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Tuesday, September 10, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmett Watson

A Fine Restaurant, A Seattle Institution And A Family Affair

The other morning I stopped by Canlis, the city's most famous and, perhaps, its most long-lived eatery - at least in its price range. The place was empty.

No lot attendant made a practiced mental note of the car. The kimono-clad waitresses hadn't arrived yet; neither had Doug Guiberson, the manager. There was only Chris Canlis, the owner, and a couple of others stirring about.

Waiting for Chris, I reflected on a funny incident that occurred at Canlis a few weeks back.

It was a holiday, and I had dropped by to pay birthday respects to an old friend. On the way out, I suddenly felt hungry and decided to eat downtown.

Then I stopped and the realization hit: "You fool, why go downtown to eat? You are standing in the best restaurant in the city of Seattle."

I respectfully submit that is very nearly no exaggeration.

The original Canlis was opened by its founder, Peter Canlis, Dec. 11, 1950. In this day and age, that just about makes it a Seattle institution.

Peter was a load, to be sure, especially with a few drinks in him. He was always splendidly dressed. He could be alternately cordial and hostile, charming or arrogant, even ill-tempered. But he sure knew how to run a first-class restaurant.

Peter passed away in July 1977. Not long after, his son, Chris, quit his job as manager of a Wells Fargo bank branch in California. Chris, a former Navy pilot with an MBA from Stanford, came home to run the restaurant.

Now Chris was saying: "I was given a tradition by my dad. I didn't create anything. It was already here. In a way, I was given a trust.

"He was the star of the show, and people had to adapt to his ways. He was out front all the time. Me, I'm happy to have everyone else out in front."

Mostly, Doug Guiberson, who is 23 years on the job, is the "front man" for Canlis, although Chris is there three or four nights a week.

"I'm not like my dad," he said. "When we first started, we lived in the penthouse upstairs. Dad liked to be that close to the restaurant. He even bought a condo right across the street from here."

Canlis is unique among all restaurants. Several of its people have worked there at least 25 years. One of the waitresses, Kay Holmes, has been there for 38 years.

Joe Chinn was the Canlis chef more than 30 years. After Joe retired, Rocky Toguchi became the chef, although as Chris says, the term "chef" around Canlis is not a sharply defined one.

"Canlis is the only place like it," Chris said, "where you will see the chef washing dishes."

Actually, there are five Canlis cooks. All cook, and all wash dishes and do other chores around the kitchen.

In addition to Rocky Toguchi, who is Japanese, there is Al Kanealii, Jeff Taton, Jae Thepboupha and Phouvy Sylimanotham, the latter two Laotians.

"All of our senior employees are on profit sharing," Chris said.

Canlis always was quite upscale, but restaurant prices today have gone up so high that Canlis is scarcely noticed.

Back in the 1950s, there was a rumor to the effect that if you ate at Canlis and didn't spend a lot of money, you were slipped a note asking you not to return.

"That rumor is still around," Chris said. "My wife was asked about it just the other day. I still get asked about it. When you think about it, that myth might actually have been a help. Sometimes I think maybe dad himself started it. He used to offer a $1,000 reward to anyone who ever got such a notice."

As it was in 1950, Canlis still is the big treat in Seattle dining. Hundreds of people go there to celebrate graduations, birthdays and wedding anniversaries.

"Anniversaries," Chris said. "You know, I see the best side of marriage. Literally hundreds of couples come here to celebrate their 25th and 35th and 40th anniversaries."

There is not the slightest hint of a slip in quality since Peter ran the restaurant. The menu has changed - drastically - but it has changed so slowly, so subtly, that people scarcely notice.

For example, the early-day Canlis was known primarily as a haven for steak. It still is. But today Canlis serves more fish than lamb, beef and poultry combined.

The Canlis family is still very much a force in the Northwest. Daughter Gloria Canlis used to run the place for Peter when he became ill. Gloria now has her own place, Peter's on the Park, out in Madison Park. It is run by her son, Peter, and her daughter, Karen.

A few years ago, Canlis' business fell off a bit, but it's back now, bigger than ever. "Just this August," Chris said, "we served more people than any month in our history.

"We're by no means perfect. We have to earn our spurs every day. Each night is new and special. I guess the idea is to be what you are - better than anyone else can be."

Emmett Watson's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Northwest section of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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