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A vintage black and white photo features a woman in a hat at one end of a long table surrounded by men in horrifying santa masks. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

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8 Rules for Eating Out on a Holiday (If You Refuse to Cook)

Arrive on time, tip big, and be prepared for the unexpected

Brenna Houck is a Cities Manager for the Eater network. She previously edited Eater Detroit and reported for Eater. You can follow her on the internet at @brennahouck.

The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.

Cooking an elaborate holiday meal is not for everyone. Even for the most skilled hosts, it’s a lot of responsibility to plan, shop, and execute a dinner. Sometimes your kitchen simply isn’t conducive to preparing lots of food and, occasionally, our cooking skills simply don’t live up to our personal standards. (And all that stress doesn’t even count the clean-up.) In such cases, there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to the holiday meal dilemma: Just eat out.

No, it’s not defeatist to eat out on a holiday. In fact, some trends indicate it’s becoming the norm. It’s frustrating that some workers are forced to work the holidays, when they’d rather be at home with family and friends themselves. Employees should be able to take off the time that the need and deserve. However, if you must celebrate in a restaurant, make sure to be extra graceful, courteous, and thankful to those workers who’ve given up their day for you.

Of course, that’s just one of the rules for eating out on a holiday. Here’s the right way to do a celebratory dinner out.

1. Lower your expectations

While a few restaurants will keep their lights on during major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, a majority will close their doors to let employees spend time with their families and relax. What’s left tend to be hotel restaurants, chains, and a handful of neighborhood spots — none of which may be your top choice for an evening out. Likewise, set menus will probably make it difficult to request specific dishes or substitutions. Prepare yourself.

2. Expect to pay a bit more

The open restaurants may charge a little more for holiday dishes or offer a fixed price menu in order to simplify preparation and make it worth the staff’s while to be there. Restaurants may also require a deposit on a reservation to ensure you show up. There are, after all, limited tables and lots of people looking for seats.

3. Make a reservation ASAP

For major holidays, it’s wise to start looking at least a month and maybe even two months out for a reservation. And once you find the right spot, Do Not Wait to book your table. Booking early also allows you to shop around a bit and peek at the menus ahead of time. If you have any dietary concerns, contact the restaurant in advance to ensure it can accommodate; then, notify the staff again of your needs when you book the table. If a restaurant doesn’t accept holiday reservations, reach out and see what the peak times are so you don’t risk losing out on a seat.

4. Arrive on time

Holidays are chaotic, but punctuality for your reservation is important. If you don’t arrive on time, you’re putting the restaurant and everyone else whose made a reservation behind schedule. At worst, you could lose your seat. Don’t be that person. Plan ahead to make sure you arrive on time — or maybe even a bit early — especially if the weather is bad. If there’s a wait, ask about ordering a drink from the bar. If the menu isn’t prix fixe, browse what’s available and start planning your order.

5. Expect the unexpected

Because it’s a holiday, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the restaurant is short-staffed and the kitchen backs up, resulting in slower service. Sometimes people don’t arrive for their reservations on time and it causes confusion. Popular menu items run out. Prepare yourself for something to go awry and find your inner zen. In these situations, it’s important to show some understanding. Tensions run high during busy holidays and service staff often bear the brunt of customers’ complaints, even if it may not necessarily be their fault. Try to be respectful and communicate your concerns clearly.

6. Be kind and tip generously (even if things didn’t go to plan)

There’s really no excuse for leaving a bad tip when you dine out, and it’s worth budgeting a little more than the 20 percent you’d normally leave for gratuity on major holidays, a particularly hard time to be a restaurant employee. There are a lot of people, personalities, and unpredictable problems to deal with beyond the typical service. Recognize that effort and show your appreciation. After all, you didn’t have to do any cooking.

7. Drink responsibly

Many people enjoy celebrating with a drink around the holidays. It’s generally safe to do so when you’re eating a big meal at home, but when you’re dining out it’s wise to pace yourself. Maybe buy a special bottle of wine to drink at home after dinner, and skip that second glass while you’re out.

8. Consider ordering takeout

If going out and dealing with the rush of other customers isn’t your cup of tea, there’s another perfectly reasonable option: Order takeout. Many restaurants offer catered carry-out holiday menus, which means you can have a full turkey dinner with fixins without navigating the cranberry-sauce-crazed grocery aisles and hectic restaurants. Some establishments will even offer to deliver your massive meal, but if you choose to go that route, for the love of God, tip well.

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