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Dining out during the holidays isn’t the sugar-plummy sleigh ride it used to be. Not only because of the pandemic, but because so many of the city’s beloved venues for year-end celebration are gone. The Plaza Oak Room, Bull & Bear and the ‘21’ Club are among the many we’ve lost.
But the surviving choices are precious. Most of our picks evoke Yuletide nostalgia: They’re older and all-on cozy with lots of holly and poinsettias, plus warm lighting to hold back the crush of the year’s earliest sunsets. Such venues can be touristy, but they’re also a lot more atmospheric than newly minted dining spaces, however elegant they might be.
Note: The restaurants here might be fully or partly closed for private parties this time of year, so check before you go.
No restaurant is more inviting on dark December days than Keens, which is celebrated more for its slightly musky mutton chop ($65) than for its beef. Traditional starters, such as oysters Rockefeller ($24), and sides like creamed spinach ($15) round things out.
The history-haunted rooms feel like it’s 1885, the year the restaurant opened. Wreaths and red poinsettias adorn dark wooden booths. White tablecloths soften the murmur of happy carnivores.
The second-floor Bull Moose Room — named for Teddy Roosevelt’s political party — unabashedly celebrates the 26th president and his controversial legacy. A portrait of Roosevelt and a giant moose head mounted on the wall preside serenely over the festivities. A pipe Roosevelt smoked is among thousands hung from the ceiling on the ground floor.
For added merriment, Keens is serving mulled wine until the end of the year, although it doesn’t appear on menus. House-made eggnog will be available next week.
Russian Tea Room
Every day looks like Christmas at the old haunt of Rudolf Nureyev, thanks to gleaming red leather booths and deep green walls that former owner Warner LeRoy installed in 1995. The czarist-era fantasy most truly comes into its own during the holidays with a pretty tree at the foot of the dining room and carols seeping from out-of-sight speakers. (There are large upstairs party rooms but the ground floor, which powerfully evokes the 1927 original, is the place to be.)
The various menus — brunch, lunch, afternoon and dinner — boast extensive caviar, vodka and Champagne offerings. Be warned: classic dishes such as beef stroganoff, chicken Kiev and pastry crust-wrapped salmon are quite hearty.
There’s a special, four-course menu on Christmas Day for $145 per person. On New Year’s Eve, a four-course menu for $750 per person includes live musical performances by Broadway stars and a bottle of Moët Champagne for two people.
The River Cafe
The holiday spirit infuses every square foot, indoors and out, of Buzzy O’Keeffe’s Michelin-starred jewel box on the Brooklyn waterfront. Gaily lit shrubbery outside and a gorgeous tree and wooden toy soldiers in the lobby set the tone. The dining room is a fairyland of flickering lights.
If you enjoy dressing up for the holidays, River Cafe is for you. Men must wear suit jackets and women follow their sartorial cue. Lower Manhattan glows more seductively than ever through the windows, thanks to tall new towers and the color-shifting Seaport Pier.
Longtime chef Brad Steelman’s three-course, $170 per person American menu is more than up to the setting. The thinly sliced yellowtail appetizer, pan-roasted rack of lamb and venison loin that I had there recently rivaled any similar dishes across the river.
On Christmas Day, there will be a special three-course goose dinner for $195.
L’Avenue at Saks Fifth Avenue
Nothing says “holidays” more than consuming foie gras and wine in a department store dining room where customers cheerily tote their just-bought goodies. The best choice by far for such an experience is the two-story L’Avenue at Saks.
The vaguely Deco, Philippe Starck-designed ninth-floor main dining room has a sexy, curved bar. A circular staircase leads down to the more rustic Le Chalet bar and lounge, which has an apres-ski mood.
Neither level has much holiday decor, but both offer the best Christmas sight in the world without having to fight crowds — the Rockefeller Center Tree viewed through the windows.
My favorite dishes are the pricey morel morel rigatoni ($34) and Tom Yam Chilean sea bass ($42), but there are plenty of cheaper options including a $28 bacon cheeseburger with super-crisp fries.
8 E. 50th St.; 212-940-4099, FifthAvenue.NYC/lavenue-at-saks. Closed on Christmas Day.
More merry and bright
Here are a few other classic spots for celebrating the holidays.
- The Leopard at des Artistes
The Italian standout is festooned with beautifully restored Howard Chandler Christy murals from the 1920s. 1 W. 67th St.; 212-787-8767, TheLeopardNYC.com
- Gage & Tollner
The Kings County landmark has reclaimed its long-lost glory with a sparkling American menu. 372 Fulton St., Downtown Brooklyn; 347-689-3677, GageAndTollner.com
- Minetta Tavern
Keith McNally’s fine steakhouse has rich leather booths and evokes Old New York. 113 MacDougal St.; 212-475-3850, MinettaTavernNY.com
- Rolf’s German Restaurant
Enjoy schnitzel and sauerbraten amid more Christmas decor than any place needs. 281 Third Ave.; 212-477-4750, RolfsNYC.com