Mark Canlis draws an alarming number of parallels between giving birth and throwing a party. First you conceive…of an idea. “That part is lots of fun, and probably doesn’t take long enough.” But then—at least at the fine dining restaurant he and younger brother Brian run atop Queen Anne—that leads to roughly nine months of meetings and unglamorous logistics as an idea gestates into a full-blown plan, then requires hours of labor to pull the thing out, er, off.
Along the way, they hammer out details. Discussions around the last New Year’s Eve soiree included how to install a koi pond outside the front door during the evening’s regularly scheduled dinner service. How to run waterfalls off the top of the roof. How to ensure revelers waiting for the hula show don’t block the basement stairs, the only route to the replica of Honolulu’s Chinatown, complete with roast duck pinch buns and an actual tattoo artist.
While nights at Canlis usually involve suit jackets, crumbers, and coursed dinners, the storied restaurant has a seriously festive alter ego. The Brothers Canlis just might throw the best parties in town, making liberal use of zany themes and live animals (including a donkey that deposited a steaming pile near the front door during one event).
These events usually end up in the red, says Brian. The goal is fun, sure, but also to familiarize a different genre of diners. Mark Canlis likens these efforts to hospitality cross-training, since staff must hone a separate set of skills to stage a country fair–themed bake sale with New York City’s famed Milk Bar, or serve pizzas and day drinking–friendly cocktails aside a temporary pool as they did during their summerlong Hawaiian Nights popup. (One of those skills: functioning on very little sleep.)
Most of us will never rent a U-Haul, point it toward Mount Rainier, and fill it with snow to augment an après ski partyscape tricked out with a hot tub, chairlift seat, and shaggy Saint Bernards. But much of Canlis’s formula for success can translate to mere mortals’ events. Party food shouldn’t be unwieldy to eat with your fingers (duh) but an interactive element transforms awkward snacking into a social experience, like the chocolate fountain retooled to cascade nacho cheese for the “Shut Yo Mouth, Nacho Hair” bash.
The brothers' love of themes is strategic. A theme means costumes. Costumes mean anticipation, and commitment to get off the fence and attend. Plus, the right wig makes everyone braver, says Mark. “A wig is worth like three drinks on the way in the door.”
The door is also the place to greet every comer individually for maximum icebreaking. (“The first party we threw, the greeting sucked,” says Brian.)
Meanwhile, Mark maps out what guests will see when rideshares deposit them out front, and their likely flow through the various vignettes set up in each room. A good party, he says, has a narrative arc. “It’s no different than a book.”