Hark! The Hungry Angels Sing

Glory to the restaurants open on Christmas Day

click to enlarge HUNGRY FOR HOMESTYLE: From left, Garden Grill - Cafe diners Pat and Ken Lewis and Steven Kallis - converse while waiting for their food. - Sean Deren
Sean Deren
HUNGRY FOR HOMESTYLE: From left, Garden Grill Cafe diners Pat and Ken Lewis and Steven Kallis converse while waiting for their food.

So much of the season's dazzle draws from traditional party favorites: sinfully rich, thick eggnog, generously spiked, if you're lucky, with rum, brandy or whiskey; crunchy, hot-fried latkes — potato pancakes topped with applesauce or sour cream; buttery Christmas cookies, shaped like bells, wreaths or Christmas trees lavished with red and green sugars and sporting silver dragées.The holidays inspire cooks to retrieve their best recipes, brown with age and spotted from wear (the recipes, hopefully not the cook) for hours of baking or for that once-a-year, fancy dish, served on your best china. Eating and socializing are two sides of the same coin and even ordinarily fanatical calorie-counters relax their strict discipline to sample the exotic fare that makes holiday parties so special. And who can resist a fluted glass sparkling with champagne on New Year's Eve?

Food is a subtle constant, reminding us of a rosier time. Food, such a vital aspect of living, reflects the hope of the season for love, renewal, friendship and generosity.

In any case, once you've blown it out entertaining, and the house is awash in half-dead beers, cookie crumbs squashed into the rugs and various abandoned items your guests may have forgotten on their way out (a single shoe, a dog-eared paperback, or even a kid who spent the night on the floor), you might want to pass on further slaving in the kitchen. It's a good time to dine out, recuperate and bid farewell to Uncle Marty before he flies home.

With that in mind, I'd like to offer a few suggestions of restaurants that will be open on Christmas Day:

The Hurricane Seafood RestaurantA longtime favorite overlooking the sandy perfection of Pass-a-Grille Beach and the gulf, the 498-seat restaurant has operated in the same location for 30 years. Each year, it mounts a popular Christmas buffet at Stormy's, its formal dining room on the second floor.

This version serves up: roasted prime rib, oven-roasted turkey with gravy, Virginia baked ham, scalloped potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, tomato zucchini au gratin, salmon with cucumber dill sauce, ham and asparagus ravioli with Milano cream sauce and an array of homemade desserts. It's priced at $16.95 for adults and $7.95 for children 10 and younger.

The eatery is also planning a big New Year's Eve bash, complete with dinner, party hats, dance music, drink specials, horns, noisemakers and sparkling wine for toasting. You can choose one of three entrees — smoked salmon, filet mignon with bordelaise sauce, or crispy duck with mango/cherry glaze. All are served with potatoes or rice and green vegetables, and followed by an unusual dessert: fried Key lime pie, a piece of Key lime pie plunged into a deep-fat fryer and served sizzling hot. Costs $32.50 per person.

The Garden Grille CafeA modest little eatery tucked among the suburban flotsam of West Hillsborough Avenue, the restaurant nevertheless is one of my picks for an inexpensive and predictably delightful holiday meal.

It has a slightly seedy air about it — its parking lot weedy and the roar of traffic past its front door whining like a distant chainsaw — but I find all that endearing, maybe because the attitude of its staff is inevitably neighborly and low-key.

The 100-seat dining room is utterly ordinary, but always spotlessly tidy and clean. It has rows of well-worn aqua booths and stools set at a counter that's popular with the gents. The clientele is a nice mix of businesspeople, families and singles. It is always jammed on the weekends.

I've stopped in a number of times for its simple, homemade fare. Breakfast is my favorite meal, but the chef does a mean chicken cheesesteak sandwich ($4.99) for lunch, and a perfectly respectable, creamy and tasty fettucine Alfredo ($7.99) for dinner as well. And you can always score a decent cup of veggie-rich and hearty soup ($1.75 cup, $2.25 bowl).

On the menu for Christmas Day is the following: your choice of ham or turkey, served with either chicken pasta shells or beef barley soup; mashed, baked or french-fried potatoes; fresh mixed vegetables and pumpkin pie. The cost? $8.99 per person. Try to beat that!

Saffron's Caribbean CuisineAn unusual restaurant perched on an inland waterway at Boca Ciega Bay, Saffron's offers a surprising mélange of Caribbean specialties, everything from fresh ginger tea to curried goat and dynamite barbecue with a spicy kick.

However, its menu has a special section, called "foods for a shy palate," with less spicy alternatives, like a simple grilled New York steak ($11.95), or a gigantic, crispy and fruity "Tennyson" dinner salad, served in a hollowed-out pineapple shell, topped with grilled chicken and accompanied by a fantastic sweet-hot sauce ($10.95).

The restaurant is located in a historic, 1920s-era building, with gracious arches and fanciful pillars wound with twinkling holiday lights, housing a roomy 300-seat dining room, dance floor and outdoor patio.

Saffron's does an elaborate buffet on Christmas Day, this year complete with live band and featuring roasted suckling pig, ham, turkey with stuffing, jerk chicken, fish Island-style, a pasta station and several varieties of salad, along with Jamaican rum cake, coffee, iced tea and plenty of creamy eggnog, made from the owner's family recipe.

The cost is $18.95 for adults, children 12 and younger are half-price; toddlers, $3.

The restaurant also plans a festive New Year's dinner and party, with a big buffet, hats, entertainment courtesy of the John Thomas and Friends dance band, sparkling wine at midnight and a breakfast buffet at 2 a.m. The cost of the New Year's fete is $35 per person.

Happy holidays!

Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.