The Holidays Are Good to Go: Restaurants and caterers stand ready to give home cooks a break

My sister, Marby, and I attended St. Patrick’s School in East St. Louis, back in, well, let’s just say, it was back in the day. The Sisters of Loretto, many of whom were from Ireland, were our teachers. At the time, Miss Hullings was one of the most popular restaurants in Downtown St. Louis. One year, our dad ordered a full-course Thanksgiving dinner for the nuns in the convent. When we delivered boxes filled with turkeys and containers of mashed potatoes, green beans, sweet potatoes, cranberries and pumpkin pies to St. Patrick’s, many Irish eyes were indeed smiling.

Turns out he was ahead of his time – takeout food for holiday meals is big business today. St. Louisans are following the national trend of choosing stress-free quality time with family over spending time in the kitchen. “People supplement their holiday dinner in various ways,” said Pat Bergauer, executive vice president of the Missouri Restaurant Association. “Some might dine at a restaurant, others get a full meal from the grocer or caterer, and it’s now popular to order the side dishes in and cook the turkey at home so that that holiday aroma is there to greet everyone.”

In our collective efforts to find more time in our day and spend more time at home, Americans are increasingly turning to takeout and catering as a way to supplement and even replace the act of “cooking in.” Last June, The New York Times reported that curbside takeout is the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant industry. So what’s for Christmas dinner in St. Louis?

Restaurants that are open on holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Day are doing a booming business, which means that the traditional holiday celebration of “bringing a dish” is changing with the times. Local resident Gerry Kessler contributes to that trend. For years, her home was filled with family for the “big dinner.” But as children moved away, the gathering became smaller until one year, it was just Kessler and a daughter. They decided to serve dinners at the Evangelical Center, after which they were invited to a holiday meal. Dining out has become a tradition for Kessler ever since.

In the early years, it was tricky finding a decent place that was open on the holiday. “Oh, one year it was Steak ‘n Shake, another it was IHOP, but it did not matter what we ate, as long as we were together. Then we found Layton’s in Clayton and went there for years until it closed,” said Kessler. In 2005, Kessler and her son, Scott, scouted out Bristol Seafood Grill in Creve Coeur. Said Kessler: “It is a lovely, lovely buffet and very reasonable. The holiday food is wonderful, but they also offer lots of fresh seafood like oysters on the half shell and shrimp. This is our place now.”

Concentrating on only Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 overlooks the fact that as families spread out, they often celebrate when it’s convenient for everyone to get together. That’s why the holiday season as a whole is big for two-year-old Lucas Park Grille, located Downtown on Washington Avenue – and it’s not even open on Christmas or New Year’s Day. “Our customers are mainly young, single urbanites who might bring their parents in around Christmas to celebrate,” said executive chef Jason Bayle. Accordingly, he installed a new contemporary American comfort food menu in time for the holidays.

Traditional takeout

Straub’s markets have served St. Louisans since 1901. The grocer’s prepared Christmas dinners can be ordered for up to 10 people. Straub’s deli buyer Juli Oliva loves this time of year. “The craziness just adds to the total customer-service experience for us here,” Oliva said. Christmas means smoked jumbo shrimp, and for New Year’s Eve, customers go for decadence. “At New Year’s, people want our premium pâtés, Champagne, specialty cheeses – you know, the last indulgence before the New Year’s resolutions,” she said. “And for New Year’s Day, our chef’s quiches are in demand for brunch.”

According to Straub’s executive chef Freddie Youngblood, Christmas and New Year’s Eve orders are different from other holiday requests. “Our dinner packages are popular at other times. But at Christmas, our customers want something more elegant. We roast beef tenderloins, crown pork loins, duck, prime rib. If we can get our hands on it, we’ll cook it,” said Youngblood.

Straub’s signature side dishes – dauphinoise potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, risotto cakes and even its chicken salad – grace many holiday tables. Because Straub’s is a fairly small operation, Youngblood has had to institute a cutoff time for orders, three to four days before the holiday. And what does the chef like to eat around Christmas? “Eat? I don’t even think I eat over the holidays, we are so busy working ’round the clock.”

Christmas is the biggest holiday for Tom Bangert, owner of Heavenly Ham in Sunset Hills. In the six years that his ham and turkey store has been open, Bangert has tracked a transition in the type of ham that people request. “When I first started, 80 percent of our ham sales were bone-in style,” he said. “Now, 60 percent of our sales are for boneless ham. Both are spiral-cut with a honey-spice glaze. Twenty years ago, people wanted the bone to make soup, now my customers say to me, ‘What do I do with that bone?’ They don’t have time to make soup.”

Both the frozen, fully cooked, roasted and smoked turkeys and the cooked, fresh turkey breasts have become favorites of the road-trip crowd who travel “over the hills to Grandma’s house” for the holidays to arrive with a heat-and-serve turkey in the cooler. The Holiday Feast package – with a ham or turkey, two sides and one dessert – is the way to go for those who can’t face cooking. Sweet Potato Casserole and Broccoli and Rice Casserole are popular side dishes, and Peach Praline Pie outranks Apple Caramel Walnut Pie. And, yes, Christmas is definitely a ham holiday.

“People are traditionalists at Thanksgiving and want a whole turkey, so they might add a ham,” Bangert said. “At Christmas and New Year’s, it is reversed – we sell more hams, so clients add turkey to balance out their menu.” And, no matter what people think they need to order, they always say, “Give me plenty for leftovers.”

From the comfort of home

Richard Perry burst on to the St. Louis restaurant scene in the 1970s with his restaurant, The Jefferson Avenue Boarding House. He was among the first to use fresh and regionally produced ingredients. These days, he is the inspiration behind Chef Richard Perry Delivers, and as a personal chef, he offers clients healthful meals that use fresh local ingredients and are compatible with the nutritional guidelines of groups such as the USDA, Weight Watchers, the American Dietetic Association, Atkins and The Zone. Perry’s menus are based on seasonal ingredients and, though his company won’t be offering a specific Christmas menu this year, items appropriate to the holiday will be featured.

Richard Nix Jr., president of Butler’s Pantry, tailors parties for 25 to 200, but he has seen an increase in the number of intimate dinner celebrations in the last couple of years. “Home family get-togethers are back with a vengeance,” he said. “People are building bigger and bigger homes with luxurious amenities. So our clients want to showcase the home in a more relaxing and comfortable setting for their family and guests.”

Intimate gatherings with fish front and center are the order of the day for Nix. “Fresh fish is flown in daily to St. Louis from both coasts and other countries,” he said. “We are receiving more and more requests for lobster at Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Atlantic char, sea bass and trout.”

Nix also mentioned that people tend to forget that the holidays do run until Dec. 31. “This can be a real downtime for people to celebrate perhaps a late family holiday,” he said. “Major shopping is over, there are fewer conflicts with other events and people are more relaxed.”

The bulk cooking craze, where customers cook at a commercial kitchen that handles the prep and clean up, has hit the St. Louis market. Four local women debuted Time for Dinner a few years ago, and co-owner Paige Ohliger said that Time for Dinner differs from its competitors. “We try to use local purveyors like Hollyberry Baking Co. for cookies and AuraPro for the meat substitute. And except for sprinkling on some herbs, there are no extra steps when you heat up the meal that was prepared here.”

The company’s November and December menus offer plenty of holiday-friendly possibilities. December features a breakfast casserole to bake on Christmas morning, Cranberry Chicken, Blue Cheese Tartlets and Chocolate Bliss Cookies. Time for Dinner preps meats daily, but because of the time factor involved, whole turkeys and hams are not available. However, it offers the stuff that goes with the main course, such as green bean bundles and twice-baked potatoes. Said Ohliger, “It really gets crazy right before a holiday when people realize, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t have enough time.’”

Someday, it may just be the overworked restaurateurs themselves who drive a renaissance of old-fashioned, home-cooked holiday dinners. The Missouri Restaurant Association’s Bergauer is leading the way: “When I worked in hotel food and beverage, my children ate out on holidays when they were young,” she said. “But for years, I have had a big dinner at home, and I can now say that my grandchildren have never eaten out on holidays.”