About three years ago, I received a text from a friend visiting from Los Angeles. He wanted to meet at Canon, the restaurant and bar on 12th Avenue. Canon, with its rare whiskeys, had already developed a reputation for being exorbitant. I agreed, but not without reluctance. At the time, I was low on cash and in no mood to blow my credit on froufrou cocktails.
I tried to order the cheapest drinks on the menu, but, at the end of the evening, still managed to add about $120 to my debt. More amazing still, my friend bought a lot of my drinks, which were incredibly expensive shots of spirits that we had to try before we died. Lord only knows what his bill came to. This was simply a place I could not afford. It was out of my range. It made nonsense of my finances.
A few weeks ago, I returned to Canon because I heard a rumor that things had changed. The place, it was said, now served colorful cocktails that, though popular, were even more expensive. Was it yet another example of our city leaving the orbit of ordinary economic reality?
I arrived at 5 p.m., the start of happy hour, and ordered a drink called Transfusion for Two from the Lavish Libations section of the menu. It cost $26 and was presented in an elaborate contraption that involved a block of wood and an IV bag that dripped red fluid into an ice-filled glass. There was enough booze in the bag for two, and because it was sweet, I drank it all by myself in a short amount of time. Before 6 p.m., I found myself walking around the streets of the city drunk.
During another visit, I made sure to drink the cocktails slowly and to eat food. The food offerings—including bone marrow served with bread, a generous meat and cheese board, foie gras, and fried cauliflower—are rich tasting but become affordable during happy hour (at 50 percent off, our bill, split three ways, for several drinks and numerous appetizers, came to $150).
I ordered the drink called Colonial Captain, which was served in a massive gold-colored cup that was shaped like a pineapple. There was also the Khaleesi Cocktail, which was prepared in a glass skull with smoke in it and then, as the smoke swirled and rose, was poured into the glass. This one cost $18 and tasted just fine. But the best-tasting cocktail I sampled was named after the word-famous graffiti provocateur Banksy, the Banksy Sour, which was served in a standard curved cocktail glass that contained a mix of tea, Scotch, and herbal bitters that had on its surface an image that approximated one of Banksy's famous pieces—a girl with her balloon drifting away. This one cost $14.
At this time, Canon was packed with good-looking men and women drinking and taking pictures of their colorful cocktails. Many of these pictures would, of course, eventually be posted on Facebook and Instagram. But who were these people? Were they Seattle's super-new rich? People who were looking for any opportunity to just spend lots of money? Had Seattle entered a higher and more wacky stage of consumption? There was once capitalist consumption, and then came late-capitalist consumption—are we now in the moment of post-late-capitalist consumption? Was that the way to read the current situation at this Capitol Hill bar?
A week later, I found myself alone with the owner of Canon, Jamie Boudreau, talking about these developments and the changing nature of his business. It was around 2 p.m., and the bar's speaker played Coleman Hawkins's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."
When Canon first opened in 2011, Boudreau said, "no one crossed Madison." The bar opened right when other high-end restaurants opened nearby, including Marjorie, Zoe, and Skillet.
"They gave a lot of people a reason to cross Madison," he said. But, in the last five years, "three hundred new restaurants opened." Business took a dip and it compelled Boudreau to rethink the bar's offerings.
"We have always been a restaurant with a cocktail focus," he said. But, "for the past two years, we have been paying increased attention to what I call 'service and presentation style.'"
Several times during our talk, Boudreau mentioned the importance of adapting to a changing environment. He even compared his approach to that of a shark, which must keep moving if it is to stay alive. Seattle is not the same as it used to be. There is more competition, and this increase in rivals has placed pressure on his business to do more, to be more innovative, to find novel ways to attract customers.
He's giving the people what they want, which is both very capitalistic—and democratic.
It's worked: Canon has been named as one of the 30 greatest bars in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, received numerous accolades from the press, including Eater.com and Travel + Leisure, and was a James Beard semifinalist for outstanding bar program.
"The majority of people who come here," Boudreau explained, "are from out of town. I think they found out about us from the good press we have received."
He added: "Though it's great to have their business, if the press went away or if for some reason tourists stopped coming to Seattle, would the regulars return? I do worry about that."
One of the ways to keep moving and keep people coming to his place is to be creative with cocktails. It's as simple as that. People, and particularly tourists, love things that surprise the eye. And fanciful cocktails naturally inspire gregarious behavior. Unlike vintage shots of spirits, which have a snob value (some of the shots in Canon can cost $400 to $1,500), the elaborate cocktails open rather than close drinkers to other drinkers.
Indeed, the Colonial Captain concoction so amazed a group of middle-aged people sitting at the table next to mine, they asked to take a picture of me, a total stranger, drinking it. And I happily let them. And I imagined they posted it on Facebook with these words: "Black man drinking something crazy."
This kind of thing would have never happened if I were slowly, coldly, proudly sipping a rare spirit. Nonetheless, many of Canon's Lavish Libations are not cheap.
"The service and presentation of these kinds of drinks tends to be expensive because every time you come up with a new idea, you have to buy new glassware and serving instruments for them," Boudreau explained. "That costs money. There is a reason why most restaurants do not have the glassware we have. Any of those specialty glasses are $20 to $30 a pop. And some of them break."
What to make of all this? Back in the day (or at least in the middle of the last decade), you could succeed simply by selling the best of the best things to people with deep pockets. That model may no longer cut it. There are now lots of places with world-class chefs and bartenders. How do you survive in this demanding business climate?
Recall that the father of Marxism, the 19th-century German philosopher Hegel, immediately recognized that capitalism is a system that not only satisfied needs but is condemned to continually invent new ones. Seattle might just have reached a stage where high-end businesses have to invent more and more elaborate needs for those who have seen and bought everything but still have a lot of cash to blow. Like a drink served from a glass skull.