[updated for 2016] Every year I receive emails asking where I eat Thanksgiving dinner. Years ago, someone important to me died during Thanksgiving week, and it is still a difficult time for me. Because of this, ten of the last 12 years, I’ve gone to a restaurant.
Unfortunately, a turkey dinner is not easy for a restaurant to prepare. Most don’t have the facilities to roast a bunch of turkeys. Some kitchens start with turkey breast, but even so, the meat frequently comes out dry, and I’ve learned other entrees are frequently the best options.The other issue is restaurants are usually booked to the gills, turning out a tremendous amount of food at a pace much greater than normal. All of this adds to an equation which ends up in normally excellent restaurants turning out less than satisfactory food.
Over the years, I’ve had dinner at Higgins, Paley’s Place, Wildwood, The Country Cat, The Heathman, Andina, Meriwether’s and Urban Farmer. My best experiences were Paley’s which was a classy, well-paced experience, Wildwood where I spent three years in a row (now closed), and The Country Cat. Last year I stayed home and binged on good wine, good cheese and good bread. No complaints.
This year we tried Urban Farmer, mostly because I had procrastinated, and their menu sounded the best out of the restaurants which still had seats available. I like the Urban Farmer experience. Getting off of the elevator on the 8th floor and walking into the open courtyard with the glass ceiling towering far above makes every first-timer pause to gawk. Artwork abounds, just odd enough to make you want to stop and look. But we are here for the food.
The service was excellent. A terrific waitress and a great support staff made the difference between a rant on this page, rather than a tepid review. I liked the menu, and the wine list was just fine. Salads arrived looking pretty, but otherwise unremarkable, though they were the best dishes of the evening. Based on years of experience, we opted out of turkey, and instead ordered 2 pork chops and a prime rib. Both were alone on a plate, but were served with a bevy of traditional side dishes. The pork chops were cold on the plate, the meat had a mealy texture making me wonder if it had been frozen at some point, and the “stewed peaches and spiced pecan”; a tiny lump on a huge chop. Grade: D.
The “applewood smoked” prime rib was a gristle loaded gray slab of meat with a pallid over-smoked flavor. I ate a third of it, and still ended up giving up on chewing some bites of meat. A smear of bacon jam was the saving grace. I’d give it a D. This brings me to the sides; brussels sprouts – forgettable, smashed red potatoes – totally devoid of texture but loaded with dairy, roasted winter squash and maple-endive with unchewable bits, and cornbread stuffing, which was dry and unremarkable. Again, a solid D. Desserts were ok, but a ginger pear cobbler was abysmal.
In short, this was a pretty average meal for Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant; cafeteria food, elevated by a nice space and excellent service. Certainly better than my experiences in past years at Andina and Meriwether’s.
In 2014, Andina was an absolute mess. The hostess stand was moved to the top of the stairs, just inside the door. If you are familiar with the restaurant, you’ll know the only place to stand other than the stairs is a tiny area just inside the door. We were packed in like cattle, with a ten minute wait before we could fight our way to the hostess. In the meantime, we were buffeted by a parade of overworked, angry-looking staff, trying to wind their way through the crowd while carrying large trays of food. An equally large river of dirty dishes was going the other direction, which wasn’t particularly appetizing to look at as they were inches from our faces. Whenever the door opened, cold air poured in. This was insanity. Our reservation ran one hour late, which is unforgivable for a restaurant with so many tables – and they had them packed in everywhere – upstairs, downstairs, plus the main level. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were over their capacity. We ended up pushed into a downstairs corner, feeling like we were crashing a budget wedding. I followed my norm and ordered off the regular menu, which wasn’t as good as it normally is. A few tastes off of the Thanksgiving plate also left me unimpressed. At one point a diner at the next table loudly told his companions, “They’ve sold off to the mighty dollar – it’s obvious this is all they care about here”. I thought the same, and though it used to be one of my favorite restaurants, I will not go back.
The year before, I made the regrettable mistake of going to Meriwether’s Northwest. I’m in my 60’s, and this was the worst Thanksgiving meal I’ve ever had – that’s saying something. Their description for dinner: “The perfect setting for a unique farm-to-table dinner, our 3-course Thanksgiving menu is crafted from late fall produce harvested from our own Skyline Farm. The stone fireplaces, stained glass and hardwood floors provide one of the coziest spots in Portland for family & friends to relax and enjoy.”
Our experience: we were seated immediately and handed menus. About 4 minutes later, a waiter came to take our order. He also took our cocktail and wine orders. Okay, that was fast, but whatever. Seven minutes passed and all of our food arrived at once, carried by multiple waiters. S e v e n minutes, all family style, lukewarm, served on large cold platters which barely fit on our four-top. The food was Denny’s quality; I wouldn’t have been surprised if the cranberries still had the shape of the can. On the way to the restroom I glanced into the kitchen to see a long row of metal buffet pans being used to hold food. It should be noted that the cocktails came when we were most of the way through dinner, and that the wine arrived with the dessert. I can’t remember how much we paid, but I do remember that we all felt ripped off, even those of us whom weren’t particularly picky eaters. The entire meal took less than an hour.
I understand Thanksgiving is a cash cow for restaurants, and I totally support them being open. I tip the heck out of the waiters because I appreciate them working on a holiday, and you should too. But when a restaurant crosses the line, sacrificing both the quality of the food and the overall customer experience for a cash infusion, no one is going to be happy. It didn’t help my experience that I sat there feeling sorry for the staff.
Whether you are out for Christmas, New Years Eve or Thanksgiving, order wisely, treat the staff with kindness, be reasonably patient, and love the ones you are with. You may find yourself returning every year.
If you have a positive or negative holiday dining experience, feel free to tell us in the comments.