Expectations run high during this time of year, as bars and restaurants fill up with guests ready to celebrate. How can you rise to the challenge? We asked several operators for suggestions on making the most of the holiday season.
1) Balance Your Holiday Decor
Decking those halls during the holidays adds a festive touch, but opinions vary as to how much is too much. For a seasonal pop-up or kitchy-themed concept, more is more. But many restaurants try not to overdo it with seasonal decor.
At the Bravo/Brio Restaurant Group, which includes 64 locations of Brio Tuscan Grille, “each restaurant tastefully incorporates holiday cues like white lights, fresh greenery, poinsettias, [and] some have trees,” notes chief operating officer Connie Collins. A light touch is often best, as is incorporating some elements that already exist in your restaurant.
New Orleans’ restaurant Brennan’s installs a 12-ft. tree that’s decorated with birds to tie in with the theme of its Roost Bar and lounge. Its pastry chef creates a gingerbread display that includes the French Quarter, streetcars and the restaurant’s facade.
“In the rest of the restaurant, we lightly decorate,” notes Brennan’s general manager Christian Pendleton. It’s important to find a balance, “while also allowing Brennan’s natural beauty to shine through.”
At The Palm restaurant’s Houston, TX, location, the holiday party setup includes red bows on the paintings, ornaments hung from the ceiling, red flowers with evergreens on tales set with white linens and a large screen displaying a cracking fire, according to sales manager Lauren Liermann.
Keep in mind that the holidays aren’t a joyous time for everyone. “We don’t decorate—we are a neutral safe place,” says Kate Gerwin, general manager of HSL Hospitality in Bismarck, ND, which incudes three bars, a restaurant, catering facility and retail operation. “You never know what kinds of memories or feelings are evoked during the holidays, [so] we maintain the same energy and vibe year round.”
2) Celebrate Seasonal Flavors In Cocktails
Capture the spirit of the late fall/early winter with familiar flavors and imagery. For instance, Gerwin’s drinks list is peppered with ingredients associated with the winter and the holidays
One is an Old Fashioned with sweet potato-infused bourbon, spiced syrup and black walnut bitters, while the I Say Pecan, You Say Pecan is a made-to-order eggnog riff, with toasted pecan-infused rum with allspice dram, a whole egg, coconut milk and bitters. And the Winter Warmer tipple has chicory, Mexican chocolate, Dolin Genepy Des Alpes, rye, gin and a wild berry syrup.
At Washington, D.C.’s BLT Steak, (part of New York-based ESquared Hospitality), beverage director James Nelson uses a ubiquitous fall vegetable in The Great Pumpkin. The cocktail shakes Bacardi 8 rum with house-made pumpkin butter and allspice dram. BLT Steak’s Foie-Nominal has foie gras-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon, fig syrup, lemon and a port-soaked fig.
The six-concept, Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group has a Build Your Own Manhattan station, complete with hand-cut ice, whiskeys and bourbons, and house-made bitters. Garnishes such as cranberries, sugared berries and marshmallows provide seasonal flair, says director of sales Lynette Velez. The station is priced at $10 a person for private events, in addtion to the bar package.
3) Have Fun With Drink Names And Promotions
A unique seasonal cocktail name or offer can pique guest interest. For instance, the 12 Days of Cocktails menu at Brennan’s runs from Dec. 13 through Christmas Eve, and includes drinks such as the Wassail Ya’ll, with rum, oranges, guava, apples, raisins and hibiscus syrup.
The holidays are all about the “spirits” of the season, Pendleton says, “and our talented cocktail team at the Roost Bar offers a new merriment-inducing cocktail each day.”
Miracle on Seventh Street, a pop-up holiday bar at Washington D.C.’s Mockingbird Hill, has a cocktail called Gretchen, Stop Trying to Make Fetch Happen (pictured atop). Named for a quote from the 2004 film Mean Girls (said during a Christmas concert), the drink is made with moscatel sherry, dry Curacao, spiced cranberry syrup and sparkling wine and served in a frosted glass.
4) Dazzle Them With Decadent Entrees
Corporate holiday party hosts are looking to thank their employees for a job well done all year, and may be more open to higher-end dishes than during other times of the year. So Collins advises promoting your unique and spurlge-worthy offerings, such as seafood towers, fresh oyster shucking stations and even a mermaid or merman to serve up shrimp cocktail and crab legs.
The Palm builds on that, with holiday menu fare such as filet mignon topped with a Cognac lobster cream sauce, and Chilean sea bass tapenade with tomato saffron broth.
Blue Bridge Hospitality, which operates 11 concepts in the San Diego area, has several holiday offerings, including seared foie gras with grapes, maple-braised persimmon and pomegranate-spiced brioche.
The team at BLT Steak starts discussing holiday menus in the summer, and finalizes them by October. Since kabocha squash is a trending ingredient, BLT Steak is using it in a risotto along with saffron, pumpkin seeds and pecorino cheese.
Getting the holiday menu out early enables the restaurants to share via email blasts and across media channels, Nelson says. It can also add last-minute dishes and promote them via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.