Higher Education

Canlis's Next Identity: Unconventional Community College

Sometimes restaurant survival plans involve leg warmers, boxed wine, Space Needle field trips, and a weekly Canlis Kids Animal Adventure show.

By Allecia Vermillion September 29, 2020

Despite a 70-year tenure on Aurora Avenue, Canlis has never been one to advertise its wares on a billboard. Until this week, when restaurant staff erected a big blue and white sign for Canlis Community College—the fine dining restaurant’s most unconventional pivot yet.

“It’s fair to say we’ve poured more into this idea than the first nine combined,” says Brian Canlis. Clearly he’s been keeping a count of all he ways the restaurant has shifted to weather the pandemic—first burgers, then home delivery, even drive-in movies in the parking lot, and most recently the summertime al fresco crab shack.

Canlis Community College sounds equal parts entertainment network and institute of extemporaneous (sometimes mildly tipsy) learning. On October 1, registration goes live for six weeks of virtual classes that center on food and drink, plus “extracurriculars” that explore various facets of Seattle culture.

The idea was born from so many recent discussions about school (or lack thereof) says Mark Canlis. He and brother Brian, the restaurant’s third-generation owners, needed something to help the restaurant stay afloat after summer’s al fresco crab shack, a bridge until that upcoming project that remains under wraps before it launches in December. They quickly discarded the idea of hosting actual classes (“people don’t have time to learn right now,” says Mark) and instead decided to send themselves to school, and let people watch what ensues.

You can matriculate to the entire, um, curriculum for $25 (plus a suggested $4.50 donation to FareStart) and tune in to watch wine and spirits director Nelson Daquip teach Boxed Wine 101. Canlis reservationist Amy Wong summoned her mom to teach chef Brady Williams how to make her dumplings, a cult favorite among Canlis staff. Williams will also get some lessons from the likes of Mutsuko Soma and Melissa Miranda.

Some classes, like cocktail sessions and an intro to baking courtesy of the Bread Lab, have accompanying kits for purchase. Bartenders will keep office hours to answer all your burning cocktail questions, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet will lead a weekly jazzercise-style class from the restaurant’s top floor. Canlis parents Chris and Alice will teach a classics seminar that’s less Beowulf, more “Canlis salad tutorial.” 

Electives include the Brothers Canlis getting schooled in Seattle’s music scene with a KEXP DJ, or freewheeling conversations on the city's Black history with the head of the Northwest African American Museum. If Mark’s DIY haircut lesson with a representative from Rudy’s Barbershop sounds fraught, Brian’s plan to learn how to make pot brownies with Jody Hall of the Goodship feels like appointment television. The lack of polish, says Mark, is the point, and something he embraced during Canlis’s weekly bingo livestream this spring. “We don’t do this for a living, but we’re trying hard.”

Canlis Community College will also offer intramural sports (socially distanced laser tag and pickleball tourneys) and actual IRL field trips, albeit outdoors and in very small groups; check out some of the teasers already online. A campus store will sell all manner of merch, including official leggings for those weekly aerobics classes. This (somewhat) academic quarter culminates in a November finals week that coincides with the 10th anniversary of the brothers’ Canlis menu scavenger hunt, the audacious puzzle that set the tone for their stewardship of the family business founded in 1950. Members of Canlis’s student body can participate in a reprise of “five or six days of hiding menus around the city.” The grand prize: A $5,000 gift card to a future iteration of Canlis that involves a return to dining rooms.

So, uh, where does food enter into this plan? Brady Williams and his kitchen are busy prepping actual old-school TV dinners of dry aged meatloaf and chicken enchiladas, which you can order on the website or purchase ad hoc from a cooler in front of the restaurant during appointed hours. This might make Canlis the only restaurant in America to possess both a trio of James Beard awards and one of those devices that affixes a plastic seal onto TV dinner trays.

The perfect pairing for your DIY haircut tutorial.

Enrollment (sorry, academic terms are pretty fun) kicks off October 1; anyone who pays $25 can set up their own custom calendar from the course offerings. There is, however, one activity outside the paywall: A weekly Canlis Kids Animal Adventure show wherein Mark and Brian learn about animals; think of it as a more charismatic Wild Kratts.

While animal adventures and pot brownie sessions sound like a welcome dose of levity, the Brothers Canlis are unequivocal that this is their fight for survival. For the first time this year, the restaurant had to put a chunk of its staff on unemployment over the fall, to return for the big wintertime project known cryptically as “idea 11.”

Until then, says Mark, they’ll make TV dinners, dole out advice on boxed wine pairings, and shine a semi-educational light on some of the best parts of Seattle, even amidst this turbulent year. “This is a good time to be learning.”


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