In 2020, the holiday season will look and feel different from the bustling dining rooms and festive cocktail parties we know and love. Despite restrictions, we all still crave community, celebration, and the feasts that winter holidays promise. And thanks to nearly a year of learnings from pandemic-related pivots, restaurants have more ways than ever to bring on the holiday cheer.
No one knows exactly what this holiday season will bring, but it’s clear that restaurants will be as important as they have always been to celebrations. This November and December, people will be looking for ways to clink glasses and make merry with their favorite local spots, and in many cases, that means experiencing festive food, drinks, and hospitality outside the walls of the restaurant.
From Thanksgiving dinner delivered to virtual parties and events, read on for the many creative ways restaurants are adapting to their most challenging holiday season yet — and how diners can keep the celebratory spirit alive.
A restaurant feast at your table
This season, many restaurants are packaging up the festive meals they’re known for to-go so that diners can enjoy holiday-worthy feasts at home.
In San Francisco, several restaurants are using OpenTable’s new Takeout product, such as Lusk 25’s new outdoor Rooftop 25, which is offering quarantine-friendly takeout feasts for two, with turkey breast roulade, a smorgasbord of sides, and organic Sonoma apple pie. Up in Napa Valley, the stylish Solbar has options for groups of two, four, and six, with an elevated menu including an organic roast turkey, spoonbread sausage stuffing, and Parker House rolls with cultured butter. There’s even a vegetarian option from acclaimed Indian hit ROOH, which has pumpkin Mulligatawny soup, garlic naan, and more for takeout.
In the city, where restaurant reopenings have paused after an increase in cases, businesses are getting creative. Presidio Social Club counts a spirited Thanksgiving among its favorite dining room traditions, and this year it’s offering takeout versions of classic feasts and twists (think challah mushroom stuffing and barrel-aged cocktails) ready to eat or reheat. With Spruce’s Thanksgiving to-go, people can customize their meals with the perfect turkey sizes and side dishes and host a Michelin-star quality celebration at home. At the downtown Wayfare Tavern, a traditional heat-and-serve menu is available for pickup and delivery around the Bay Area, and the team is planning similar menus for Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“We actually started our Thanksgiving pickup last year, and it’s gotten even better this year,” says Andrea Boyd, director of sales and events at Wayfare Tavern. “People are getting more comfortable with ordering online, delivery, and not having to wait in line at the grocery store.”
Over in New Orleans, the iconic Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group (which includes Brennan’s and Red Fish Grill, among others) is known for large gatherings, abundant buffets, and the same loyal holiday guests year after year. “Those [Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve] spots are coveted,” says Charlee Williamson, the group’s executive vice president.
In 2020, the group hopes to give fans their favorite holiday traditions in a safe, flexible format. On Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July, its Mid-City restaurant Ralph’s on the Park offered a three-course meal curbside and plans to do the same on Thanksgiving, offering Wednesday night pickup so people can reheat at home the next day.
Gingerbread house decorating is another big tradition for the group. While it’s typically something families do in the restaurant, this year the team at Red Fish Grill will give people the option to pick up the houses and adorn them at home — icing and candy included.
“Our audience is older and less willing to dine out on big holidays, but they have proven very loyal guests for curbside on holidays,” says Williamson. “These are traditions that families want to continue every year.”
Similarly, the Chicago-based Boka Restaurant Group — which operates 23 entities, including Girl & the Goat and Momotaro — recently put each of its restaurants’ culinary teams to work on a host of different Thanksgiving meals to go.
Boka leaned into its chef-driven philosophy, creating options that reflect each restaurant’s unique brand and personality. The modern Japanese Momotaro offers a “Le Quack” dinner centered around a whole-roasted duck, for example, while the Mediterranean-inspired Cira is making a Friendsgiving spread full of small plates. The result: Diners can choose a festive menu that fits them for celebrating the holiday, but still enjoy a meal that tastes like their favorite restaurant.
When COVID-19 hit, the Washington D.C.-based Neighborhood Restaurant Group — which counts Iron Gate and Vermilion among its 22 locations — joined forces to create Neighborhood Provisions, pivoting to ready-to-cook foods, pantry items, and wine and beer. For Thanksgiving, the group is offering full feasts and individual dishes (think smoked turkey, Parker House rolls, and buttermilk mashed potatoes) for delivery in a chef-curated holiday shop. À la carte menus will also be available for Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve (such as a bubbly and caviar pairing), and there will also be baking kits and DIYs for kids.
“2020 has been humbling in many ways, but the team has really pulled some amazing stuff off,” says Aislin Kavaldjian, Neighborhood Provisions’ general manager. She points to curated gift boxes from Mother’s Day and grill and butchery offerings on July 4th.
“The approach has always been for us to provide consistency, excellence, and comfort to our customers — whether they dine with us in person or join us for a virtual tasting, a box meal, or call in for carry out — and that hasn’t changed, nor will it ever,” Kavaldjian says. “We hope to see everyone in our area joining us in an unconventional holiday season and celebrating in whatever way makes the most sense for them and their circles, no matter how small.”
Private dining turned digital
Throughout 2020 restrictions and into the holidays, many restaurants have introduced virtual events and gatherings to foster a sense of community outside the restaurant. With the right tools and platforms, online events give diners ways to celebrate in remote and flexible formats — and also give restaurants an opportunity to earn revenue during a slower-than-usual private dining moment.
The Boka team, for one, has capitalized on the popularity of its chefs with meal kits and virtual events that help diners create special experiences at home.
“We customize all of our events,” says Taylor Crowley, the group’s director of sales and marketing. “The most popular ones have been cooking classes, where we’ll have a chef on a one-hour call, cooking along with the guests. We also sell grocery baskets with everything they need to execute the meal.”
For the holiday season, Boka has launched new classes, including a cookie decorating class with chef-approved cutters and step-by-step instructions; a wreath-making session with a floral partner and mulled cocktails; and a present-wrapping dance party with charcuterie (DJ beats included).
Over on the West Coast, the team behind California’s Left Bank Brasserie, from renowned chef Roland Passot, operates two robust private dining rooms and quickly saw its business plummet in 2020. Rolling up their sleeves, they pivoted to create Vine Party Design, an at-home party provider. Customers can choose a virtual package with a shopping list and video conference chef guidance, or delivery packages to one or several locations, so that groups can share a meal and festivities even if they’re social distancing.
“We’re excited to have that be our platform for the holidays,” says Obadiah Ostergard, Left Bank’s CEO. “You can have Roland Passot Zoom into your party and interact with guests and teach you how to cook.”
In other words, a holiday at home doesn’t only have to mean a pared-down, home-cooked meal It can still be a party to remember with some of the best food your city has to offer. Even if people aren’t traveling cross-country — or even across the city — to toast friends, family, and colleagues this year, the season is still looking bright.