Last Updated on September 17, 2023
We may celebrate milestones—birthdays, anniversaries, graduations—at restaurants, but for the holidays, we tend to go home. Family recipes, stocking feet, rousing games of charades, couch naps—perfection is not the point; togetherness is. Who needs a six-course tasting menu when you’ve got Aunt Edie’s green beans?
However you entertain, holiday meals warrant a little more polish, a little extra care. Restaurant folks are the last people who want a holiday meal to feel like dining out, but when it comes to hosting special meals, they know a thing or two. The fussiness stays in the restaurant, but some lessons and habits are indispensable.
Any allergies or dietary restrictions?
They ask when you book your table. They ask at the host stand. They ask when you place your order. Restaurants don’t mess around when it comes to allergies—they can’t, and neither can you. It goes without saying that you don’t want to make your guests sick. If there’s a medical emergency halfway through dinner, nobody will remember the whipped potatoes. Assume nothing and ask everyone—unless you’re in daily contact, you just don’t know who might have dropped gluten or added dairy since last year. Whether or not a guest’s diet is restricted, checking in sets the tone and shows you care. Whatever the response—a dubious allium intolerance, a deadly peanut allergy—honor it and put your guests at ease. And assume that little kids are picky eaters. For harried parents, a little microwaved plain pasta can save the day.
Whether it’s new to the menu or a signature dish, it’s safe to assume that the person cooking your meal has made and plated it before. Whether they developed the recipe over several iterations or learned it from a colleague, it’s been road-tested—for other cooks, front-of-house staff, friends or family. If you can do a test run, do it. Even if you’re following a recipe to the letter, it may behave a little differently in your kitchen than in the recipe developer’s—in your oven, with your brand of kosher salt, subject to your interpretation of “small dice.” When a holiday meal disappoints, it often uses an ingredient or technique that’s new to the person preparing it, and sometimes that’s inevitable. Rack of lamb and roast goose aren’t everyday foods; we save them for the holidays because they’re special.
Mise en place
The French culinary strategy of mise en place—wherein each ingredient is washed, diced, prepared and measured before cooking begins—made its way from the restaurant kitchen to homes with the rise of cable TV food competitions. In a restaurant, chefs keep odd-sized stainless steel hotel pans, plastic deli containers and squeeze bottles of ingredients within arm’s reach, ready to cook a hundred meals. At home, this can look like a battery of teeny bowls—two tablespoons of chopped thyme, a quarter cup of oil. All the measuring ahead might seem excessive on a Tuesday, but for the big meal, mise en place is a lifesaver. What’s often lost among all the little pinch bowls is the big picture—making things ahead and reading (and rereading) the recipe. When dinner service starts, potatoes are not being cut to order. Anything that can possibly be done ahead of time without compromising the meal is done: chopping, sauces, garnishes. A lot of classic holiday foods can be made ahead in their entirety and reheated without sacrificing flavor.
And laying out the mise en place requires a thorough understanding of a recipe. Read yours through, then reread it, or risk finding yourself on the big day without a prebaked crust or room-temperature eggs.
Chefs get all the accolades—the restaurant’s visionary artists, they stay out of sight, in the back of the house, but it’s’ their names we’re most likely to know. Without their skills and creativity, there are no great restaurants. But the food on the plate isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of what makes a restaurant meal memorable. The front-of-the-house staff—managers, hosts, servers and bussers—the people you interact with–are responsible for the intangibles, the details that are seldom notice but make the experience joyful.
When a restaurant’s dining room is beautiful enough to be noticed, it’s almost certainly beautifully lit. The days of wax dripping romantically from Chianti bottles are largely behind us, but glass votives are still non-negotiable in most restaurants—or battery-operated ones, at least. A cool, bright LED overhead can make an otherwise lovely dining room feel like an interrogation room or the DMV, but everyone looks beautiful by candlelight. It’s easy to switch your overhead bulbs for something a little warmer, to take the wattage down a notch for the occasion—and it’s a lot of bang for your buck. Scatter warm light through a room with tapers, votives, string lights, and lanterns. It’s unlikely that anyone will notice the lighting, but they’ll remember the warm vibes.
If you’ve ever paused in a quiet restaurant booth, noticed the music just long enough to think, “I love this song,” and returned to your conversation, you’ve felt a good dinner playlist at work. Vaguely familiar but not distracting, just enough sound to fill the silence and keep the meal humming along. That little frisson of recognition makes you feel at home.Of course, a tune familiar to your nana may be new to your niece. Instrumental versions of pop hits are great—same goes for holiday songs. This is no time to showcase your unique taste or introduce folks to your friend’s band. Keep the volume down.
Check your table before service
Maybe you have a guest on your list who will notice the faint fingerprint on the wine glass, the one barely wilted ranunculus in the bunch, the crooked butter knife, but the last-minute walk through the dining room is mostly for you. Before the merry chaos blows in, take a moment to survey the landscape and feel ready. Polish the glassware and silverware. Straighten the tablecloth. Count the place settings and chairs. Then, showtime.
If you’ve spent several hours between a blazing oven and a steaming dishwasher, your sense of temperature might not match reality. Consult your thermostat, weather app, and household members, and open windows, light the fire or crank the AC to get the temperature where it needs to be. This can usually be remedied quickly, but in the crush of arriving guests, who has the bandwidth?
Never leave the dining room empty handed
Clean as you go. If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean. In a busy restaurant, efficiency is paramount. There are often no breaks. Thankfully, your home is not a restaurant. You’ve worked hard, but you’re not at work. Enjoy your guests and the atmosphere you’ve created. When it’s time to head back to the kitchen–between courses, to refill the water pitcher, to grab wine–scan the table for empty bread baskets or coupes, anything ready to be cleared. Grab what you can easily carry. It’s effortless and helps things flow.
Like restaurant meals, holiday meals are built on abundance, and that means leftovers, sometimes, a lot. It’s easy to find the kind of sturdy food containers restaurants use, ones that seal and won’t spill on the ride home. If you have to-go bags to put them in? Well, look at you!
Remember, at a restaurant, it’s a team of trained professionals making the magic, honing their skills, running through it every day. Your team of (give or take) one can only do so much.
Leave perfection to the pros. Your guests aren’t there for the lighting or timing, or even the food—they’re there for you.