Candy Cane Wishes and General Tso Kisses
Believe it or not, eating out on Christmas Eve has become something of a holiday tradition.
My dad used to joke that if you wanted to know how many Jews lived in our rural New England town, all you had to do was go to the Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve and count the patrons. The night of December 24th, or “Jewish Christmas,” as it’s sometimes called, is marked by the sacrosanct tradition of dining out on General Tso’s and sesame beef before taking in a movie at the multiplex and sleeping in as late as you want because there aren’t going to be any presents to open. Passed down through generations, it is an opportunity for those not of the sweater and eggnog set to carve out their own reason for the season; a kind of a wink and nod custom between cultures left out of the yuletide experience.
In Boston, the heavyweight champion of Jewish Christmas is most likely Golden Temple in Brookline. Eric Hornfeldt is the general manager of Golden Temple and tells me that the restaurant, which opened in 1961, always does brisk business at Christmas. “Come 5 p.m., when other places start to close and the work day is done, then the fun begins.”
Hornfeldt goes on to describe the clientele the restaurant serves on that day: “Brookline has for a long time had a large Jewish population. We [also] see people who are not traveling, former Brookliners back to visit, people who may have burned their dinner that night, even folks who may have gotten into a tiff with their in-laws and come out to have a drink.”
Okay, so I’ve identified the what and the who of the matter. Morris Chen, a manager at Lotus Blossom in Sudbury, provides the why. “We’re very, very, busy on Christmas Eve. It’s a big day for our restaurant,” he says. I ask Chen why he thinks people prefer Chinese on this night. He gives me a matter-of-fact answer that pretty much ends the discussion. “Because most restaurants are closed and Chinese restaurants are always open.” No further questions!
However, the concept of Jewish Christmas really only tells a part of the story. Jews may have popularized eating Chinese on Christmas Eve, but it’s not a tradition exclusive to Jews or to Chinese food. I took a peek at Open Table, which lists 83 restaurants open on the 24th. Food blogs run annual Christmas Eve restaurant roundups and the twitter hashtag #openinBOS is a useful way to find out where Christmas orphans are being overserved.
And it’s not just in the city. Even in surburbs like Lincoln you can find a restaurant open on Christmas Eve. AKA Bistro’s owner Christian Touche relishes the opportunity to provide some calm before the storm of intensive family time. Plus, he enjoys the cheery disposition of his customers on the night before Christmas. “I think it’s kind of a celebration,” he says. “People don’t want to cook or receive people—they want to go out. It makes business sense and because it’s a festive day, people are very happy. It’s one of my favorite celebrations of the year.”
Sometimes it’s easy to overlook how restaurants, beyond serving food and drink, have the ability to bring people together and create community. A great example of this is Bergamot in Somerville, where it was the regulars who requested the restaurant stay open on Christmas Eve. Owner Servio Garcia happily obliged. “We are fortunate enough to have a huge base of regular guests, so there was a lot of demand for it,” he says. “They didn’t want to cook. They wanted to be with us.”
Not only do Garcia’s guests want to celebrate part of their Christmas at Bergamot, so do some of the staff, who've made a tradition of cooking Christmas Eve dinner together at the restaurant after all the guests have gone. Garcia beams when he tells me, “We’re like a family.”
Golden Temple, 1651 Beacon St., Brookline, 617.277.9722, healthyfreshfood.com
Bergamot, 118 Beacon St., Somerville, 617.576.7700, bergamotrestaurant.com
Lotus Blossom Chinese Restaurant, 394 Boston Post Rd., Sudbury, 978.443.0200, lotuscuisine.com