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FESTIVE DINING

Chefs bring a taste of their own traditions to holiday menus, and give tips to help you dine deliciously in this festive season.

By Wendy Lemlin | Photography By Noushin Nourizadeh
If “reservations” are your favorite thing to make for holiday meals, you probably find yourself dining out often October through December — and, really, between company parties, get-togethers with friends, charity events and entertaining out-of-town guests, who doesn’t? But what about your favorite chefs who prepare those meals, most of whom work every major holiday? What makes the season special for them, and what tips they would give to diners?
The Marine Room
The Marine Room

The Marine Room

For starters, many bring a nostalgic taste of their own family traditions to their restaurants’ holiday menus. The Marine Room Executive Chef Bernard Guillas always includes an authentic French Buche de Noël (Yule Log) on his dessert menu. “Growing up in Brittany, I used to help my Uncle Gilbert prepare that amazing annual treat for our family, starting when I was just five years old,” he remembers. “We would bake and decorate two—one hazelnut, the other chocolate—and enjoy the first on Christmas Eve at a late supper after midnight mass, the other at our Christmas Day lunch, which lasted all afternoon. This is one of my most poignant holiday memories.”

Osteria Romantica
Osteria Romantica

Kitchen 1540

Executive Chef Nathan Lingle also serves up some nostalgic holiday cheer at L’Auberge Del Mar. “Some of my favorite holiday memories center on making our family eggnog recipe and lots of cookies and candies to share with neighborhood carolers when they stopped at our house. During the holiday season, I want to bring some of my New England childhood here to Del Mar, so we will feature our specialty holiday cookies along with a glass of ice cold milk as one of our dessert options.”

The Shores Restaurant
The Shores Restaurant

The Fishery

At seafood-centric The Fishery, Executive Chef Paul Arias is also all about shellfish at this time of year. “The holiday months coincide with lobster and Dungeness crab seasons, while bivalves—such as oysters, scallops and mussels—are at their peak flavor due to colder water temperatures, so it’s the perfect time for some special indulgence.” Unlike most other restaurants, The Fishery is actually closed on major holidays, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, so that the staff can spend time with their families. “When cooking at home for my family on these holidays, it’s actually fun to play around with meat for a change!” laughs Arias.

The Med
The Med

NINE-TEN

Originally hailing from Jamaica, Executive Chef Jason Knibb of NINE-TEN Restaurant & Bar advocates adopting an “island-like, stress-free, easy-going spirit” when planning holiday dinners. “It’s all about gathering with friends and family in a festive celebration. Dining at a restaurant takes away a lot of the stress so that everyone can just spend time enjoying each other’s company and no one has to clean up! In recent years, we’ve seen more multi-generational families come to the restaurant together, sitting around large tables, sharing stories and reminiscing. For these times, I focus on bringing back classic, nostalgic dishes with a modern take.”

A.R. Valentien
A.R. Valentien

Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé

For Swiss-born Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé owner Nico Caniglia, seasonal reminiscences of home are tied to cheese and communal sharing, specifically fondues and raclette dinners. “Everyone would sit around the fondue pot or raclette grill together, dipping the bread, vegetables or meats in the melted cheese and sharing stories and food. So we offer this option in December on our catering menu to replicate that experience.”

Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé
Bella Vista Social Club & Caffé

Osteria Romantica

“In my native Italy,” explains Fabio Speziali of Osteria Romantica, “holiday meals are always served family-style, with all the generations sitting down together. In my restaurants, we love to do this for large groups, giving the experience of an Italian family. We can set up in our private dining room for a more intimate feel, and everyone helps themselves to large platters abundantly filled with genuine Italian favorites—antipasti, pastas, tiramisu—just like at my home!”

Kitchen 1540
Kitchen 1540

The Shores Restaurant

Focusing on the present day, Percy Oani, Chef de Cuisine at The Shores Restaurant, bases his holiday menus on what is in season in our region for optimum freshness and flavor, especially the local seafood. “I like to call it a California Coastal Christmas,” he relates. “Family traditions for me include my mother-in-law’s Bibinka, a Filipino rice cake, and Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings. For those enjoying holiday get-togethers at home, I encourage potluck dinners to taste other people’s family favorites.”

The Fishery
The Fishery

The Med

“Thanksgiving is by far my favorite holiday,” proclaims Alex Emery, Executive Chef at La Valencia Hotel and its signature restaurant, The Med. “It brings loved ones together, and that is the most important thing about holidays. The best aspect of the holiday season for me is cooking with my team and sharing the experience of creating family memories for our guests.”

NINE-TEN
NINE-TEN

A.R. Valentien

Kelli Crosson, Chef de Cuisine at A.R. Valentien, offers up some timely advice. “Enjoy yourself and enjoy your meal! Don’t be afraid to let the restaurant know in advance about any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Because many chefs create a special holiday menu, the best time to do this is when you make your reservation. At A.R. Valentien, we are always happy to accommodate special requests and the earlier we are informed, the easier it is to make substitutions in the most delicious way possible for our guests.”