Ask almost any local in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a holiday dinner recommendation, and there’s a good chance they’ll send you to 58-year-old steakhouse Angus Barn—and not just for the impressive wine list or gracious service. Each year, the sprawling restaurant transforms its half-dozen rooms into individually themed holiday wonderlands, as part of a tradition that began decades ago with a single Christmas tree.
“We’ve always been a destination place at Christmas, even before we started decorating,” says second-generation owner Van Eure. “People come for sentimental reasons because we’ve been open so long.”
Each holiday season, Eure’s parents would decorate a tree in the lobby, but it wasn’t until after both parents passed away that she took it to a whole new level. Not long after her mom’s death, Eure and her sister took a Christmas trip to The Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina. As they toured the vast house, they discovered that each room was decked out in a different holiday theme.
“My sister turned to me and said, ‘Van, listen. You need to decorate the whole Angus Barn, and in every room you need to have a different theme,” Eure says.
The women went on a shopping spree at Atlanta’s holiday trade show that spring, buying a tree for each room and enough decorations for all 42,600 square feet of the restaurant. Eure spaced out payment and delivery of the decorations every couple of months in an attempt to hide the total spend from the finance department. “I didn’t even have anywhere to store it all,” she says.
But customers loved it.
Now, 21 years later, Angus Barn’s Christmas decorations have their own dedicated storage unit that’s organized by room. Decorating starts November 1 and is finished before Thanksgiving, with five Angus Barn employees and 10 local women working six hours a day to bring Eure’s annually rotating themes to life, from candy cane- and nutcracker-themed rooms to suspending a 30-foot tree upside down from the ceiling. One longtime customer who helped outfit the entire exterior in twinkle lights comes back with a cherry picker each October to check every strand for outages.
The decor starts coming down January 21 and will be completed before Valentine’s Day. The extra time accommodates customers who missed the holidays, or perhaps aren’t ready for them to end. In other words, Angus Barn’s holiday decor belongs to the community.
“The thing is I have to do it now,” Eure says. “It’s something everybody expects, and I don’t take my customers for granted. They make the decision to spend a lot of money coming here; our average price point is $70 per person. And we’re nothing without them.”
The approach is far subtler at Argentine steakhouse El Che Bar and Latin-inspired sibling eatery La Sirena Clandestina in Chicago’s West Loop.
“We are always trying to think about branding and protecting the budget, plus you never know what people are celebrating,” says head of operations Nicole Manion, who runs the restaurants with her husband, executive chef John Manion. “But people buying out the restaurant or even just coming in want that nostalgia, so we go for warm and cozy.”
A tree bedecked in white lights and silver and white ornaments adorns the entrance of sleek and sexy El Che Bar. A handful of artificial wreaths and garlands accented with brightly colored silk tropical flowers—created by local custom horticulture company Bottle & Branch—spruce up the dining room. Down the street at transportive, beachy hideaway La Sirena, Manion characterizes the decorations in the playfully cozy realm of grandma stringing up a few decorations as in her basement.
The space is too small for a tree, so the large wooden bar becomes the focal point—dressed up in lights and draped in faux garlands outfitted in colored bulbs. A few perimeter garlands and a big wreath round out the tastefully low-key decor.
“La Sirena already has this magic and energy to it that feels like you’re no longer in Chicago,” Manion says. “Plus, we’re conscious that not everybody celebrates or cares, frankly.”
Ask a Designer
Karen Herold, principal of Chicago-based design shop Studio K Creative and design mind behind some of Chicago’s most immersive, iconic restaurants like Maple & Ash, GT Prime, and Bellemore, says probably 98 percent of restaurants approach holiday decorations the wrong way. Here’s her advice on how to do subtle and over-the-top festive right.
Stick to your brand. Think of holiday decorations as a more festive version of your brand, not unlike how you would dress up for a holiday party. “You look a little different, like the most celebratory version of yourself,” Herold says, adding that it would help to consult briefly with your florist or designer. “They already understand how the environment works together with your menu and your overall brand.”
Be deliberate. Often when it comes to the holidays, restaurants think bigger and shinier is better. “To me that’s when a lot of times it can feel cheap,” she says. “If they’re going to do that, they should be deliberate and strategic about it. An extremely contemporary home in L.A. would use very different Christmas decorations than a mansion in the South, for example.”
Don’t dress it up just because you can. As Herold says with a laugh, “Just because there’s a hook somewhere or a column doesn’t mean you have to hang shit on it.”