This time of the year is for indulgence, celebration and conviviality. And many consumers aim to engage in all three by going out for a great meal and/or drink. How can you make sure that your restaurant is top of mind for holiday celebrations?
Six operators share some of their seasonal strategies, from dishes that partake in the best seasonal ingredients to cocktails with baking spices, bitterness and brown spirits, not to mention heftier wines that stand up next to the rich, full-flavored holiday cuisine.
1) Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants
“I believe guests want to celebrate when they go out,” says Matt McMillin, vice president of culinary and beverage innovation for the 30-unit, American fusion restaurant brand based in Countryside, IL. “I always preach buying great ingredients and splurging a little for yourself and your guests.”
During the holiday season, guests receive a complimentary welcome cup of mulled white or red wine as they arrive ($13.99 a bottle on the menu). Cooper’s Hawk also offers a Spiced Cranberry Sangria ($7.25 a glass, $23.99 a pitcher), made with Cooper’s Hawk red sangria, citrus, simple syrup and fresh cranberries.
“This fits right in as a Thanksgiving/ Christmas cocktail with the hints of cinnamon, clove and allspice,” McMillin notes. The restaurants are open on Thanksgiving Day, offering a menu (priced at $27.99 for adults, $12.99 for kids aged 12 and under) that starts with butternut squash soup and wraps up with spiced pumpkin cheesecake with fresh vanilla whipped cream.
Cooper’s Hawk November chef recommendations include roasted squash ravioli with lobster, shrimp and scallops, served with tomato, tarragon, parmesan and lobster sauce ($23.99), which works well with the full-bodied, round Lux chardonnay ($29.99 a bottle).
One December dish features lobster-crusted filet medallions with cremini mushrooms, Mary’s potatoes, grilled broccoli and burnt lemon, paired with old vine zinfandel ($18.99 a bottle).
2) Durk’s Bar-B-Q
Bar manager Patrick Cull is a fan of using baking spice ingredients such as allspice, molasses, clove and cinnamon in seasonal cocktails at this Texas-style smoked-meat restaurant in Providence, RI. The 80-seat eatery focuses on craft brews and whiskey cocktails.
One holiday offering is a Seasonal Manhattan ($12), which was inspired by the spiced dark-beer category of winter warmers and ramps up the classic with toasted spices.
Cull also mixes up a Penicillin cocktail ($10) with Sons of Liberty American single malt whiskey, homemade spicy honey and ginger. A Mulled Cider ($10) uses local cider, brandy and a blend of spices—a comforting drink, he says, to shake off the cold of a New England winter.
Cull likes the trend of sipping spirits around the holidays, including Copper & Kings American brandy ($10) and Mad River Distilling’s Malvados ($10). While he does offer a sparkling wine, the cava Gran Gesta for $10 a glass, as a certified Cicerone he tends to suggest and prefer beer during the season. One is Timmerman’s Oude Gueuze, a lambic-style beer from Belgium aged three years in wooden barrels and offered on the menu for $25 for a 750-ml. bottle.
3) Nico Osteria
“It’s cool to hit the farmer’s market every week [during the summer] for cocktail ingredients, but before you know it, everything is gone,” says Scott Stroemer, bar manager of the 108-seat Italian seafood restaurant in Chicago. “The ground is crunchy with fallen leaves, and it’s pumpkin spice time and I just can’t.”
That’s why Stroemer starts his winter planning in the summer, including figuring out how to preserve the flavors of the latter for use in the former.
The restuarant offers the Nico Old Fashioned ($13) on the menu during the cooler months. It stirs Elijah Craig 12 Year Old bourbon with a barrel-aged peach liqueur and house-made bitters, garnished with an orange and lemon peel.
“It’s true people drink brown spirits and stirred drinks in the winter, but a menu of 10 Manhattan variations is boring,” Stroemer says. He refreshes the drinks with ingredients found in those market stalls a few months back. For example, Stroemer infuses gin with blueberries, which takes at least three months to pull out the flavors. The result is used in drinks such as a Blueberry Negroni or South Side.
The Blueberry Almond Fizz ($12) mixes blueberry-infused Beefeater gin with Combier creme de mure, Caffo amaretto, orgeat, lemon and Angostura bitters, served over crushed ice and topped with soda. Stroemer also uses pureed strawberries, cherries and watermelon in drinks throughout the season.
4) Red Star Tavern
Guests typically use the holidays to reconnect with family and friends, which translates to dining out or grabbing some cocktails, says Brandon Lockman, lead bartender at the 168-seat, rustic tavern in Portland, OR. And indulgence is de rigueur. “People want something special and are often more adventurous with multiple courses and trying new things,” so Red Star staff can typically offer more adventurous meats in subtle ways, he says.
Roasted quail is served with chestnut and sausage stuffing, braised greens and spiced orange glaze ($18), and paired with Oberon cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley ($16 a glass). The wine is dry and spicy to cut through the poultry’s fat, Lockman says.
Seared sea scallops are accompanied by oxtail risotto, winter squash and Brussels sprouts slaw ($34). The dish is served alongside the Conde Valdemar rosé ($9 a glass) from Rioja, Spain, which is both dry and delicate.
As far as cocktails, which are priced $10 to $12, Lockman likes to pair baking spices with the natural sweetness gleaned from fall fruits such as apples, pears and cranberries.
He also does a seasonal twist on a Whiskey Sour, with whiskey, lemon, amaro, maple syrup, walnut bitters and egg white, and a play on the Sazerac, with rye, Calvados, cinnamon-infused syrup, Peychaud’s bitters and an absinthe rinse, garnished with a flamed orange zest.
5) Temple Bar
“Guest are more likely to splurge during the holidays—people tend to order a lot more three-course meals versus just a main entree or a couple of appetizers,” says bar manager Jenn Harvey. Guests also tend to request heartier, comforting fare such as handmade pastas, breads and pizza. “Overall, it’s a time of celebration— it keeps the restaurant busy!”
The 112-seat, seasonally focused, New England-influenced spot in Cambridge, MA, features a whole branzino ($27), served with couscous, taggiasca olive and romesco. The dish goes well with the light tones of strawberries in a glass of the Xamfra cava ($9). The Spanish bubbly also pairs nicely with Faroe Island salmon, Prince Edward Island mussels, charcuterie and warm beet salad.
Seasonal cocktail trends include the use of allspice liqueurs, Cognac, whiskey and lots of bitters, as well as cranberries, pomegranates and herbs and spices. The Warm Wind Blowing cocktail ($11) stirs Becherovka herbal liqueur with Cognac, pumpkin syrup and Angostura bitters. Pagan Poetry ($10) shakes gin with La Pinta pomegranate liqueur, rose tea syrup, lemon juice, egg white and cranberry bitters.
“The pomegranate liqueur combined with cranberry bitters offer a seasonably appropriate fruity yet warming flavor,” Harvey says.
This 182-seat, modern reinterpretation of the supper club in Boston uses the holiday season to transport guests back to the festive days of Locke-Ober, the supper club that existed in the space from 1862 to 2012. “Guests can get a feel of what L.O. was like, even if they’ve never been to a supper club,” says general manager Nicole Lebedevitch. The restaurant’s grilled half rack of lamb with garlic, thyme, rosemary, shallots and mint sauce ($115) hails from the 82-year-old local wholesaler Kinnealey Meats, which used to provide Locke-Ober with the same cut. It’s paired with the iconic Matthiasson Napa Valley merlot ($160 a bottle).
A baked 2-lb. lobster with parmesan and herb butter ($85) is recommended with a glass of the Christian Moreau White Burgundy ($21).
Cocktails include the Chai Spiced Mule ($13), with vodka, ginger, lime juice and chai spiced tea, and the Fireside Chat ($15), with Chinato vermouth, Cocchi Barolo, crème de cassis, cinnamon, mezcal and chocolate, served warm.
Sparkling wines are popular with guests as well. The Pol Roger “White Foil” Brut ($20 a glass) hails from “a quality-driven Champagne house that maintains strict standards,” says Yvonne’s sommelier Nick Morisi.
A more extravagant is the Chartogne-Taillet brut rosé ($110 a bottle). “It’s classic, complex and dry at the same time, and features red fruit tones that scream holiday such as cranberry, cherry and pomegranate,” Morisi says.
Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and lifestyle writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. Read her recent piece How to Pair Merlot With Food Like the Pros.