“Our motto around the holidays is, ‘Leave the fuss to us,’” explains Georgia Brown’s general manager Ayanna Brown-Oliver. She’s been with the restaurant for 22 years and says they’ve served Thanksgiving dinner annually for at least a decade. “The style of cuisine that we offer was not a far shift from traditional Thanksgiving fare in it being comfort food.”
The downtown Southern restaurant is one of hundreds of D.C. restaurants that will serve a feast on Nov. 28. On OpenTable alone, you can make a reservation at 100 different places, from Peruvian eatery Nazca Mochica to Spanish fine dining jewel Del Mar.
Hotel restaurants have long kept their doors open, offering a “cheffy” version of the traditional meal to those who are visiting, without a suitable kitchen, or without the guts or motivation to cook. But City Paper observes the possibility that more standalone restaurants in D.C. are electing to stay open. The idea of visiting your favorite restaurant for one of the biggest food holidays of the year is certainly tempting, and it also lets you skip dirtying every possible pan and plate in your kitchen.
But should you make that reservation?
The demand is there. “We do 600 covers in a six-hour time period,” Brown-Oliver says. “We’re beyond booked. We’re turning people away.” Georgia Brown’s serves Thanksgiving dinner from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. “Even though we have demand for longer hours, we close a little early so staff have an opportunity to get home and enjoy their families.”
Unconventional Diner in Shaw expects to do similar numbers this year, according to the owner and executive chef David Deshaies. He says they have reservations for 400 people and expect 200 more to come enjoy a $48 three-course meal between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Before opening his own restaurant in 2017, Deshaies spent 10 years at Citronelle—the late Michel Richard’s fine dining restaurant inside the Latham Hotel in Georgetown. Each year they’d orchestrate an opulent buffet for Thanksgiving. When Deshaies moved over to Richard’s more casual restaurant Central, he introduced Thanksgiving service.
“The first year I did 600 covers,” he recalls. “Cover” is restaurant speak for a diner. “Shit, it’s really working! People are demanding to do family dinner at the restaurant. Some people are lazy and don’t want to cook turkey at home.”
Mark Bucher, the restaurateur behind Medium Rare, has several theories about why more people are dining out on Thanksgiving, if that’s in fact true. “It’s the ultimate erosion of people cooking at home,” he says, noting that delivery apps like Postmates and UberEats have contributed to people using their kitchens less. “Go walk into a local Williams Sonoma. It’s probably not crowded.”
He also wonders if the summer slump left restaurateurs scrambling for extra revenue streams. “It was the worst sale summer D.C. has ever seen,” he says. In conversations with City Paper, other restaurateurs have expressed similar sentiments. “They need some sales to make it. Rent still has to get paid. As restaurant sales decline in the new normal, there needs to be other ways to earn revenue. Opening on Thanksgiving could be one way.”
Declining sales can, in part, be attributed to increased competition. Over the past couple of years, nearly 50 restaurants opened at The Wharf and in Navy Yard alone. “There’s a lot more restaurants right now than ever,” says restaurateur Geoff Tracy. He believes if there’s an upward trend of restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinner it’s not necessarily because people are dining out more and demand it. There are simply “a boatload more restaurants in D.C. now compared to 10 years ago.”
Tracy is behind Chef Geoff’s, which has served Thanksgiving for 20 years. His restaurants Lia’s and Cafe Deluxe on M Street NW will also be open this year. “We’re open on every holiday except for Christmas,” Tracy says. “Thanksgiving is a nice one because there’s a culinary component. It’s popular and not an overly difficult meal to create. A lot of people in the neighborhood either don’t want to or don’t like to cook, so it’s nice for them to come hang out with us for a little bit.”
Before Salt Line partner and executive chef Kyle Bailey moved to D.C., he cooked in New York, where he says you work every holiday. “That’s a very New York thing,” he explains. “You’re always open. The owners are like, ‘I have to pay rent those days.’ You are fully expected to continue in the spirit of hospitality.”
He wonders what the potential uptick in dining out on Thanksgiving says about the D.C. dining scene and Washingtonians’ spending habits. “It’s actually a good sign that people are willing to come out,” Bailey says. “D.C. is changing. When I first moved here that wasn’t something that was happening much.”
Bailey didn’t mind working on the holiday when he was younger. “It’s an easy menu—you can have an awesome bird. You’re going to have a fun time doing it. It’s just expected and you just do it.” But now that he’s in a leadership position he shuts things down on Turkey Day. The Salt Line is closed to give staff a break.
That’s the very crux of this debate. If you dine out on Thanksgiving, does it signal to more and more restaurant owners that they too should open so as to not miss out on business, at the expense of pulling cooks, servers, and bartenders away from time with friends and family?
“If restaurants are open, people should feel comfortable making reservations to go,” Bucher argues. “Not going because they think it’s unfair to the workers really hurts the workers who show up.” Front-of-house employees like servers and bartenders are most vulnerable when it comes to empty dining rooms since many depend on tips to carry them over the minimum wage.
That said, Bucher hopes that restaurants pay time-and-a-half or ask for volunteers who want to work. “Sometimes it comes down to: Are restaurant employees told they have to work, or is the restaurant looking for volunteers who want to work?”
The Capitol Hill Medium Rare opens on Thanksgiving, but only from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that customers can swing by with their turkeys to get them deep fried for free—an annual tradition in its 10th year. Bucher says he needs about four to six staff members to carry out the task and pour drinks for people waiting on their birds.
“I spend a year asking for volunteers,” he says. “And we send everybody home with Thanksgiving dinner for their families. That’s how we do it. I know working on Thanksgiving sucks.”
Brown-Oliver has a strategy at Georgia Brown’s she calls a “holiday election.” She asks staff to rank Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day on a scale of one to four, according to which days they’d most like off.
“If I get enough volunteers, I don’t have to force folks to work,” she says. “Thanksgiving is a great money holiday day for them. The prix fixe menu is $65 person. With 600 covers and 10 servers, no one has pushback. That is the most coveted of the holidays to work.”
Math time! If diners tip 20 percent, the take home could be as much as $780 per person (though servers might have to “tip out” support staff like bussers and bar-backs).
Calvin Hines Jr. is a server who has worked at Georgia Brown’s in the past. He’s currently employed at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle, DBGB Kitchen + Bar, and Sonoma Restaurant and Bar. He says working on Thanksgiving is the norm in this market. “For established restaurants that have traditionally opened and have had success, it’s a great way to generate extra revenue,” he says. “In our business, we set out to create moments and memories and these restaurants have become a part of so many people’s family tradition.”
Over the years he’s seen employers pay their staff holiday pay in addition to whatever tips they earn, which he says is a great way to show appreciation. “I have also seen instances where servers like to work Thanksgiving because of the extra volume, which translates to a very lucrative day.”
The calculation is a little different for kitchen workers whose paychecks don’t typically fluctuate with customer volume, whether they’re salaried or earn an hourly wage. Chef Michael Bonk is coming up on his third Thanksgiving at BLT Steak. He largely didn’t have to work on the holiday at previous jobs.
“After being here, I don’t mind it,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of family here. I’m not missing out on anything personally. It’s definitely worthwhile. I get to cook for more people than I would on my own. If I have family and friends, they’ll come in and I can just cook for them here. It’s easier for me, I don’t have to deal with the clean-up.”
But dishwashers do. Bonk has an answer for that. “All my staff is Latino. They appreciate Thanksgiving to a certain extent, but not to the same level that I grew up with. It’s already a working day. A lot would rather get paid.”
Beuchert’s Saloon partner and executive chef Andrew Markert is grateful for the day off. “It’s one of those holidays that everyone tends to go home or find family to be around,” he says. “If we had done it from the beginning, we might have a reputation for it. But it’s hard to add it after years of being closed and expect to one day generate enough revenue to keep staff happy. It’s a tough time to find staff. The ones you have, you want to keep happy.”
He has advice for diners who choose to eat out on Thanksgiving. “Try to be a little more accommodating to issues in the restaurants,” Markert says. “A lot will be understaffed because people request off … Be thankful that they’re open. It’s a holiday for everyone, not just for people dining out. Staff are sacrificing their time to work for the guest. I know they’re getting paid, but still.”
Fortunately, according to Hines, diners are usually their best selves. “In most cases, guests who come in on Thanksgiving are in very good spirits and are already appreciative,” he says. “Being seen as human beings who just so happen to provide you with a culinary experience is a great way to show us your gratitude. The next way is obviously to be a little more generous with the tip at the end of the meal.”