Dining Chicago

Restaurant Pros Recount Chicago Christmas Traditions

Christmas means different things for different people. For some, it might mean boozy egg nog and caroling. For others, ice skating and gingerbread houses. Chicago restaurant pros all have their own beloved memories and traditions for the holidays. Here, a few share their most endearing.


For Carrie Nahabedian of NAHA and Brindille, the best Christmastime memories revolve around an ice rink. "When we were kids, we used to go ice skating at a big park near our house on a free-form rink," she recalls. "It was nothing fancy, but to us it was the coolest thing." Her favorite part, though, was returning home and enjoying hot chocolate with little marshmallows on top. Nowadays, her holiday traditions skew towards her Armenian roots, and as per tradition in their church, they celebrate January 6. Although most Armenian Christmas Eves revolve around fish, but she generally celebrates Christmas Eve cocktail reception-style, followed by feasting on Christmas. While her childhood tastes may have been more candy-oriented, today her dream stocking would include tangerines, maple syrup from Burton's Maplewood Farm, a slice of crack pie from Momofuku Milk Bar, rosé Champagne, foie gras torchon, candied grapefruit peel, date vinegar, and a juicy pomegranate.


Bar Pastoral's Chrissy Camba loves Christmastime. "My favorite times were when my brother and I were younger, and there was so much food on the table, lots of gifts under the tree, and extended family would come over." She also recalls that this time of year her house always smelled like cinnamon. Today, if she were to pimp out the perfect stocking, it would include quite a lot; canned seafood, peppered salami, a variety of breads, a variety of butters and cheeses, sea salt, chocolate chip cookies, Hoosier Mama Pie Company pies, tiramisu, and aged rib-eye. "Can I fit a pig in there?" And her idea of the perfect Christmas breakfast/brunch? Leftovers. Specifically Filipino leftovers. Her favorites are cold rice, barbecue meat sticks, lumpia, cold turkey, cold fried fish, fruit salad, and shrimp. Just like revenge, Christmas breakfast is best served cold.


The Hearty Boys love them some Christmas merriment. For Dan Smith, his favorite Christmas memories revolve around his mom's "cookie room." Yes, a whole room. She would start baking holiday cookies right after Thanksgiving and store cookies in small tins in a specific room in the Smith household. "By the time Christmas arrived, every available surface in the room was filled with cookie tins." For Steve McDonagh, it was more about the yule logs. While she didn't have a whole room dedicated to them, his mom did bake a mean traditional English yule log every Christmas, a chocolate variety made in a jelly roll pan. "What I love about the yule log is that the memory morphed from one of an austere traditional family cake that we'd cut slices off of for a week or so, to a memory of my mom barely placing the final plastic elf before a group of teens came in and left only the crumbs next to a clean turkey carcass." On the not-so-delicious side, McDonagh also recalls his mom's fruitcake traditions, wherein she would bake a fruitcake, drop a shilling in it, and let it sit in the cupboard soaking in brandy... for a year. So every Christmas they would eat the year-old, booze-soaked fruitcake in hopes that whoever finds the piece with the shilling would get their wishes granted.


For Browntrout's Sean Sanders, Christmas was (is?) all about the boozy egg nog. His preeminent holiday memories involve him stealing his uncle's boozy egg nog as a kid. Nowadays, it's less about stealing boozy egg nog and more about ensuring he makes an awesome Christmas Day breakfast for his family.


- Matt Kirouac

Neighborhoods: River NorthLakeviewNorth CenterLakeviewRiver North

Steve McDonagh and Dan Smith, a.k.a. the Hearty Boys, transform their catering facility/TV studio into a full-scale restaurant -- with weekend brunch service. Dishes are whimsical, retro and fun and...

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Chef Sean Sanders' neighborhood restaurant focuses on sustainably grown ingredients, organic and locally grown when possible, some of which come from the restaurant's rooftop garden. BYOB and full service bar....


Adjacent to Pastoral’s East Lake View shop, the latest venue for the team was a natural progression due to the popularity of its products. The restaurant specializes in small plates,...

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