Attitudes vary towards Christmas dinner. Many believe that serving a turkey dinner as part of your set Christmas menu is essential, with customers ordering turkey and Christmas pudding while barely looking at the menu.
But in major cities, this is changing. “Very few people would take a traditional Christmas menu in our restaurants,” says D&D London’s managing director David Loewi. Demand for turkey is diminishing and while turkey, steak and salmon in some form still constitute the core mains on most set menus, offering a further choice beyond that (a second, more adventurous, set menu; a seasonal à la carte) is wise.
Simon Flint,executive chef at the National Theatre, last year decided to give guests at one Christmas party a goose and pheasant strudel, which a chef carved up in front of them.
“It added a bit of theatre to the proceedings and was just a bit different, but still used traditional ingredients,” explains Flint. “You have to push the boat out a bit at this time of year. People are prepared to spend a bit more on great ingredients at Christmas, so include those that give the menu a feeling of luxury and of Christmas.”
Point of difference
So it seems that, while offering a more conventional Christmas menu will get bums on seats, offering a variety or giving your own variation on Christmas dinner can work just as well and, in fact, be used as a way of promoting your own brand's identity.
Take Kenza Restaurant & Late Night Lounge in London’s Devonshire Square, for example. The Middle Eastern concept is offering a choice of seven Christmas menus this year, ranging from a selection of hot and cold starters, sharing platters and individual courses.
“We’ve rejigged the menus a little bit but its more or less based on what we’ve done previously because it works really well,” says Elana Loudiyi – sales, events and marketing manager at Levant Group, which runs the venue.
“Lebanese food actually lends itself very well to Christmas, we’ve got lots of chicken and lamb dishes on the menu which allows us to do something a bit different and give our own take on Christmas dinners. The cuisine is based on the home-style authentic Lebanese cuisine and we’ve made sure we haven’t compromised on that.”
“For Christmas parties, the venue organiser will likely want to look for something which is very unique, and the food is therefore paramount – that’s what people remember when they walk away from the party.
Then there’s Las Iguanas. In previous years, the Latin American chain compromised somewhat, offering Christmas menus featuring its own twists on all the conventional festive food offerings you would associate with the British palate.
As Katie Chatterton, food and beverage coordinator at Las Iguanas, says: “We used to include things like chestnuts in some of the dishes on our Christmas menu, but people used to just keep asking for those dishes without chestnuts in.
“I think customers just Customers want something a bit different nowadays, you get a bit bored eating turkey all the time. We’ve found that people have tended to want the traditional Latin American cuisine instead, so we’ve reverted to our roots.”
Choosing the right drinks is also crucial, but there is actually no easier time of year to sell pre and after-dinner drinks, and even sites with limited or no bar space can compile a short, seasonal menu of simply executed cocktails.
If you are looking for utter convenience and minimal fuss, staff could knock out Christmas mimosas, using Prosecco and clementine juice, or prepare a hot boozy punch, toggling around gin and apples, pears and cinnamon.
Two seasonal favourites, mulled wine and eggnog, can both be pre-made in batches by the kitchen. Mulled wine can be held on a bar-top, while egg nog can be warmed to order in a microwave or served cold. Both drinks lend themselves to being paired with desserts or even worked into a dessert plate itself.
“The mulled wine aroma fills a room and makes everything feel very Christmassy,” says mixologist Dre Masso, who ran a pop-up Christmas bar, LTD, at London’s Social last year.
In order to push after-dinner drinks, is it time finally to invest in a drinks trolley? “These days, rather than just being tables-on-wheels, if one’s been designed it’ll have a little ice-bucket and facilities to make post-dinner drinks such as an Old Fashioned,” says Masso.
For something a little quirkier, the brandy blazer, which involves quickly setting the drink alight, makes for superb table-side theatre. Less dramatically, at the meal’s close you could offer hot toddies alongside your coffees.
Other things to think about…
- Cater for all tastes and needs - “ We've got quite a big veggie following and we try and make sure that there’s various different options to choose from,” says Chatterton from Las Iguanas. “Vegetarians can lead the pack a little bit, if there’s something that they don’t like then it might hinge on an entire booking. We’re very big on allergens as well, we try to incorporate as many gluten-free and nut-free dishes as we can and we label everything up.”
- Menu design - Once the food and drink is decided, the way it is presented can have a real impact on how well it sells. Christmas menu design is primarily a practical matter; such volume demands streamlined, set party menus (typically 6:6:6 or 3:3:3).
- Be prepared for volume – When you've got a party of 20-30 people for one Christmas dinner, the food and drink must be consistent and must come out at the same time for all.
- Check with suppliers - Flint, from the National Theatre, adds: “If you are going to get ingredients that your usual suppliers don’t have, make sure that the new supplier will be able to deliver the amount you need and have a contingency if they can’t.”