Great Grandpa Nicholas Peter Canlis was a wild hare. Born in Greece in 1881 under the Ottoman Empire, he set off to make his fortune as a young man. Moving through Constantinople, and ending up in Egypt, he took work at the Mena House, Cairo's most famous hotel. The Mena has always attracted the rich and the powerful: Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, the Aga Khan, and Omar Sharif have all been regulars at the hotel over the years.
In March of 1909, President Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the Mena while preparing for his celebrated one-year African safari. Roosevelt needed to hire 200 cooks, stewards, and translators for his adventure. And, in Roosevelt's time of need, Nicholas found his gift.
Nicholas could cook. He could steward. He spoke fluent Arabic. He would see Africa, and then perhaps the rest of the world. Roosevelt hired him on; clearly, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Eventually, he reached Ellis Island with an Egyptian passport. The K in Kanlis was changed to a C — the Canlis name had arrived in America.
Eventually, Nicholas Canlis moved west and married a young immigrant beauty, Susan, whose natural affinity for the flavors and aromas of the old country were embraced by her new husband. Together, they opened the first-generation Canlis restaurant in Stockton, California. Mama ran the front and Papa ran the back. Nick's eldest son, Peter, became their reluctant apprentice.
In the late 1930s, Peter Canlis struck out on his own, heading to Hawaii to sell dry goods. During World War II, his knowledge of food and his shrewd purchasing skills led to an offer to manage the United Services Organization's Honolulu food service operations. Soon everyone on Oahu knew that the best meal to be had in Hawaii was at the USO.
After the war, Peter remained in Hawaii and opened his first restaurant, The Broiler, a ten-table sidewalk restaurant in Waikiki.
In 1950, Peter Canlis moved to Seattle and opened the restaurant that was to put his mark on the nation's fine dining scene. He chose a magnificent view location just three miles north of the city center, and, with characteristic vision, hired up-and-coming architect Roland Terry to make his vision a reality. Terry is now widely known as the father of Northwest architecture; his sweeping and timeless design — marked by a great stone fireplace, a span of angled windows to capture the views, and a glistening copper charcoal broiler placed in the middle of the dining room — continues to impress guests today with its alluring mix of stunning outlooks and elegantly tranquil spaces. Even the kitchen was intentionally left exposed to the dining room, a daring and cutting-edge design choice that visually launched Canlis ahead of its time.
Among many firsts, Peter Canlis is credited with being the first restaurateur to utilize team-style service in his dining room; his influence in the kitchen also made him a pioneer in the field of what is now called Northwest cuisine. And instead of employing waiters in customary tuxedos, he employed graceful kimono-clad waitresses who transformed customer service into an art form. The result of these ingenious decisions was a very popular restaurant indeed; "in the know" Seattleites, along with movie stars and wealthy international travelers, became Canlis regulars, just as discerning diners at the forefront of modern cuisine frequent the restaurant today.
Sixty years later, Peter Canlis's architectural and culinary jewel is marvelously run by the next generation of family restaurateurs, Mark and Brian, who were preceded by their parents, Chris and Alice. Together, the family has preserved the traditions of this famous landmark while adding their creativity and energy to the vision of Canlis that has been a constant source of inspiration since the restaurant's storied beginnings.
(And if you're wondering about the third son in these photographs, that's the oldest brother Matt — a minister in Scotland, a father of four, and the restaurant's official Chaplain and Whisky Consultant.)