Setting the Scene

Does how a restaurant looks matter as much as how it cooks?

I RECENTLY SPOKE to a new Capitol Hill restaurateur who wondered, as she contemplated wall finishes before opening her new space, if atmosphere doesn't sometimes trump menu—and even execution. It wasn't that she had scrimped on either, just that, you know, you wonder about these things, especially when you're doing business on Capitol Hill, where it sometimes seems that looks can trump just about anything. The conversation reminded me of visiting Crush, on the crest of Madison Valley, just before it opened and spending a good 20 minutes talking to co-owner Nicole Wilson about the cool, mod white plastic molded chairs in the small dining room and the various shades of mocha coloring the 1904 home that the restaurant is housed in. And then we talked about the food. Again, it's not that the thoughtful decor at Crush disguises any design flaws in the actual dining experience, but we do place value on our surroundings. Plenty of my favorite food memories are set around modest tables and inside seaside fish-and-chip joints, but don't we like eating out best when we're lit well, when the background music is quietly evocative, when the flatware is substantial and polished to shine, when the crystal sparkles, paper thin between your lips? Yes, it would seem—and no. The former chef of a now defunct but once very popular bistro on the Hill still winces when he remembers the grating, soul-crushing loop of Sade songs piped throughout the room. And whenever anyone finishes telling me about their unbelievable eighty-three course meal at the Herbfarm, they tack on a postscript about the puzzlingly odd decor. Yet on the other hand, I recently read along as three or four posters on one of those local online food boards agreed with one another about how, even though the food has a wonderfully handmade quality, they just can't get over the Home Depot–esque look and feel of a really fantastic cafe in an admittedly bland strip mall in West Seattle. Sometimes looks don't matter and sometimes they do. WHAT ALWAYS MATTERS, as far as I'm concerned, is when a restaurant—or a bar or a club or a retailer—creates a space that is as mindful of its setting as its menu is. Prime example: Canlis, the 55-year-old restaurant that recently unveiled some redesigns. Speaking with Mark Canlis, grandson of founder Peter Canlis, I told him that the recent changes didn't exactly jump out at me when I visited the lounge for drinks and appetizers few weeks ago. "Good!" he replied. "We didn't want them to." When what you're starting with is a historical, well-loved, echt-Northwest midcentury modern space, designed by renowned Northwest architect Roland Terry, you don't want to do too much. "We call it a soft remodel," says Canlis. "With some remodels you're not necessarily adding things, you're taking away." Working with Doug Rasar of Doug Rasar Interiors in Bellevue, they've employed Northwest craftsmen, designers, and material to complete their make-under, just as they have done throughout the restaurant's existence. The stone entryway is made with materials quarried from Mount Baker, a Vashon Island artist hand made the paper that covers the walls in the exquisite women's room. Chairs have been reupholstered with fabric by Northwest textile designers Glant, and artist Stefan Gulassa (brother of the late David Gulassa, who made the restaurant's copper sign) contributed several decorative and functional glass and metal pieces. More often than not, they've also contracted residential specialists over those who work with commercial clients. Considering its history (to say nothing of the novella of a wine list, the truffle fries, or anything else), Canlis is inarguably a Seattle classic. But the family's aesthetic decisions, regardless of whether you're consciously aware of them, also contribute to that feeling you get as the lights from the highway reflect in the lake below. With the tall trees outside standing by like friends and a plate of something homegrown in front of you, you're positively certain that you live in the most gorgeous place on the planet. Canlis, 2576 Aurora Ave. N., 206-283-3313, QUEEN ANNE. 5:30–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 5–10 p.m. Fri–-Sat.

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