Chef/owner Ken Gordon at the Gamekeeper Restaurant has seen his share of Thanksgivings go by. In the past 15 years, the game-focused restaurant, located in a stone cottage between Blowing Rock and Boone in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, has offered a Turkey Day menu to guests hoping to relax and ditch the dishes. If there’s one surprising thing, it’s the simple fact that his menu hasn’t changed. He hasn’t even considered it really.
“When you go to mom’s house, or grandma’s house on Thanksgiving Day, you really don’t want them experimenting with food. You don’t want them to come up with anything weird. You want the standard. We change the menu all the time, but Thanksgiving? Nah. It’s tried and true,” he says.
Two years ago, the National Restaurant Association conducted a study that found 79 million Americans would rely on restaurants for some part of the holiday experience on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. With the taboo of eating away from the family table now an afterthought, the focus turns back to a more common concern facing independent and chain restaurants around the nation: how can a specialized menu meet and exceed expectations at the same time?
In Gordon’s case, he can’t recall what inspired his exact menu selections. He just knew it was important to stay true to the flavors that define the holiday, but make sure to offer some different and elevated takes. Over the years, Gordon says he’s served 133 to 135 diners steadily, with a spike in the low 200s around 2008, and is expecting a similar jump this year. He credits the improved economy, return of second-home guests to the region, and lower gas prices, among other common themes, like better marketing and rising real estate. “People are just living a little again,” Gordon says.
The menu, which, to reiterate, is the same as it was more than a decade ago, is a four-course arrangement that costs $75 a guest. It starts with a Butternut Squash Bisque with maple, ginger whipped cream. Mixed organic lettuces with dried fruit, vanilla, honey, herb vinaigrette, crumbled buttermilk blue cheese, and spiced pecans follows.
The entrée allows for a pick between a Filet Mignon—beef tenderloin grilled medium rare with shiitake, thyme jus, and celeriac mashed potatoes; Trout—locally raised rainbow trout with lump crab stuffing, sundried tomato, caper cream sauce, and green onion polenta; Venison—osso buco style shank slowly simmered in a hearty tomato stew served over spinach risotto with rosemary gremolata, and Turkey—grilled heritage turkey with walnut, pear dressing, maple mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry relish, and black mission fig glaze.
A choice between a Chocolate Cake—ultra rich flourless chocolate truffle cake with semi-sweet Chocolate ganache and cherry crème anglaise, Cheesecake—Bourbon spiced pumpkin cheesecake with cinnamon, clove whipped cream, and a gingerbread cookie, and an Apple Pastry—warm local apples in puff pastry with caramel and Bailey’s Irish Cream ice cream closes out the meal.
Over the years, the type of turkey, from wild to this year’s heritage, has depended on sourcing. Gordon says he has to put in his orders by the end of September, or early October, and runs through about 200 pounds for the meal. The turkeys come from several different places, from nearby (if possible) all the way to the Northeast.
Gordon gets the turkeys frozen, seeing as it would be tough to transport fresh ones up the mountain, and brines them with ginger and brown sugar for 24 hours—48 if needed—and places them on the grill.
At Ted’s Montana Grill, which is based in Atlanta and has 46 locations, the task of offering a Thanksgiving menu has its own set of challenges. For one, the sheer volume takes plenty of planning to accommodate across so many locations. Head Corporate Chef Chris Raucci says each Ted’s unit can go through as many as 40 to 50 turkeys for the special menu, which has been around five years. That number can balloon in certain markets, possibly even up into the 70s. The turkeys come from Perdue and arrive fresh. Given the preparation, Raucci says that’s the only feasible option as the restaurants just don’t have enough freezer space to house that many birds. “We start cooking super early in the morning and go all day long,” he explains.
It helps that Ted’s typically hosts a Sunday turkey dinner. The whole-roasted turkey with gravy, herb dressing, and cranberry sauce is a kitchen staple. Like The Gamekeeper, Ted’s goal is to stay honest while ratcheting things up a notch.
“Every year we see more and more guest counts. It’s increasing. People start calling us and making reservations,” Raucci says. “People look forward to it every year. I think, for one, a lot of retailers are opening on Thanksgiving now, when it was always on Friday. I think people would rather enjoy the one-on-one time with the family and let Ted’s do it for them.”
The three-course turkey feast is $25 at all locations other than the New York City one. It features a choice of side salad, cup of soup or Karen’s “Flying-D” Bison Chili, named after Ted Turner’s personal chef on the Flying D Ranch. The turkey follows, with “Aunt Fannie’s” squash casserole, which pays homage to a favorite former locale, Aunt Fannie’s Cabin, garlic mashed potatoes, and buttered carrots, and the brand’s Apple Pecan Crisp, featuring Granny Smith apples baked in caramel sauce, topped with oatmeal pecan crust, and served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream rounding out the menu.
Kids can also order half-sized portions and other menu options will be available, such as burgers—bison and beef, Cedar Plank Salmon, and the Delmonico Ribeye.
“We’re trying to create that at-home experience, so if you are with your family, you’re not thinking you’re just going to a casual dining establishment,” Raucci says. “You’re actually getting treated like family.”