With the coronavirus crisis still raging, many of the Bay Area establishments best known for sumptuous Thanksgiving spreads — hotel restaurants — remain closed. For other longtime Thanksgiving destinations, moving at least part of the feast outdoors is just one of the many adjustments that restaurateurs are making to be able to offer some semblance of their usual festivities — even if they’re gambling on whether the rain clouds will stay away that day.
“It’s like Murphy’s law,” says Greg Lutes, chef owner of the cozy Bernal Heights fine dining spot 3rd Cousin. “If it can go wrong, it’s going to go wrong on a holiday.”
Those worries notwithstanding, Lutes says he’s reopening the restaurant — temporarily closed since September while the chef recovered from ankle surgery — the week of November 16 specifically to gear up for Thanksgiving, which historically has been the restaurant’s second biggest day of revenue of the year. With indoor dining currently capped at 25 percent capacity, Lutes isn’t expecting that kind of banner day in 2020, which is why 3rd Cousin is also offering a takeout Thanksgiving meal for the first time — and why the six seats it has outside are more than just an afterthought: They represent nearly a third of the restaurant’s total seating capacity.
Food-wise, 3rd Cousin won’t be serving anything too different from its usual, very classic Thanksgiving spread, headlined by an herb roasted organic Diestel turkey. But Lutes says the good thing, from a cold weather perspective, is that everything is coursed out hot on individual plates rather than served family- or buffet-style — the better to prevent the food from getting cold.
That’s one of the adjustments chef Jason Fox will be making at Villon, inside the mid-Market’s Proper Hotel, where the Michelin-pedigreed chef will be running the restaurant’s longstanding Thanksgiving dinner operation for the first time this year — serving, again, a fairly classic turkey dinner, albeit with a few modernist (black truffle froth in the chestnut and celery root, for instance) twists. Normally, the Thanksgiving feast is served as a big family-style spread, but not this year — more out of a COVID-related safety concern about food sharing than because of any weather-related issue, Fox says.
Which isn’t to say that Villon won’t also be relying heavily on outdoor seating this Thanksgiving: The week of November 16, the restaurant will install a 100-foot-long, heat lamp–equipped tent that’ll run almost the entire length of the building, specifically with its Thanksgiving service in mind.
For some restaurants, this year’s onslaught of challenges means their kitchens actually have more capacity to handle a special Thanksgiving meal than they would under ordinary circumstances. Liholiho Yacht Club chef and co-owner Ravi Kapur says he never even considered serving Thanksgiving dinner in the past, given how slammed his buzzy Tendernob restaurant would get around the holidays. This year? If nothing else, he and his staff have the luxury of time, and so the restaurant is offering a $200 ready-to-reheat takeout Thanksgiving dinner: turkey roulade, mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie, the whole nine yards.
“I’m not seeing it as, ‘Oh great, now we’ve got to do Thanksgiving,’” Kapur says. Instead, it’s as an opportunity to explore doing something they wouldn’t normally have a chance to otherwise — and if it’s successful, Kapur says, maybe Liholiho will do something for Christmas and New Year’s too. “It just wasn’t ever possible before. We were already working insane hours.”
What Kapur feels confident of, though, is that the meal — based loosely on the Thanksgiving dinners he’s been preparing at home for years — will provide the kind of comfort most customers are looking for around the holidays, even as it gives each dish a bit of that Asian- and Hawaiian-inflected Liholiho sparkle. (“I’m not going to be the guy coming in and dismantling people’s [Thanksgiving] reference points,” Kapur says.) There’s Chinese-style sticky rice stuffing, made with the restaurant’s housemade Spam instead of lap cheong; passionfruit cream pie; and, as a nod to green bean casserole, a cauliflower-“kimcheese” gratin.
Indeed, if there’s some silver lining to the multiple challenges inherent in celebrating a holiday during a pandemic, it’s that there seem to be a greater variety of options than ever before, particularly in the takeout sector. Like Liholiho Yacht Club, Prubechu, San Francisco’s only Guamanian restaurant, had always been too busy in past years to offer a Thanksgiving meal. This year, however, co-owner Shawn Camacho says the Mission District restaurant is now giving everything a shot: app-based delivery; takeout, generally; movie nights on the patio; meal kits; and, yes, a $380 takeout turkey dinner meant to serve six people. “It’s all in an attempt to recuperate some of the revenue from the loss of indoor dining,” Camacho says.
What that means for diners, though, is an introduction to a Chamorro-style Thanksgiving dinner — the kind of holiday feast folks from Guam remember enjoying back on the island. Side dishes, for instance, include riyeno, or Chamorro-style stuffing, flavored with ground beef, carrots, and various aromatics; fina’denne, the all-purpose soy sauce and vinegar-based sauce that Guamanians like to dip their turkey in; and, at the very head of the table, a platter of red rice, perhaps the most iconic Guamanian dish of all.
In any other year, it’s a meal they wouldn’t likely be selling at the restaurant — an opportunity for cultural exchange that’s born out of all this struggle.
“We’re of no illusion that the restaurant is thriving, so we’re all still putting in as much as we can,” Camacho says. “Holidays are going to be a little strange this year.”