It’s not getting any less fancy or expensive, but Canlis, that jeans intolerant special-occasions mecca overlooking Lake Union, is sort of reinventing itself. In the past year, with brothers Brian and Mark officially at the helm of the fifty-eight-year old family biz, they’ve hired a new chef (Jason Franey) pastry chef (Neil Robertson) and bar manager: James MacWilliams.
MacWilliams, who has that understated affability of which all great bartenders are in possession (and which Tom Cruise couldn’t begin to even imitate) was hired to expand bar service; There are also plans to expand the lounge’s actual bar, which is beautiful—backlit bottles lined up on a mid-century style stone slat wall—but diminutive. The idea is to attract a younger crowd, normally repelled by the restaurant’s high food prices and anachronistic dress code, to the cocktail lounge, where they can take advantage of a classy upscale setting without taking out a second mortgage.
Personally, I’m sold. The lounge has a flickering candlelit sort of beauty that’s pretty much unmatched in Seattle, the staff is professional but coolly so, and MacWilliams makes the best Old Fashioned (featuring homemade bitters and a macerated cherry steeped in Five Spice) I have ever tasted. I think it costs $12, but it’s absolutely massive and superstrong, so think value. Plus, hanging out in the Canlis Lounge on a dark evening in January is at once luxurious and comfortable. Not as comfortable as it would be if I was wearing jeans, but comfortable.
If you go, get MacWilliams to tell you the story of how he got hired. Not only is it funny, it’s a peak inside the idiosyncratic upscale Seattle institution that is Canlis. And let’s face it, as good as the cocktails are, isn’t that really what we’re here for?