One of the biggest Seattle restaurant stories of the decade has been the death of high-end dining—see Lampreia, see Rover’s, see Le Gourmand—and the hushed, formal, superexpensive paradigm they represented. It’s a paradigm left over from the era when we visited restaurants for special occasions. Now we visit restaurants for other occasions, like “the fridge is empty,” seeking places with more quotidian appeal.
Until an anniversary comes along. At which point we go straight to the two special-occasion classics which have enclosed the region like an elegant pair of midcentury bookends for, by Seattle standards, nigh on forever. Cafe Juanita, the Italian standard-bearer founded in north Kirkland by Peter Dow in 1980, has been run by James Beard Award–winning chef Holly Smith since 2000.
Canlis is the Continental-Northwest stunner overlooking Lake Union, now in its third generation of family ownership since 1950. For decades, through paradigm shift and recession, these two have been the changeless exceptions proving the rule.
Until, in recent months, both changed.
In Cafe Juanita’s case, not a moment too soon. What started out as a charming converted house tucked along a greenbelt across from Juanita Beach had aged unhappily, its entryway marked by a few scrawny bushes and a screaming need for paint. Inside, the dappled woodland outlook competed for guests’ attention with dated fixtures and office-park ceiling tiles whose ugliness was almost exquisite.
“I’d been harboring guilt and shame over the place,” Smith now admits, saying she and her staff had been MacGyvering the room together for some time. “And guests had been getting dressed up for us!”
Finally last year when Smith was able to buy the building from Dow, the first thing she did was close for six months so she could dress the restaurant to match.
Even from the parking lot the result was clear. Spotlit ornamental grasses in copper pots now compose an entry at once momentous and restrained, its wide door leading into a sleeker, more contemporary interior with an opened-up kitchen placing the cooks on display. The host greeted us with the textbook aloofness I’ve long associated with service at Cafe Juanita, but our waiter was all affable attention.
Cafe Juanita finally befits a special occasion. Better yet, it befits its own food, which remains a slightly reconstructed homage to classic Tuscan and Piedmontese preparations. I spent half of dinner wondering if the food really was more intriguing than before the makeover or if the classier quarters just made it seem that way. Some was classic: like the filet of heirloom tomato arrayed with curls of zucchini and pools of fine olive oil, lavishments of silky burrata lending subtle shadings of cream and salt, or a rich tagliatelle loaded with chanterelles. Some was fascinating, like the generously portioned Anderson Valley rack of lamb paired with green beans in a swell idea of a bagna cauda sauce and studded with plump thyme-roasted blackberries.
Cafe Juanita has never been flawless: Smith has a sixth sense for conception, but those conceptions sometimes falter on their way to the plate. Our lamb had been cooked too long and the sage-butter tajarin pasta had too high a butter-to-sage ratio. The closest to perfect we came was in the nectarine crostata for dessert, whose flaky crust pastry chef Junko Mine utterly nailed.
Looking around the room, however, it was apparent that the dressed-up patrons on business dinners and, yes, anniversaries, weren’t measuring the precise distance between terrific and perfect. They were too busy celebrating.
The dress-up quotient is even higher at Canlis, the only restaurant in Seattle which legitimately rates as mythic. Valets remember your car without a claim ticket! The restaurant enforces a dress code! (When you make your reservation, the host gently notes that gentlemen should wear jackets.) The restaurant’s fabled midcentury architecture at once struts and recedes to forefront the breath-catching panorama of Lake Union. Fleets of staff are at once ubiquitous and invisible, lighting from out of nowhere whenever your napkin needs refolding—uncanny timing, not a whisper of hurry.
Canlis isn’t simply a restaurant, it’s a shrine to the ideal of perfect hospitality; looming so much larger than anything else in town it tends to, like Mount Rainier, make its own weather. Diners’ expectations become part of the experience. Honestly, some look a little nervous. Couples are seated side by side, to abet romancing and view watching—and, someone’s got to say it, awkward neck cramping. Add to the old-school clientele and the schmancy surroundings all the tropes of ’50s fine dining—the piano man turning the Sting oeuvre into flawless elevator music, the waiters tossing Canlis salads tableside—and you can almost hear the high hopes of serious diners crashing and burning at the door.
But Canlis’s singular genius is that it appears to promise one idiom even as it delivers its opposite—a sleight of hand its new chef continues, even furthers. In 2008, when brothers Mark and Brian Canlis lured chef Jason Franey from big-deal New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park, they were throwing down a gauntlet: Canlis’s food would be relevant. Indeed, Franey’s buttery, modernist-edged Continental repertoire thrust Canlis onto the national stage.
So when Franey announced that he was leaving, the brothers kicked into high gear to replace him. Enter Brady Williams, a 29-year-old from a gastronomically high-end Brooklyn pizzeria, whose prevailing culinary inclinations come from his half-Japanese heritage.
What that means on the plate is pristine Northwest ingredients prepared to reveal their intensity. You can order Williams’s seven-course tasting menu or fill in your own three- or four-course blanks; a starter might be a plate of two squat carrots, braised in a heady Southeast Asian spice blend and served with a relish of heirloom apple and a confit of the nutty new It-green celtuce. On top: dehydrated carrot. On the plate: dollops of cashew “pudding” that’s actually, like the whole dish, entirely vegan. Their flavors were original and satisfying for the sort of aficionado who would notice the complex linger of savory in the aftertaste. The sort not much in evidence in this special occasion house.
What saves this from being a killing disconnect is the persistent down-to-earthness of the staff, which cuts through both of Canlis’s parodic extremes—the outdated formality, the pretentious foodiness—with a knowing wink. Our waiter, arch and food smart at our table, slid right into appropriate old-school graciousness with the 48th anniversary at the next.
That folksy, meet-you-where-you-are service can get a diner through a lot of tiny carrot plates. Which, as you eat them, you admire for their sheer flawlessness of execution and stark, almost avant-garde aesthetic. Two spears of aged-to-funky duck breast, very intentionally finished over white birch charcoal for smokiness and served with onion sauces and tart neon quince puree. Tribal-caught black cod seared to aching perfection with bonito emulsion and a traditional Japanese seasoning of dried fish, seaweed, and pork skin. Steak tartare, emboldened with horseradish and fish sauce and kelp powder: delectable.
Gastronomically it’s hard to overstate what a revolution this represents for a restaurant that began with Asian leanings, but which had been inclining westward for decades. The warhorses remain—Canlis salad, Peter Canlis prawns, souffle for dessert—but Williams generally replaces rich food with pure food, a Continental-leaning paradigm with a Japanese one, a focus on elegance with a focus on intensity.
And that’s not the only change at the old girl; soon a lounge remodel will further challenge the Canlis status quo. But make no mistake. The Canlis status quo isn’t going anywhere. As with Cafe Juanita, its stock only rises as special occasion restaurants grow rarer. What does appear to be changing is what an increasingly sophisticated public asks of its formal destinations. They can be pricey, they can be throwbacky, they can even be flawed.
But for them to endure in this new age of restaurant going—what they must do is evolve.