Thanksgiving at Post 390 was always a big deal. Decorated with pumpkins and fall foliage, fireplaces roaring, the Back Bay restaurant offered an ultratraditional meal of turkey and fixings from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Last year, it served more than 600 guests, says former executive chef Nick Deutmeyer, who now holds the same position at sister restaurant Harvest.
Post 390 closed at the end of September. “With the current pandemic causing unprecedented uncertainty and change in our industry, we are sorry to share with you that Post 390 will not reopen its doors,” read a statement from owner Chris Himmel. “We want to thank our entire team, many of whom have been with us since day one, for making Post 390 such an incredible place for over 10 years.”
Over at Harvest, the feast is still on, Deutmeyer says. The old-school Harvard Square restaurant seems tailor-made for this holiday: cozy, intimate, with a menu focused around seasonal New England ingredients. “Thanksgiving is usually the biggest day of the year for Harvest,” says the chef. “This year, we’re expecting to do half what we did last year because of COVID spacing. Hopefully the weather is nice and we can seat people out on the patio.” The restaurant will also offer takeout turkey packages for the first time. Including accompaniments like squash soup, Caesar salad, stuffing, and pie, the family-style meal is $75 per person.
Thanksgiving looks different this year for local diners. Some restaurants that hosted holiday gatherings in the past — places like Bar Boulud, Eastern Standard, and Parsnip — are now closed. With coronavirus rates on the rise, many people are avoiding group celebrations and travel, following the advice of officials like Governor Charlie Baker and Dr. Anthony Fauci. On Twitter, Brown University School of Public Health dean Ashish K. Jha recently suggested pulling back on indoor gatherings including dining in order to curb the virus’s spread.
But at local restaurants, the holiday isn’t canceled. It is pared down and available to go.
“We are not opening for dine-in. It’s all takeout,” says David Bazirgan, chef of Bambara Kitchen & Bar, located within the Kimpton Marlowe Hotel. Bambara’s turkey kits include turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, chestnut brioche stuffing, Brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce, and apple or pumpkin pie for $25 per person with a two-person minimum; a portion of the proceeds will go to nonprofit No Kid Hungry. A la carte items, spiked cider, and wine are also available.
In past years, many of the restaurant’s Thanksgiving guests were from out of town, but hotel occupancy has fluctuated since the beginning of the pandemic. And Bambara didn’t even offer takeout or delivery before COVID. It’s hard to know what to expect this year. “Orders are trickling in. It’s not like going to OpenTable and seeing the books fill up. It’s basically putting my e-mail address out there and having people call me and building orders myself. It’s old-school,” Bazirgan says. “We are pivoting. We are doing what we can, trying to provide people what they want. It’s just different.”
Change is on the menu, too, at Boston Harbor Hotel. One of its restaurants, Meritage, closed after 17 years just before the pandemic started, with plans to use the space for private events. But the big draw on Thanksgiving has always been the hotel’s festive brunch buffet, which serves around 700 people and features a jazz quartet. It is canceled this year due to COVID.
Instead, Boston Harbor Hotel will focus on family-style private dining, to-go meals, and service at the restaurant Rowes Wharf Sea Grille. A three-course menu for $70 per person features choices like butternut squash bisque, cider-basted turkey, and bourbon-pecan pie with roasted pumpkin ice cream. The restaurant can serve only about 90 people total this year.
“We’re pretty much working at 50 percent like everybody in town,” says executive chef Daniel Bruce. “It’s insane. Surreal times, as they say. What’s really dropped off is our banquet business. Our catering business is 10 percent of what it normally is. Occupancy rate for rooms is maybe 30 percent of what it normally is. Hopefully we’re at the seventh inning, getting closer to the end [of the pandemic] than the beginning. We are lucky, because at least we have the commitment to stay open. So many of the restaurants in town have been devastated.” (Another piece of good news for Bruce: He will still be able to host the annual Boston Wine Festival at the hotel this year, although the format will be tweaked for safety.)
Takeout Thanksgiving is a new offering for Boston Harbor Hotel. The $365 meal serves six to eight people and includes shrimp cocktail, goat cheese and pear salad, a whole turkey with all the sides, and pie. Bruce’s wine pairings are also available. Customers need to order by Nov. 23 and will pick up on Thanksgiving Day. “I don’t want to explain how to heat it up,” Bruce says. “It’s a whole different animal for us.”
There’s a learning curve for many. At Harvest, Deutmeyer has had to figure out packaging. “I think I found some that are oven safe,” he says. “The day before, you can come pick it up cold, and hopefully the packaging will work and you can pop it into the oven, with everything individually packaged: a box with turkey, a box with mashed potatoes, a box with stuffing.”
Cooking methods also need to be takeout-friendly. “I brine and sous vide the breast, then confit the leg,” says Bazirgan at Bambara, describing the preparations he uses to keep the turkey from turning out dry. “People love it, and it’s easier to control and easier to reheat at home.”
Some have always done takeout and nothing but takeout for Thanksgiving, like Branch Line in Watertown, which finds itself well-positioned for a COVID holiday. The restaurant is known for its rotisserie chicken, and spatchcocked turkeys were a natural progression. Both are available this year, along with duck, braised brisket, sides, and pies made in house and by Honeycomb, the Hamilton bakery operated by Lauren Moran, former executive pastry chef for Eastern Standard and sibling restaurants. Branch Line is part of that group, as well. “We reached out to all of our Eastern Standard guests via our mailing list and invited them,” says Branch Line chef de cuisine Ivan Conill. “We’ll accommodate everyone as well as we can. This Thanksgiving is going to be so different for everyone, and so strange in so many ways. We still want for people to be able to celebrate.”
But meals to go aren’t for everyone. Scampo chef Lydia Shire is not a takeout fan. “I love when people come in and sit down at a beautiful table with our real cloth tablecloths — linen and cotton, no polyester — sit and enjoy wine in a nice glass, beautiful food served on a hot plate. I feel that’s what I kind of want,” she says. “We talked a lot about Thanksgiving coming up. Our staff is cut down pretty much to the bone. If we do 250 [guests], that’s about the right number our staff can handle. If I were to open it up to takeout for basically anyone in Boston, we have a small kitchen in the back. How in God’s name would I cook multiple turkeys at a time on top of what we’re doing for the 250?”
Instead, Scampo will offer an in-house four-course meal for $85 per person, with pizza as an optional a la carte appetizer. “I feel like I wanted to go to the basics. It’s been a stressful year for everybody,” the chef says. (For Shire, “basics” tends to mean things like Cape scallops with chestnut puree, turnip soup with white truffle gnocchi, lobster stew with a mini lobster popover, and tiramisu, in addition to turkey and other main-course choices.)
Orders don’t really pick up until November, so it’s still too early to gauge the impact of COVID on restaurant Thanksgivings, says Matt O’Neil, Boston’s director of sales for Baldor. The wholesale grocer, which has shifted toward retail since the pandemic began, is offering Thanksgiving kits for home delivery. “It’s simpler and smaller this year, for sure,” he says of the holiday. “COVID is driving up certain demands, one of them being smaller turkeys. It’s usually the other way around because of Thanksgiving, with the format being larger.” If you want a small turkey, order it now, he suggests. In a few weeks, only bigger birds may be available.
Or call Blackstrap BBQ, as soon as possible. The Winthrop spot smokes 35 turkeys each year, and they sell out early. “It’s like who gets the golden ticket at this point. There is a cult following behind the turkeys,” says owner Kate Perry.
It’s the perfect product for COVID-time gatherings, as she sees it. “Sure, invite less people so you have many leftovers. It’s a win-win right there,” she says.