Millions of people go out to eat for Thanksgiving: Here's what the day is like for restaurant staff

Restaurant staff working on the big day can sometimes also find commonality and build community

By Michael La Corte

Deputy Food Editor

Published November 16, 2023 1:31PM (EST)

Thanksgiving Table Setting (Getty Images/SolStock)
Thanksgiving Table Setting (Getty Images/SolStock)

I spent one single Thanksgiving at a restaurant in 2002 with my mom, dad, nana and brother. We were at a restaurant in Pompano Beach, Florida — and, from a culinary perspective, it was far-and-away the weakest Thanksgiving I can recall. I recall lackluster stuffing, immensely dry turkey and unappealing gravy. It just wasn't great or especially festive across the board (at least to my family and the palate of a 13-year-old).

Lots has changed, though, in the ensuing decades. Restaurants across the country have elevated up their holiday meal prowess to new heights and for many, going out to eat for Thanksgiving dinner is a much lighter lift than making a feast of your own at home. 

In 2011, Paula Forbes at Eater reported that about 14 millions Americans go out to eat for Thanksgiving. This number has most likely increased exponentially in the years since. As reported last year by Jennifer A. Kingson and Kelly Tyko at Axios, "for the first time in decades, it's more economical to dine out on Thanksgiving Day than to shop for, cook and clean up after the traditional meal, a Wells Fargo analysis finds." With skyrocketing costs, inflation and food insecurity at a fever pitch, this year's holiday meal is ostensibly even more of a strain on the purse strings. 

But from a restaurant perspective, what does the prep look like when you’re cooking for 150 rather than ten — especially if that dining room is dotted with vegans, vegetarians and those with food allergies? And how do they manage to blend the traditional dishes of the holiday with whatever their restaurant is about the rest of the year?

“We work on original dishes, traditional Thanksgiving items with a Spanish twist,” said Pete Elias, the owner of Spain Wine Bar in Ocean City, Md. “Actual prep begins the week-of, as we do everything fresh.” 

Some of those options might include Spanish ham and pineapple pintxo, slow-roasted pork belly or cranberries gussied up with chilies; there are no courses at Spain Wine Bar, per se. “Dishes are served immediately on completion” Elias said. “In this way, guests are taking a bite at a time while waiting for the element of surprise.”

The concept of infusing traditional stand-bys with global flavors isn’t unique to Elias. For his Thanksgivings while growing up, Elias’ mother made a combination of American dishes and Middle-Eastern dishes. 

“So on our table, you would have turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry dressing, rolled grape leaves, meat pie, cheese pie, macaroni bechamel,” he said. “I loved eating all of this together and just having an explosion of flavors.” 

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Jason Berry, the co-owner of KNEAD Hospitality + Design in Washington. DC, is also a fan of the “perfect bite” which he defines as “a bit of turkey, stuffing, gravy, cranberry and a swap of mashed potatoes. It’s my favorite meal of the year. Stuffing is a big deal, as it’s hard to get right for a lot of people.” 

The Thanksgiving experiences their restaurants offer are similarly varied: It is one of the busiest days of the year at Chef Ed Lee’s Asian-Southern fusion restaurant Succotash, while restaurants like Mi Casa, Mi Vida and Du Jour "offer Tex Mex, Mexican or French-inspired versions of the American classics." Gatsby, an upscale diner, offers an approachable version of the classic Thanksgiving meal. 

There are some commonalities across the menus, however. Elias shares that Spain Wine Bar serves a butternut squash soup with balsamic reduction, pumpkin seeds and micro cilantro, while Jason Berry concurs and says that butternut squash soup is also a "staple." 

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If you're looking to drink — no matter if at home, a friend or relative or at a restaurant — Berry recommends bourbon-based cocktails and "lighter bodied red wines," such as pinot noir, while Elias likes red wine, eggnog and spiced, mulled wine. If you or your guests aren't drinking though, there are a slew of amazing non-alcoholic options now on the market.

As far as staff wanting to spend time with their own families, friends and loved ones, Berry says their restaurants are open for limited hours on Thanksgiving. “We hope our team has the option to spend some time with their families,” he said. “We also create a big spread for our staff to enjoy during their breaks."

Furthermore, he notes that some teammates have family who aren't nearby "and if not for work, wouldn't have somewhere to celebrate.” 

“By offering them a true meal and time with their colleagues, we hope they are getting a bit of that Thanksgiving experience,” he said. 

By Michael La Corte

Michael is a food writer, recipe editor and educator based in his beloved New Jersey. After graduating from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, he worked in restaurants, catering and supper clubs before pivoting to food journalism and recipe development. He also holds a BA in psychology and literature from Pace University.

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