The holidays are growing closer, which means that many of us will be growing larger, because holiday time is traditionally feasting time. Who among us would turn down a good meal — especially one prepared in the spirit of fellowship, generosity and gratitude? But what do you do when you’re away from friends and loved ones at Thanksgiving … or Christmas? More to the point, where do you go? You find a restaurant — a good one, preferably one with a welcoming atmosphere and an enticing menu.
I remember a Thanksgiving years ago, when my father and mother flew in from the East Coast to visit me for the first time in my new home, the Bay Area. After a contentious few years, the three of us were trying to repair our relationship, and it wasn’t the sort of dynamic to bring to a stoned-out celebration hosted by one of my Boho friends. So we went out to eat for Thanksgiving. Independent of me, Dad had done a little research and learned about the acclaimed restaurateur/caterer Narsai David — and his destination restaurant.
Narsai’s — located in upscale Kensington by northern Berkeley — had been anointed as a gourmet shrine along with Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, the latter considered ground zero for the organic food movement. Although Narsai’s restaurant would close in 1986, it was flourishing when my parents came West. And that’s where we had our Thanksgiving dinner, and despite all of the traditional trappings (turkey, stuffing, cranberries, etc.), it was more delicious than any I’d had. Whether it was a question of ingredients, prep, or simply that American-style home cooking can be sort of bland, the flavors of the usual components of the meal and the variety of side-dishes were tongue-tastic — including my first real taste of properly prepared Brussels sprouts, sautéed in garlic, now a favorite of mine.
All of the youthful rebellion and generational and cultural differences eventually dissipated, and mutual love and respect marked my interactions with Mom and Dad for the rest of their lives. And even if the dinner didn’t take care of all the issues my parents and I were facing at the time, it was congenial and, on the gustatory side, as memorable as could be.
There are usually splendid prix fixe menus on the board at any number of fine dining establishments that are open on Thanksgiving. Because the number of vacationers in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles tends to increase during the holiday season, more upscale hotel restaurants are among the reliable locations for those last-minute shots at comfort food on a day that is dedicated to eating it. Yelp might help.
This year, I will probably find myself in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving, and, if so, I expect to be sharing the heartiest of buffets with members of my SoCal tribe. But if not, I’ve lined up a pretty fine alternative, courtesy of a local confederate. She and I have had a few fantastic suppers at a particularly cozy eatery a block or so from the legendary Hollywood intersection of Sunset and Vine. In fact, the restaurant is called Off Vine, and it’s housed in a beautifully restored multistory dwelling where one could imagine a successful screenwriter and his family living in bygone days. The specialty is a well-conceived, finely executed, farm-fresh variation on good ol’ American cuisine, in the tradition of Waters and her peers, where a plate of lamb chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans reaches some kind of vittles apotheosis.
In other words, if you’re missing home-cooking and a homey vibe, Off Vine is the ideal answer for someone doing a solo on the holiday. My aforementioned friend did actually have a Thanksgiving dinner at Off Vine a few years ago, and was thrilled at the high quality and complex flavors of old favorites — from the bird to the yams to the pumpkin pie. Surrounded by a mix of couples, singles and a few families that decided to leave the kitchen work to the professionals, she ate until stuffed, then caught a film at the Arclight theater across the way. When all was said and done, she gave thanks that the chow was great — and the movie wasn’t a turkey.