ORLANDO – Everybody has their traditions, particularly on the holidays.
Midnight Mass for some, or a huge Christmas Eve meal with the family, a night at the theme parks, or maybe even that old standby, last minute shopping.
For me, Christmas Eve has for years been about one thing: eating in a diner.
I have no idea how this tradition got started for me. I remember it began maybe five or six years ago, when I was looking for someplace to get a quick meal on Christmas Eve, and happened upon a Perkins restaurant on Semoran Boulevard. I don’t know why, but every year after that, I began visiting diners around the city on the night before Christmas.
For a while, I used to be a regular on Christmas Eve at a Denny’s restaurant on Colonial Drive, right across the street from the Fashion Square Mall, which had a unique, funky 50s-retro diner look about it that I really liked. It was fun to sit there in the diner – which was usually totally empty – and watch the mad rush of cars scrambling into the mall across the street, as shoppers ran in with their Christmas lists, looking for last minute deals and bargains.
But that diner closed a few years ago, so I’ve been on the hunt for a new Christmas Eve place to eat ever since.
I don’t go to expensive or fancy restaurants on the night before Christmas – those places are likely to be crowded, because families will want to splurge together on the holidays, get all dressed up, and have one really luxurious meal together. My goal is really just to get out, relax, and enjoy a meal in the kind of places that folks go to every day of the week, but don’t venture into much on the holidays as they go searching for the kind of spot they couldn’t afford on a regular basis.
I stayed close to home this year, visiting the International House of Pancakes at the corner or Summerlin Avenue and Colonial Drive, not too far from my home. The houses along Summerlin are beautifully decorated this time of year, sometimes quite extravagantly – a few of the homes, I have to stop and wonder how they manage their electric bills in December.
It always feels odd walking around on Christmas Eve in a t-shirt, experiencing the balmy December weather in Orlando that draws tourists from anyplace where it’s freezing back home, and maybe snowing. A white Christmas always looks so romantic and picturesque on the television commercials, but if you’re a northern refugee like me and know what it’s like to shovel the stuff and drive through it, nostalgia can be only skin deep.
Not surprisingly, IHOP was open – and dead. This is a pattern I’m well used to. When I lived in Fall River, Massachusetts, my home city, my father used to offer to treat me to dinner on Christmas Eve – maybe he was the reason I got into this eat-out-the-night-before tradition. But Massachusetts was not a major tourist destination in the dead of winter, and in this heavily Catholic city that I grew up in, virtually no one was open on Christmas Eve. Restaurants shut down early, and my father would make phone call after phone call to see who was open that night. Nobody was.
We almost always ended up at the same place: China Royal, a popular Chinese restaurant in the city. On Christmas Eve, it did gangbuster business. As the only restaurant that stayed open, it was usually packed and we almost always had to get there early to find a table.
Not long after I left Massachusetts to move to Florida in 2002, China Royal closed down, and the property now is home to a CVS Pharmacy. I have no idea where the folks in Fall River eat on Christmas Eve nowadays.
With Orlando being one of the world’s great tourist destinations, we have the opposite situation: virtually every restaurant, particularly the chains, is open on Christmas Eve. So IHOP welcomed me in with a sign that tempted, “While you are here, enjoy a Gingerbread Hot Chocolate,” perhaps the chain’s special nod to the holidays.
There was also holiday music playing as I first walked in – a very jazzy version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” following by a bluesy version of “Blue Christmas.”
Otherwise, the place was nearly empty – five tables taken up, none by families.
There’s always at least one employee in these restaurants who wear a Santa Claus hat, and I have to admit, our waitress was in a chipper mood, considering that she got stuck working the Christmas Eve night shift. She swore up and down to me that she made a very tasty milk shake, if that’s what I wanted.
“I make the best,” she bragged. “You’ve got to be proud of something.”
As I dined on chicken soup and then Maui-style crunchy shrimp, I’d glance out the window and notice how little traffic there was on normally jam-packed Colonial Drive, one of the city’s busiest highways. Everybody was already someplace else on Christmas Eve, and had gotten there a while ago.
Back home to my little sanctuary, I devoted time to paying attention to my very needy cat Squeaky – kind of like her Christmas gift, I suppose – and flicked on the television, to predictable fare: “It’s a Wonderful Life” on one channel, “The Sound of Music” on another. Sentimental, upbeat, life-affirming – the mood of the season, captured in award-winning films.
A quiet Christmas Eve is a pleasant one. We lead such hectic, busy lives that it’s nice to sit back in these diners on a holiday night, have the place to yourself, and see how happy the staff is to have a little company at a time when it’s slow. The conversations can be fun, because after all, it is the holidays, and spirits are high.
I hope everyone else enjoyed their own special Christmas Eve traditions, and here’s a salute to a great 2012 for all of us.
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