Don't want to cook for Christmas? These restaurants have made a tradition out of holiday dining.
It’s a familiar scene for anyone who grew up watching TBS on Christmas Eve.
Old Man Parker’s arch nemesis, the neighbor’s hounds, bust into the Parker family home and scarf down the Christmas turkey, causing the patriarch of the family to utter a line that’s unfamiliar to those whose families are somehow less dysfunctional on Christmas:
“Everybody upstairs, get dressed. We are going out to eat.”
The Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant scene that follows the turkey incident in “A Christmas Story” is funny for many reasons, but primarily because eating out on Christmas is such a foreign concept for many people.
However, for many residents of Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch and Longboat Key, it’s a tradition.
Ever since Executive Chef and Proprietor Ray Arpke bought Euphemia Haye in 1980, the restaurant has offered Christmas Eve dinner. Eight years ago, he started serving dinner on Christmas, too.
The meal has since grown so popular, customers start calling to make a reservation more than a month in advance. Arpke says he gets so many repeat customers, he’s had five generations of some families sitting in his establishment on Christmas.
“It’s just a real homey atmosphere,” he says. “You get a warm feeling when you come in here.”
Indeed, the Longboat Key eatery is cozy, but the rosy-cheeked Santa figurines, multicolored string lights and the vintage holiday postcards Arpke’s wife, D’Arcy, scatters about add a little touch of nostalgic holiday magic that would be hard to re-create.
What truly makes the experience, however, is the food. At Euphemia Haye on Christmas Eve and Christmas, that means Bavarian-style roast goose (in addition to the full a la carte menu and nightly specials).
The sliced roasted goose with giblet gravy is served with a German potato dumpling and sweet and sour red cabbage — a hard-to-find dish in the Sarasota area.
Arpke’s inspiration goes back to his German heritage, but he says it wasn’t until he was working at the Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans (now The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel) that he was exposed to it.
Despite growing up in a German-American family, Arpke had never tried roasted goose. But when he paired it with something he grew up eating, potato dumplings, a tradition was born.
Michelle Senglaub and her husband, Keith, have spent several Christmases at Euphemia Haye, which they love for its European flair and lively dining room.
“We started eating out for Christmas dinner because we don’t have any family in the area other than my mom,” Senglaub says. “It just made the holiday a little less lonely and a little more of a special occasion to get dressed up and go out.”
The holidays are similar for the Arpkes, whose kids live in Illinois and Wisconsin and usually come to town before and after Christmas.
“The people we work with are our family,” he says of the 49-some-person team he has at his side. Many of his employees have worked with him for more than 20 years. “They’re people we genuinely like and love.”
To thank their dedicated work family, the Arpkes host a holiday turkey dinner on “Christmas Eve Eve” that serves as a staff gift exchange. Highlights include a champagne toast and Arpke’s goose pate.
On Christmas Eve, the restaurant is open from 4-9 p.m. On Christmas Day, it’ll be open from 2–9 p.m. Reservations are full, but call 383-3633 to see if any slots have opened up.
For Andrea Gonzmart Williams, Christmas has always been synonymous with lechon asado. The roasted pork dish is a staple for holiday celebrations in Cuba, so it makes perfect sense why this fifth generation Gonzmart, the family behind Florida’s oldest restaurant, Columbia, loves it so much.
Gonzmart Williams says that’s why Columbia on St. Armands continues to offer both lechon asado and roasted turkey on Christmas.
“When you think about the holidays you think of things you grew up eating — I always feel like your taste buds take you back to memories and times past,” she says. “That’s the idea.”
The lechon asado dish ($22.95) is marinated pork with sour orange juice, garlic, oregano and bay leaves. The pork is slow roasted until the meat is tender and juicy, and it’s served with mojo, yuca, moros y cristianos (the Cuban version of rice and beans) and platanos maduros (fried sweet plantains).
It’s the ideal dinner for both those of Cuban heritage and adventurous eaters not of Cuban descent, Gonzmart Williams says. Those who want to go the more traditional American route have a special holiday option as well.
Columbia’s roast turkey entree ($22.95) is served with Columbia stuffing (the Gonzmarts’ great-grandmother’s recipe of Italian sausage, ground beef, chopped chicken livers, apples, water chestnuts and raisins), sautéed carrots and string beans, sweet potato pecan casserole, whipped potatoes, homemade cranberry sauce and giblet gravy.
The restaurant also offers its full regular menu on Christmas.
Employees at each of the chain’s five restaurants see repeat customers on Christmas, she says, and she understands why having someone else do the holiday meal work would be appealing.
“Mom wins because she doesn’t have to cook, and the kids win because they don’t have to help clean,” Gonzmart Williams says.
Columbia opens at 11 a.m. Christmas Day. Make reservations here.
MICHAEL’S ON EAST
For his 31st holiday season, Michael’s On East Owner Michael Klauber is excited to offer more of what he says the restaurant does best: a consistently personalized, high-quality dining experience with a committed staff who treat their customers like family.
“We really go out of our way to spoil people,” he says. “We have guests who have been coming here for decades to celebrate … little kids are now coming in with their kids. Seeing that history and having a connection with these families, that’s special.
The restaurant will be offering what Klauber likes to call a “best of” menu. That means signature dishes a la carte such the Colony Snapper, which is lump crabmeat and sundried tomato beurre blanc with sweet potato planks and sautéed haricot verts.
He adds that the Molly’s Truffled Macaroni and Cheese — made with manchego, gruyere, parmesan and truffled béchamel — is particularly popular for guests to share family-style as well.
As for libations, The Cape Town Fig Bramble is the latest cocktail on the lounge menu, and it features Inverroche Amber Gin, Poire Williams Liqueur and bitters garnished with allspice-soaked figs and an orange twist.
Asked what he loves most about this time of year, Klauber says it’s the people. But also sometimes their choice of dress.
“I’ve seen some pretty crazy sweaters,” he says with a laugh.
Michael’s On East is open 4-8 p.m. on Christmas Eve and from 2-8 p.m. on Christmas. Call 366-0007, Ext. 224 for reservations.
Let’s be real, all great traditions start with grandma. That’s where chef Paul Mattison got the inspiration for his restaurant’s beloved Christmas Eve dinner, anyway.
Every year, Mattison’s Forty-One offers the Feast of the Seven Fishes dinner special $52), which was a meal Mattison’s maternal grandmother, Esther, — on the Italian side of the family — made the whole family every year for Christmas Eve (Christmas day was reserved for ham or turkey).
“It was seafood galore — something to look forward to on Christmas Eve” he says. “Grandma would cook all day long … we had a few people in the family who didn’t eat fish, so we would also do marinated lamb chops.”
Esther helped Mattison learn much of what he knows about cooking, so about 10 years ago, he started honoring her Christmas Eve tradition with a popular Italian seafood feast every Christmas Eve at Mattison’s Forty One.
Growing up, Mattison ate the meal traditional family style with passed dishes. His team at the restaurant has since adapted it for a public dining experience as a series of individual entrees by breaking it up into three courses.
The meal starts out with zuppa di pesce, which includes locally-sourced Cedar Key clams, Prince Edward Island mussels and sautéed squid in a tomato saffron broth with rouille toast garnish. The second course is pasta fresca, featuring house-made squid ink fettuccine with rock shrimp and fresh Maine lobster tossed in a garlic herb butter. The third course is pesce al forno made with oven-roasted Branzino, poached King Crab and preserved lemon braised fennel cream. Caffé con biscotti finishes off the meal.
“It’s an opportunity to taste seven different types of seafood,” Mattison says of why the meal might be so popular. “We see a lot of people from the North down here for the holidays, and I think many are Italian with similar traditions and look forward to it every year.”
Not a seafood fan? Fear not, all the regular entrees on the menu are also available. The chef says many regulars opt for a more laid-back Christmas Eve meal of appetizers while listening to live music by the piano bar.
Mattison’s Forty-One is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch and 4:30-8:30 p.m. for dinner on Christmas Eve. The restaurant is also open 2-8 p.m. Christmas day for dinner. Call 921-3400 for reservations.