Statistically, the percentage of Americans who eat their Thanksgiving meals in restaurants is so small that the phenomenon doesn’t exist. But try telling that to the many Charleston chefs who spend their holidays cooking for strangers.


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“I haven’t had a holiday with my family in nine years,” says Steven Lusby, chef at 82 Queen, which typically serves 400 Thanksgiving guests. “I wish we could get back into where everybody’s closed for holidays, but in a money-driven economy, that’s not possible.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, 14 million Americans will make reservations instead of messes in their home kitchens this year. Another 16 million celebrants will purchase pre-made Thanksgiving meals from restaurants. Although the numbers represent a tiny fraction of the day’s turkey dinners, chefs agree dining out on Thanksgiving has shed any stigma associated with it. The practice has transitioned from an oddity to an interesting trend to just another way to observe the holiday.

“It’s everybody,” Lusby says of the people who decide to dine out on Thanksgiving. “It doesn’t matter what class level: It’s all demographics.”

For many families, restaurant Thanksgiving has become as cherished a tradition as the Macy’s parade, Detroit Lions football and tense political spats with crabby great-uncles.

“We definitely have locals who very soon after eating will try to book for next year,” says Slightly North of Broad’s chef Russ Moore. “There’s really a high demand for it.”

Shellfish Bolognese, anyone?

Recognizing that their holiday clientele might include eaters who don’t want anything to do with Thanksgiving or, in the case of foreign tourists, have no reason to observe its culinary traditions, downtown chefs tend to round out their holiday menus with steaks and seafood. “We’re just trying to give people lots of options,” Moore says. Both 82 Queen and Slightly North of Broad offer shrimp and grits on Thanksgiving, but Lusby says most diners aren’t biting.

“Ninety percent of our day is turkey dinners,” says Lusby, who admits to spending a day or two staring down the dozens of birds delivered to his restaurant before working up the courage to dive into the project.

For Moore, Thanksgiving prep starts in the spring, when he files his order for the locally raised, all-natural turkeys featured on Slightly North of Broad’s prix fixe menu. The turkey’s carved and plated in the kitchen.

“Family-style service is kind of hard to execute if you want everyone to have a fair shot at the food,” Moore says.

At Tristan, which hosts around 150 Thanksgiving guests, chef Nate Whiting serves a “revised roast turkey.” Although the menu doesn’t detail the preparation — “I try to word the menu so it’s not intimidating,” Whiting says — the dish involves brined breasts cooked sous-vide; legs confit and roasted chips of turkey skin. The meat’s served with green beans, cranberries, black pepper gravy and “once-a-year mashed potatoes,” which are salt-crusted and oven-baked rather than boiled.

“It’s forward-thinking, but it’s still just a turkey dinner,” Whiting says. “We want to do homey but make them restaurant dishes.”

(Interestingly, a mere 3 percent of Thanksgiving diners say they eat their holiday meals at restaurants because the food tastes better, according to National Restaurant Association research. Nearly half of survey respondents cited convenience or an inability to cook as their top motivating factor.)

Whiting isn’t responsible for Thanksgiving back at his house, although his wife always requests a quart of restaurant gravy. She rarely tries any of her husband’s high-concept tricks when preparing the family’s dinner, but “she’s a big fan of those baking bags, so it’s kind of like sous vide,” Whiting says.

Bussers’ holiday

If Whiting has turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s usually because his family’s saved him a plate: He makes chicken and dumplings for the restaurant’s staff meal, because “after Thanksgiving, everyone’s going to be turkey-ed out.”

Lusby, who cooks his family’s Thanksgiving dinner before going to work, serves a traditional meal to the servers, bussers, bartenders and cooks who work the holiday. But he makes a point of scheduling the meal for the end of their shift.

“It’s because of the Vitamin B thing,” he explains, referencing the belief that turkey’s loaded with tryptophan, the amino acid which produces an important B vitamin. “We can’t have staff having that. There’s no time for sleeping.”

Of course, if Lusby had his druthers, staffers might be at home doing just that.

“Honestly, it kind of makes me upset,” Lusby says of restaurants opening for Thanksgiving. “Not because I don’t want to cook for them, but don’t you want to cook your own meal at home?”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.