My birthday tradition of the past few years has been a visit to Canlis, one of Seattle's mainstays for celebration seekers and the well-to-do. Founded in 1950, it's outlasted most of its competition, yet manages to stay fresh — it recently received culinary accolades in both Food & Wine and Saveur. The food is surprising and exquisite, the wine pairings are perfect. So why, whenever I describe Canlis to friends, do I always end up going on and on about the valet parking?
It's simple in the way the best magic tricks are: When you pull into their carport, a friendly guy in a jacket and sneakers greets you, takes your keys and vanishes with your car. No tickets, no names, no nothing. Then, two or three hours later, as you're walking out the huge glass doors, your car glides up. Glides up. It isn't waiting there for you, but is easing in just as you are easing out.
Now let me say that Canlis isn't one of those cute little restaurants with eight tables where the owner is also cooking all the food. It has the capability of serving hundreds, with a huge dining room, a piano bar and multiple private party spaces. The first time my wife and I went, there was, in addition to the restaurant's typical business, a gathering of 100 people in an upstairs room, arriving and leaving in large clusters.
How in hell can they park and retrieve all of those cars, without one single ticket or name? The tech nerd in me got to brainstorming possibilities.
Maybe closed-circuit cameras throughout the restaurant could help valets track the movement of guests. Perhaps they screenshot you walking through the door, and digitally assign your keys to that image.
Or maybe it's based on payment: Assuming they somehow manage to confirm your name or table with the hostess, what if they got an instant message when you pay your check, alerting them to ready your vehicle?
I could go on — something to do with proximity-detecting lasers, or perhaps RFID tags secretly stuck onto your clothing — but instead I decided that the best bet was to ask. I called up co-owner and third-generation scion Mark Canlis, and begged him to divulge the secret.
"I'll tell you, and you'll tell everyone else, but no one will believe it," Canlis said to me. "They [his valet-parking crew] care a whole lot more than anybody else does." What's that supposed to mean?
"For 60 years, someone has stood out there, welcomed the cars in, shook the guests' hands and let them in the restaurant," Canlis said. "There are no tickets, there's no fancy computer system, no chits, no counting cars, no secret book. They just remember. The whole thing is from memory."
Canlis does admit that there's a lot of secret chatter happening outside what he calls "the bubble," the happy place where each party remains oblivious to the frantic work of the staff. If you look hard enough, you can spot valets on the prowl, and even notice a few blind spots where servers could tip off the car jockeys to the status of a given diner.
But back in the beginning, there really was a magic trick, or at least a magician.
Dick Sprinkle was in charge of valet parking at Canlis from 1950 to 1990.
"In the early days, when my granddad opened the restaurant, he called his buddy Dick Sprinkle in. Essentially he had a photographic memory. He remembered your wife, and your next wife, and all your children. He knew when you upgraded from one car to another," Canlis said.
Sprinkle's total recall capabilities proved that large-scale valet parking could be done without tickets or names, but when it came time to replace him, they couldn't exactly advertise for another valet-parking savant. Sprinkle's replacement, Shawn Leuckel, had to teach himself — and his whole staff — how to pull it off without superhuman powers.
"Shawn does not have a photographic memory, he just practices," Canlis said. "He's hired 30 or 40 guys [since joining in the 1980s], and every one of them learns. They work their tails off."
What's the point of this, when it would be so easy to just hand out tickets? "The whole feel of the restaurant is that you're coming to our home. Why would I turn you into a number? It's not fine dining, it's not service. I am shocked when I go to a restaurant and they turn me into a number."
Even Canlis himself, on occasion, has to park cars. He says the staff doesn't necessarily expect him to be as skilled as Dick Sprinkle, but he's got to hold his own. "I have to be proficient. I can successfully memorize my five cars. I had to practice that. You know, 3 Series BMW with the really dirty wheels; Asian gentleman, super sharp suit, open collar, blue Jetta; tattered pair of jeans, huge scrape across the car."
For the valets, the game of memory continues all night long. "'Here comes table 23, she's got the red dress on, he's got the Armani suit. This one? No, this one!' And they tear off running," Canlis said. "Their uniform includes running shoes — they run a lot."
More on TODAY.com from Wilson Rothman:
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Wilson is the deputy tech and science editor for msnbc.com and TODAY.com. You can catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman.