Seattle Restaurants Finding Themselves Reinventing the Meal

Mark Canlis never expected to be running a drive-through burger joint out of the parking lot of his namesake fine-dining restaurant. But in the early days of the pandemic, that’s exactly what the Canlis owner and his team found themselves doing, selling cheeseburgers to over a thousand customers a day and creating traffic jams near their Queen Anne location. Like other Seattle restaurants innovating over the last year – but perhaps more dramatically – Canlis has continually reinvented itself as state regulations surrounding capacity limits for indoor and outdoor dining as well as rules for alcohol service have repeatedly shifted.

Today, Canlis operates a “yurt village” in its parking lot and is gearing up for the May 3 launch of “Camp Canlis,” which will include casual barbecue-style dining by a campfire as well as care packages you can ship to loved ones.

In a webinar hosted by the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP earlier this month, Mark Canlis said that he knew from the beginning of the pandemic that the restaurant was going to have to evolve to survive. But he focused his team on thinking creatively about what they could do next, not on what had been taken away from losing on-premises dining. “This is an amazing opportunity for something,” he recalled thinking at the time. “I don’t know what it is, but we’re going to figure it out.”

Mark Canlis said that many of the incarnations of Canlis during the pandemic – which have included a bagel shop, a meal delivery service, a drive-in movie theater, and a community college – were “miniature trainwrecks.” And some of them bled cash – a $14 dry-aged burger wasn’t sustainable, his accountants said – or made them look unprepared or unpolished. But taken as a whole, Canlis’s continual reinventions were successful in preserving jobs for most of the restaurant’s 115-person staff and helping it break even for the year, he said.

Canlis’s reputation as a fine-dining destination likely made its pivots easier, as curious customers kept coming back to see what the restaurant would do next. But nearly every dining establishment in the city has had to consider new ways of operating over the past 12 months. While almost everyone is packaging their meals for at-home dining and developing to-go cocktails, others are experimenting with creative ideas, revamping their menus and trying to transform themselves into a retail shop, a night market, a cooking school, or even a wholesale distributor.

Here are some of my favorite examples of Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic:

  • At Addo in Ballard, chef Eric Rivera offers a dizzying array of take-home tasting menus, including a pair of Easter-themed dinners. Choose “Good Bunny” and you’ll get a healthy-sounding butter lettuce salad, roasted ham, and strawberry shortcake ice cream, while “Bad Bunny” includes rabbit pate, a spicy rabbit leg confit, and foie gras and peanut ice cream. Rivera also sells retail items including canned and fresh seafood and Puerto Rican sazon and adobo spice blends. And he’ll even collaborate with you so you can create your own custom hot sauce.
  • Lady Jaye in West Seattle hosts a quarterly night market, which in March included an outdoor grill with Wagyu cheeseburgers as well as beef, whiskey, and crafts for sale. A couple days before that, the restaurant gave away 100 German bratwursts and chocolate chip and sea salt cookies to customers. And its “General Store” sells smoked and raw meats, including cuts such as bone-in ribeye and prime tenderloin, on Wednesdays through Sundays.
  • Jack’s BBQ, now with four locations in Seattle, hosted an online “BBQ camp” on Zoom with classes on the basics of smoking meats as well as an in-depth look at smoking ribs. And local chefs including Matt in the Market’s Matt Lewis, Osteria La Spiga’s Sabrina Tinsley, and Rupee Bar’s Liz Kenyon, among others, have partnered with Sound Excursions for online cooking classes in making jambalaya, pasta, curry, and more.
  • L’Oursin, a French bistro in the Central District, has shifted focus to become a retail market, selling wine, prepared foods, produce, cheese, and more. It also offers “Le Plateau Royale,” a 90-minute seafood tower for two that’s served on its covered patio. And in a transformation almost as dramatic as Canlis’s, the restaurant also operates Old Scratch, a counter where you can order fried chicken sandwiches or burgers for pickup or delivery.
  • Other Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic have also completely revamped their menus, often extending or shifting their hours as they pivoted from high-end dining. Manolin in Fremont, known for its seafood small plates, experimented with selling tacos last fall and is now serving bagels and smoked fish Thursday through Sunday mornings as The Old Salt. Meanwhile, Eden Hill Provisions, a restaurant specializing in creative upscale fare, now offers burgers, fries, and salads for pickup, and has bottles of wine, condiments, and pickled products for sale.
  • Want to stock your freezer with products from your favorite restaurants? For a while during the pandemic, Circa in West Seattle sold quarts of homemade frozen soup (but now only offers it heated). At Dacha Diner in Capitol Hill, you can buy frozen pelmeni (meat) or vareniki (cheese) dumplings. And you can purchase frozen soup dumplings as well as sauces from Xiao Chi Jie in Bellevue.
  • If you’re cooking at home and want to skip a trip to the fish market, Anthony’s Restaurants sells fresh and frozen seafood on Fridays from its wholesale distribution dock in Magnolia. This week’s offerings include halibut and lingcod fillets from Sitka, Alaska, as well as steelhead fillets from the Columbia River.
  • And if you want to fill your kitchen with fresh meats and vegetables, sign up for the CSA program run by Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island. You’ll get a weekly delivery of organic produce from around the Olympic Peninsula, housemade charcuterie, soups and stocks, baked goods, and more.

In a future post, I’ll be examining how successful the transitions have been for Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic, and considering the long-term implications for their businesses as the pandemic starts to wind down.

What are your favorite examples of restaurants reinventing the meal during the past year? Leave a comment and let me know!

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Some Seattle restaurants innovating during the pandemic, like Eden Hill Provisions, have completely revamped their menus

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