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What does it mean to be a five-star restaurant guest, and why does it matter? We asked the ultimate host, Brian Canlis, co-owner of Seattle’s legendary Canlis restaurant, to weigh in.

Food & Wine
April 16, 2018

As told to Scott DeSimon by Brian Canlis

On a perfect night at Canlis, 
the restaurant my family has run for 60-plus years, I see great dining experiences happening throughout the room. I love the juxtaposition of laughter and fine dining. Guests are up and mingling with friends they’ve discovered at different tables; the lounge is filled with people who have been at the restaurant all night and don’t want the evening to end. For me, the key to that harmony is helping diners realize that hospitality is about relationships, not about transactions. (I know, one side is paying. I get that.) But truly, I think of it like dating. You need two people to make the experience memorable. The key is being sensitive to each other’s needs. And I won’t know how to serve you if you don’t give me something to go on.

Take a guest who says, “I want your best table.” My first reaction is: What’s your name? I’m not asking if you’re famous or important; I mean who are you? What’s your idea of “best”? Personally, my favorite is Table 1. It was my grandfather’s table. It’s a two-top on the upper level of the restaurant, overlooking the dining room, with a fully functional 1940s phone. I once put a guest there who had requested our best table, and he got angry. To him, the “best” meant something completely different. Recently someone told me, “My mother is having surgery soon, and if there’s a quiet table where we could talk, I’d really appreciate it.” That just made my heart explode. Listen: If we know what it takes to blow you away, we will do it. 

Here’s another way to help us help you. Dining out, especially at a place like Canlis, is about more than just filling your stomach. You’re probably coming because the night means something. Tell us what that is when you make the reservation—ideally over the phone, but we do read the “notes” section in our online reservation system. Do that, and we’re 80 percent there. Then, when you arrive, introduce yourself. Don’t just say “Johnson, party of two.” And learn our names. That’s so powerful. If you have an allergy or any other food issue, let us know. Remember, we’re on the same team. Finally, surprise your server by treating him or her like a human being, one you’re curious about. People in this industry so often get treated like servants; that’s not what we are. We’re professionals trained to deliver an individually tailored experience. Be kind and empathetic, and we will fight to make sure you leave a raving fan. 

Remember: It’s all about you and the restaurant getting to know each other. Why not make some small talk and just see where the night goes? True hospitality is the business of relationships. Help us build one.

For more dining etiquette, read The New Rules of Dining Out.