These holiday-ready restaurants guarantee a no-fuss Christmas Eve and Day
Robin Jones, Megan McCrea, Jenna Scatena, and Kim Brown Seely
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Hotel del Coronado, Coronado, CA
It’s not unusual to see three generations of one family dining together during the holidays. So what’s different about it when it happens at the Hotel del Coronado? “Many times, people who came as kids bring their own kids,” says Christopher Reid, manager of the hotel’s 1500 Ocean eatery, just across the bay from San Diego. “There are people who’ve been coming to us at Christmas for 20 years.”
The holiday tradition at The Del goes back much further than that; the oceanside resort debuted the first electrically lit outdoor Christmas tree in 1904 and to this day uses thousands of lights to decorate the iconic tower and the famous lobby tree.
But it’s not stuck in the past. The four-course Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus at 1500 Ocean include fresh takes on holiday favorites, like duck-liver mousse and cranberry gelée, braised beef short ribs, and chocolate crème brûlée. Diners can sit indoors or on a covered patio, where they can watch people starting new traditions at the hotel’s beachfront seasonal ice-skating rink. “At least once a week during the holiday season, someone proposes there,” Reid says. $$$$; 1500 Orange Ave.; hoteldel.com.
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Christmas comes early to Hopscotch, a lively diner-inspired bistro in Oakland’s Uptown district. A full six weeks before December 25, Hopscotch begins dishing out a new holiday-inspired specialty meal each week. Expect family-style servings of duck with roasted acorn squash or maybe Dungeness crab with homemade soba noodles. The favorite in a past season was the coveted “Goose Four Ways” dish: juicy smoked goose, goose breast pastrami, crisp goose legs, and goose confit, served with sides of persimmon chutney and fried sunchokes.
“Goose is so tied into Christmas, but I couldn’t remember ever actually eating it,” says co-owner and executive chef Kyle Itani. “So I did a test run with friends and decided to feature it on the menu”—a tradition he’s continuing. We suggest pairing it with the “Elf on the Shelf” cocktail: Armagnac, rye, sweet vermouth, génépy, and mint. Homey accessories like Christmas wreaths in the window and mason-jar candleholders make it easy to forget you’re in an urban diner. $$; 1915 San Pablo Ave.; hopscotchoakland.com.
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The Compound Restaurant, Santa Fe
If there ever were a perfect chef for Christmas, it would be one who was born on Christmas Day. Such is the case with Mark Kiffin of Santa Fe’s beloved Compound. During the holidays, the James Beard Award–winning chef transforms the restaurant into a storybook home decked out with golden pinecones, pine-tree sprigs, reindeer statuettes, and white icicle lights illuminating the snow outside. Many locals have made coming to the historic adobe estate a holiday family tradition.
Hearty dishes include the Compound Classic: buttermilk roast chicken with creamed spinach and foie gras pan gravy. But that shouldn’t upstage the lighter fare, such as tuna tartare with homemade preserved lemon, or the crabmeat salad tossed with sweet peppers. $$$$; 653 Canyon Rd.; compoundrestaurant.com.
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Meadowood, St. Helena, CA
Since 2008, the annual “Twelve Days of Christmas” dinner has made The Restaurant at Meadowood almost as famous as its namesake hotel. For a dozen days in December, the three-Michelin-star eatery hosts rising chefs from around the world who create special holiday dinner menus served with Napa Valley wine pairings. Chefs from Denmark, Belgium, France, and Norway have lit up the minimalist restaurant with dishes inspired by Napa and their respective countries. Last year, for instance, beets arrived with red seaweed, plums, almonds, and black lime from Copenhagen.
The understated holiday decor begins right at the arrival gate, which is bordered by trees decked out in white lights. Plants native to the property—branches, grapevines, berries—are crafted into Christmas wreaths or garlands, and an elegant Christmas tree dominates the restaurant’s interior. $$$$; 900 Meadowood Lane; therestaurantatmeadowood.com.
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Brown Palace Hotel, Denver
One 12-foot evergreen; scores of garlands and Christmas wreaths; at least 130 poinsettias; and one 25-foot-wide, 3,500-pound chandelier. That’s what it takes to transform the Brown Palace Hotel into holiday central. The effect: magical.
We love Christmas dinner at the hotel’s unfussy Ship Tavern, which dates to 1934 and inhabits the “prow” of the famously triangular hotel. Chef Michael Rodriguez’s holiday menu ($55 prix fixe; Dec 24–25) features comforting classics—juicy prime rib, tender sea bass—while Charles Smith’s playful drinks menu spotlights local flavors—Breckenridge-made bitters, say, or honey harvested from the Brown Palace roof. Beers on tap include the seasonally changing Brown Palace cask craft ale, made down the street at the Wynkoop Brewing Company.
Given the informal atmosphere, you’ll feel equally comfortable in a little black dress or a Peyton Manning jersey. In the corner,
hotel pianist John Kite plays seasonal favorites (“Let It Snow”), and, if you’re lucky, he could be joined by a local musical theater actor, or even by Billy Joel, who once duetted in the lobby. According to veteran bartender Charles Smith, who’s worked here for 14 years, “People come back again and again, year after year, and there’s very little turnover in the staff … it feels like a family.” $$$$; 321 17th St.; brownpalace.com.
Creative Commons photo by Arnold Gatilao is licensed under CC BY 2.0
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Creative Commons photo by Arnold Gatilao is licensed under CC BY 2.0
A16, San Francisco
Throughout the year, this Marina neighborhood stalwart stakes its claim on delicacies from Italy’s Campania region. Lucky for diners, its plan remains the same during the holidays.
Every year on Christmas Eve, A16 serves the Italian region’s special Feast of Seven Fishes, a seven-course marathon of seafood dressed up with local California ingredients. Delicate octopus is stewed with potato, green olives, and ceci neri (black chickpeas); tuna conserva joins Calabrian chile and dandelion greens resting on a pillow of fava-bean purée; squid-ink tonnarelli is mixed with Meyer lemon and Mendocino sea urchin. Dishes as simple as pizza—crisped in an oven so hot it opens and cooks the clams set on top of it—serve as a centerpiece to the conversation. Don’t overlook the Italian wine-pairing options, which include a choice of white, red, or natural. $$$$; 2355 Chestnut St.; a16sf.com.
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The Original Dinerant, Portland
Save room for dessert: Handmade pies are baked fresh most days at The Original Dinerant. That includes apple pies filled with Oregon and Washington apples and single-serving “figgy” pies topped with fresh figs.
With its spacious booths, updated Danish-modern decor, and candlelit bar, the Original has an upscale 1960s-diner-meets-
supper-club vibe—just the place to kick off Christmas Eve or Christmas dinner with an oak barrel–aged Manhattan served straight up. “We’ll be turning your mom’s usual Christmas staples into diner destination dishes,” says new chef AJ Voytko. On
Christmas Day, when the diner gets decked out in garlands and oversize Christmas ornaments, that means a $38 prix fixe menu, including either horseradish-crusted prime rib, grilled steelhead, or a vegetarian asparagus lasagna; arugula salad topped by candied hazelnuts, goat cheese, and vanilla croutons; and for dessert, brioche crème brûlée bread pudding. $$; 300 S.W. Sixth Ave.; originaldinerant.com.
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Balboa Bay Resort, Newport Beach, CA
Longtime visitors to the Balboa Bay Resort got a bit of a shock when they walked into the hotel lobby during the 2014 holidays: A complete remodel had turned the clubby space into a stylish and modern spot. “Lots of people who had been coming for years were looking around, asking us, ‘What used to be there? And what used to be over here?’ ” says JC Converse, manager of the Balboa’s upscale Waterline Newport Beach restaurant when it reopened. “It’s no longer stuffy, old, and traditional here. There’s a new vibe.”
Once the initial surprise wore off, even the old-timers warmed up to the changes, Converse says, and the eclectic new holiday menu certainly helped the cause. Main courses included seared duck breast with crisp ravioli of confit duck and balsamic roasted fig; desserts like sticky toffee pudding with citrus confit and espresso ice cream ended meals with a wink to tradition. And despite the transformation, one of the restaurant’s main draws remains the same: the unparalleled view of Newport Bay, where yachts and mansions lavishly decorated for the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade put on a dazzling light show after dark. $$$; 1221 West Coast Hwy.; balboabayresort.com.