More Triangle restaurants open for Christmas

jshaffer@newsobserver.comDecember 24, 2012 

At the Carolina Inn, Christmas dinner starts with smoked trout and horseradish potato salad, moves on to braised Brussels sprouts and chestnut spoon bread, then finishes with the culinary knockout punch of slow-roasted prime rib au jus.

But best yet: Somebody else scrubs up the dishes.

On Christmases past, eating out happened mostly in emergencies, classically illustrated by Ralphie and family at the Chinese restaurant in “A Christmas Story,” their holiday turkey having been devoured by a pack of neighbors’ dogs.

Today, more than a dozen of the Triangle’s best restaurants are wide open and booked solid, a sign that the traditional feast is moving away from the dining room table. Flights and Paparazzi in Raleigh. Cedar Fork Bistro and Bel Gusto in Durham. Windows and Il Palio in Chapel Hill.

“People today are so busy, and they know that Christmastime is going to be a sort of in-and-out thing,” said James Clark, chef at Carolina Crossroads at The Carolina Inn. “It’s going to come quick, and it’s going to leave quick, and then it’s right back to work. They’d rather spend that time with family rather than cooking and cleaning.”

Yuletide dining out isn’t diminished by limited options anymore. On the inexpensive side, McDonald’s has encouraged its franchises to stay open. Denny’s and IHOP are open, and so is Jack in the Box if you’re headed toward Charlotte.

But so are five-star restaurants such as Herons at The Umstead Hotel & Spa. In the past 10 years, General Manager Jim Beley has watched the crowds steadily increase. Christmas Eve is an even bigger deal.

“People enjoy fine dining and do not want to go through the hassles,” Beley said.

Changing demographics make Christmas in a restaurant a more attractive option, say many of the chefs preparing Christmas Day meals.

For one, families are split up geographically more than they were in past generations. It’s harder to recreate a Norman Rockwell-style dinner table with grown children in several different states and with air travel more expensive. Many of the diners Beley sees at Herons are couples aged 45 to 60, often without children.

“I know myself, with my family, I’ve got a kid in Kansas struggling to get home and another in Boston,” he said. “It’s challenging.”

Home sizes and styles also change the desire to cook a 15-pound bird for a dozen people. Living rooms don’t always fit a crowd anymore.

“The new trend of living downtown in these condos and townhomes really limits the space you can entertain,” said Anthony Carey, general manager at Il Palio in Chapel Hill. “People don’t want to cook a great feast in their house.”

Prepping at Il Palio started Saturday – 60 hours in advance of Christmas grub. Carey said applicants for the staff are always briefed on working holidays, which loses a few of them.

But it’s a special day even for the people working. Preparing a $75, four-course meal isn’t a job you can sleepwalk through. So you make adjustments in your home life.

“My children are 17, 14 and 8,” Carey said. “They’ve always known who we are. We celebrate Christmas Saturday morning.”

It might seem less homey to celebrate at somebody else’s table. You won’t get cranberry sauce that comes in the shape of the can. The gravy won’t be lumpy. But you won’t have to polish silver or dust off china, and the wine rack will never be empty.

Shaffer: 919-829-4818

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service