“I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.” — Martha Graham
Canlis is one of “those” restaurants in Seattle. It’s opened in 1950. Owned and operated by the Canlis family to this day. It’s fancy (men are asked to wear a jacket). It’s difficult to make a reservation because they’re always booked. It’s beautiful. Canlis was designed by a Northwest modernist–cantilevered over Lake Union with an incredible view of water, and mountains and the city. It’s what people call “an institution.” It was also on Heidi’s bucket list.
I’d been invited to speak to a mix group in Seattle. Heidi and I decided to make a weekend out of it. We also decided to try and have dinner at Canlis. Fortune smiled and we grabbed a 5:45 p.m. reservation. Our driver dropped us off at 5:00 p.m. for cocktails.
Walking in to Canlis for the first time…I had no idea what to expect. Two young man greeted us and led us through two elegantly carved wooden doors. It was dark inside. A massive open fireplace smoked and popped somewhere near the kitchen. And the entire staff was standing in the center of the restaurant in two concentric rings. In the center of the circles the manager was preparing his team for the evening’s service. There was a unity. There was direction. There was a plan. An elegant and unforgettable dance was going to occur for Heidi and I and nothing was going to be left unattended. It was a dance that would be danced many times over that evening.
Mary Grace welcomed us. Demure. Polite. Well-spoken. “Welcome to Canlis and thank you for joining us this evening.” I introduced myself. She turned to Heidi. “I understand this is something of a bucket list dinner for you ma’am.” (Full disclosure: When I made the reservation Mary Grace asked if the dinner was a special occasion and I explained that it was a bucket list deal for my wife. They took note.) Perfect. I’m telling you, we heard the phrase “bucket list” three, maybe four, times that evening. The attention to detail. The personal attention. At that exact second I thought to myself: “I don’t care what this costs.” They care.
We sat in the lounge and drank cocktails that were deft, soft, inventive, surprising, distinct. Our waiter repeated the refrain: “Thank you for joining us this evening.” Seaplanes lifted off of Lake Union. Yachts lumbered. Sailboats drifted along under invisible energy. So did we.
At 5:45 we were invited to our table. The gentleman pulled the dining table out rather than ask us to navigate the corners. “I understand that this is a bucket list dinner for you,” he said. Again, thank you for listening. He explained the menu–dripping rich with details about food sources, preparation, presentation, wine pairings. And then he said the very best thing: “Please take you time with us tonight.” Restaurants make money (in part) on turning tables. Having a couple spend hours eating just doesn’t make sense. Canlis takes the opposite approach. Relax. Unwind. Be here. Soak it all in. We’re here for you.
I’m not going to try and describe the food. To say that the courses were mind blowing will fall short. The food was perfect. But it was the service that was impossible to ignore. There was a flawless, elegant, designed dance happening in front of us. Invisible direction and fantastic attention to detail happened every time a waitress brought us a lavender and honey infused roll. There was an architecture to the placement of the French butter or the respectful nod from the wine steward. As dusk fell like gauze on a lantern Canlis began to glow with candles. A piano player swindled us with old songs that made us smile. All of this happened without a single interruption.
I’m embarrassed to admit that in the middle of this dance I thought to myself: “Why the hell can’t my industry figure this damn thing out?” How can we continually fail to recognize that commodity service yields commodity pricing? What right do we have to bitch about lesser priced competitors when we’re unable to create any markedly superior customer experience? Are we proud of being so ordinary or are we simply unable to comprehend a new definition of service? Are we blind to the fact that the dance will be our only salvation?
The bill for dinner that evening was $452.00. 30% of that bill was food cost. The gross profit from the meal was only $300.00. Six people attended to us at any given time. We were there for nearly three hours. I tipped $100.00 knowing full well that the tip would be divided among the team that served us. Break it down by person and by hour and Heidi and I had dinner for a song.
The only way to ask a person to spend more than $500.00 on a meal is to create an experience that is orchestrated and unforgettable. The only way to rise above the fray is to not act like the fray. I wish more people in our industry lived this.
That evening Heidi and I left Canlis smiling, holding on to each other, amazed. Bucket list item crossed off. You cannot put a price on a memory like that.