
photo credit: Canlis
Canlis nails this striploin. The outer sear is even and light, with perfectly medium-rare beef the color of ripe watermelon slices throughout. The lack of char on the meat is supplemented by a very gratuitously charred Walla Walla onion that’s so sweet we could have eaten it for dessert. Plus, there’s an accompanying meaty broth filled with wild rice that’s meant for sipping throughout the course. Resist the urge to guzzle it.
This is the vegetarian entree that could make a meat-eater jealous from across the table. These pumpkin cubes are perfectly cooked, and slick with a glaze of sake lees. The whole thing tastes like a delicious mashup of squash and fermentation.
She’s not a looker, as the shaved smoked cacao nib nougatine appears steam-rolled over an unidentified mound. But good gravy is it delicious. Between the chew of the loaded nougat and the scoop of pure milk ice cream underneath, we’d take six more servings if we could.