’Tis the week before Christmas.
You’ve been shopping the sales for months and are finally done (maybe?).
Your cards are in the mail and the stockings are hung by the chimney with care.
As for visions of sugar plums, if anyone in your family even knows what one looks like (hint: not a plum), they may well be enjoying this confection in a restaurant rather than tucking into one at home.
According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, 57% of Americans plan to eat in a restaurant during the holiday season. The reasons vary, from an interest in supporting local businesses to dodging this year’s highly inflated grocery-store prices. For families large and small, there is also the lure of skipping meal prep and cleanup. “You get familiar holiday dishes without the dishes to wash,” says Michelle Korsmo, President and CEO of the NRA.
If you and yours are among those who will be enjoying a Christmas Day meal away from the comfort of home, restaurateurs have the following tips to share.
(Mealtime with Mister Manners is a column that delves into a smorgasbord of modern-day dining dilemmas. Please submit your etiquette questions at the bottom of this page.)
At Alex Madonna’s Gold Rush Steakhouse, in San Luis Obispo, California, the restaurant is expecting to do 950 covers on Christmas Eve and 1,200 on Christmas Day. Compared to a typical night, when 200 patrons pass through the eatery’s doors, this local hotspot will be all-out pulsating this week, with tables set in every nook and cranny.
When they’re out for a meal on a holiday like Christmas, guests typically linger, and since no table at Alex Madonna’s will be rushed to gobble and go, seating delays for new arrivals are inevitable. Fortunately, the restaurant’s legendary holiday decorations are eye-popping enough that by the time expectant guests have circled the steakhouse, ordered a drink from the bar and snapped selfies, their table should be ready.
“Our servers are away from their families, taking the time to create special memories for our guests,” says Amanda Rich, marketing manager for the family-owned-and-operated eatery and its attached inn, the latter having opened on Christmas Eve in 1958. She hopes patrons who arrive and encounter a short delay before their reserved table is ready show understanding.
Engage with the staff
At fine-dining destination 1906, in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, executive chef Will Brown estimates he has worked roughly 15 Christmases, having gotten his feet wet there as a busboy at the age of 14.
Located within the grounds of botanical wonderland Longwood Gardens, 1906 is offering a sumptuous prix-fixe menu on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day that includes a winter squash salad and scallops from New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay.
Though the staff is making a sacrifice to come in on Christmas, most do not see it that way. “A career in hospitality is not just a job — it’s a choice,” says Brown. “We’ve chosen to work hard to nourish and satisfy our guests — even on holidays.” He cites the sense of satisfaction he and his team derive from bringing joy to others — particularly on a day imbued with such meaning for so many.
And for those staff members with small children at home, Christmas Day shifts are split to let parents enjoy a morning of present-opening before reporting for duty at 1:30 p.m.
As for patrons acknowledging his staff’s supreme commitment, Brown believes a little goes a long way. “As hospitality professionals, it doesn’t take much to energize us,” he says, suggesting “a simple ‘thank you,’ a smile and some gratitude.” They are human beings with hometowns, with lives and with families, too. “Ask them about their day,” he advises.
Consider a gift
On a feast day when the exchange of presents is a cherished ritual, ponder arriving with a gift for the service staff — ideally something that can be shared easily. Though well-intentioned, “it’s hard to distribute a bottle of whisky amongst the staff,” says chef Steve McHugh, of Landrace, in San Antonio, Texas. For patrons who want to do something extra thoughtful, a box of cookies or holiday doughnuts can be passed amongst the front of house and back of house alike.
“We had a patron show up with 10 pizzas for our staff; another brought a couple of cases of Big Red,” he recalls. “These things go a long way.”
McHugh and his team are offering a midday Christmas Day brunch — an option designed to please palates while also keeping things simpler for the kitchen. “We want a great day for our guests and also a great day for our staff,” he says, explaining that brunch “won’t require a brigade of cooks” onsite.
Showing appreciation with a higher-than-normal gratuity is a surefire way of letting service staff know their hospitality and sacrifice are appreciated. “A minimum of 20%,” suggests Alex Madonna’s Amanda Rich.
“I hope my team gives you an amazing time,” McHugh shares, and if they have, a tip in the “high 20s to 30%” is a means of acknowledging that.
Longwood’s Will Brown proposes an even higher threshold. “If you have the means, and want to show a server how much you appreciate them, tip 40% on the holidays.”
Double the normal tip in exchange for not one pot or pan to wash back home? Now that sounds like a Merry — and mannerly — Christmas.
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