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The Case for Thanksgiving at a Restaurant
Ben Leventhal and James Jung discuss the underrated joys of dining out rather than in on Turkey Day
Thanksgiving ranks as America’s most popular holiday, with 81 percent of the country celebrating — take that, Christmas. And, as we know, it’s a day stuffed with traditions: turkey, travel, family drama, and a smorgasbord of side dishes we hardly touch any other time of year (unless canned cranberry sauce is your jam). It’s also a holiday predominantly celebrated at home.
Yet, in recent years, the tide has turned ever so slightly on that last data point. According to a 2011 National Restaurant Association study, 14 million Americans — or six percent of the population — dined out for Thanksgiving, and the trend has only grown since, creeping up to 10 percent as of 2017. This Thanksgiving could prove to be the biggest boon yet for restaurants thanks in no small part to soaring, inflation-induced grocery store prices. As SupermarketGuru.com founder Phil Lempert told NBC News, “You’re going to save if you go out [to dinner] this year, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent.”
Frugality aside, we also think going out for Thanksgiving can be a damn nice thing to do, especially if it’s at a restaurant dear to your heart. Yes, restaurants can be more than a commodity or a piece of culinary entertainment or even a simple excuse to avoid doing the dishes. The best restaurants, at their core, can feel like home.
With that in mind, I sat down with Blackbird founder and CEO Ben Leventhal, who — like me — spent much of his formative years dining out rather than in for Turkey Day.
JJ: So maybe 10 years ago you and I had a discussion about how dining out for Thanksgiving was a tradition in your family. Am I remembering that correctly?
BL: Well, we went back and forth. But growing up there were plenty of years where we went to a restaurant. There was a good 10-year run where we went to Balthazar every Thanksgiving.
JJ: What started the Balthazar tradition? I’m guessing you had nothing to do with that…
BL: [laughs] We're a pretty small family. And so one year my mom said, "Why don't we just go out to dinner?" As for our decade-long run going to Balthazar, that coincided with my coming more into the restaurant world and so I pitched it as an idea.
JJ: New York City has many great restaurants. What was the secret Thanksgiving sauce Balthazar was serving to have you all return year after year?
BL: This is no shade on Balthazar (a restaurant I truly love), but I think in these holiday cases it has less to do with the restaurant itself — providing, of course, that it's a decent enough spot — and has more to do with tradition.
But just to take a step back. Holidays at restaurants are special because you have to keep in mind that the staff is there for the holiday as well. I was actually talking to Gabe Stulman about this today. His restaurants are always closed for Thanksgiving. He feels that everyone should have the day off. But the reality is, you're open on Wednesday and Friday. And so if your staff is working those shifts, it's unlikely that they're traveling home for Thanksgiving. So, as it turns out, some people who work in restaurants are happy to work on Thanksgiving because there's a sense of community to celebrate the holiday. In fact, they are celebrating the holiday with you.
JJ: Exactly. And you with them. Growing up, my family dined out often for Thanksgiving, typically at places where we knew the bartender and the waitress and maybe the chef. And while most of the other people in the dining room were strangers, their presence alone felt festive. I think it was this feeling of community which you mention that kept us coming back, too.
JJ: Ok, so what’s the pitch? How do you get your family to dine out for Thanksgiving?
BL: I think what it comes down to is this: if you’re not the type of family who wants to cook and eat all day followed by watching football, celebrating Thanksgiving at a restaurant is a great move. Think about it. Sure, every family has one banger dish — your mom’s mashed potatoes, Grandma Mary’s stuffing — but across the board a good restaurant is going to do a far superior job preparing the meal. They also know how to set the right atmosphere, make things festive, meaning your family and/or friends can simply focus on each other’s company and having a good time. No one is stuck with the selfless role of cook or tasked with cleaning up while everyone else opens another bottle of wine. At a restaurant, you sit around the table and eat with the people you want to eat with — that’s no small luxury in this life.
JJ: Sold. Now where should I make a reservation?
BL: Getting a table for this Thursday might be tough, then again it might not be (sometimes dining out during a day when most Americans dine in can be a great hack to snagging that otherwise hard to get reservation). But for future reference you want a place that has a warm, hearty, and convivial atmosphere. If I haven’t made this abundantly clear already, Balthazar is all-time. So too is Peasant for Thanksgiving. And 4 Charles nails the rustic vibe you want on such a timeless holiday. Also, don’t discount restaurants in hotels, which are usually open and know what they’re doing.
*Need a few other options? You can skip the turkey altogether in favor of Michelin-starred Korean barbecue at Cote. Or, if you’re out in LA, consider Lunetta in Santa Monica, and try to score a seat in the bar by the fireplace.
Thanks for reading and happy Thanksgiving.
Blackbird Labs, Inc.
Thanks for reading! Blackbird will launch in select restaurants later this year. In the meantime, if you dug this, please give it a like! We’re also on Twitter and would love to hear from you there.