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 Triangles 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. Its going to come quick, and its going to leave quick, and then its right back to work. Theyd rather spend that time with family rather than cooking and cleaning.
Yuletide dining out isnt diminished by limited options anymore. On the inexpensive side, McDonalds has encouraged its franchises to stay open. Dennys and IHOP are open, and so is Jack in the Box if youre 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. Its 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, Ive got a kid in Kansas struggling to get home and another in Boston, he said. Its challenging.
Home sizes and styles also change the desire to cook a 15-pound bird for a dozen people. Living rooms dont 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 dont 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 its a special day even for the people working. Preparing a $75, four-course meal isnt a job you can sleepwalk through. So you make adjustments in your home life.
My children are 17, 14 and 8, Carey said. Theyve always known who we are. We celebrate Christmas Saturday morning.
It might seem less homey to celebrate at somebody elses table. You wont get cranberry sauce that comes in the shape of the can. The gravy wont be lumpy. But you wont have to polish silver or dust off china, and the wine rack will never be empty.