In Search of a New Holiday Tradition

I never thought I would be in my late 50s and have to get creative about finding a new Christmas Eve tradition. But, indeed, that is exactly where I found myself last Christmas. Our son announced he would be traveling with his girlfriend to visit her family in Northern California. We were glad for him to get away and enjoy a vacation during their winter school break. It was called “sharing.” And, that’s what the holidays are all about. Right? However, it quickly occurred to me that I had to figure out a “new” Christmas Eve tradition that my husband and I could share together. Christmas Day is spent with our larger, extended family.

After extensive research, I found the perfect spot. It was 21 Oceanfront Restaurant in Newport Beach. The restaurant is a fine-dining “steak and seafood” spot. During the holidays, it is elegantly decorated in red and gold, with garlands and white lights framing the windows ever-so-perfectly. The cuisine is delicious, with a focus on classic preparations. The views are spectacular, and the old-world charm plays right into my hand of a home-spun feeling to our evening out on the town.

The 21 Oceanfront building has quite a rich history–with many restaurant facades–from Red Car, to Rex’s, Alley West and The Ritz. Tucked into the first floor of the historic McFadden Building, with an Inn on the upper floors, this iconic building was built in the late 1890s by landowner brothers James and Robert McFadden. The original McFadden Wharf connected the transport of goods from incoming boats to the railroad and then inland. The Pacific Electric Railroad (also known as the Red Car) used to pass right along the street on its route to the Balboa Pavilion. At the base of the pier was the Dory Fishing Fleet, a beachside fishing cooperative founded in 1891. The fishermen used to place their boats on rollers and ride up on the beach with umbrellas to sell their fish. A dock was built later, and still today, at 5:30 a.m., fishermen arrive to sell their catch.

In researching this article, I had the pleasure to chat with Luis Tzorin. He was the executive chef for over a decade in the 1980s at 21 Oceanfront. Chef Luis described his holiday menu of Christmas goose drizzled with a dark, sweet cherry reduction sauce. This was served with creamy mashed potatoes. And, for his German clientele, he would make them a special side of cabbage. As he described the preparation–the cabbage was marinated with green apples, sautéed with cider, butter and brown sugar. Reminiscing about the past, Chef Luis spoke of the fun the staff would have when they were treated by the owners to a boating adventure in the harbor. They would toast to the holidays and gaze at all the lovely homes decorated for the season. It was a special time of comradery and thankfulness.

Last Christmas Eve, our evening began with vintage cocktails and a magnificent sunset overlooking the ocean. As we ascended to the elegant dining room, we were taken back by the decor and attention to detail. It was just perfect. We started with Caesar salads. A creature of habit, my favorite entrée is the filet Oscar–a filet mignon, adorned with Alaskan king crab and a rich béarnaise sauce on the side. My husband enjoyed the New Zealand rack of lamb, prepared in an onion, rosemary and paprika marinade. Our two favorite sides, of which there are many, included: au gratin potatoes and sautéed brussel sprouts with diced pancetta.

It turned out to be a perfect Christmas Eve. It marked a brand new custom for us. In fact, we look forward to doing it again this year. Here’s to being flexible, and finding a new way to enjoy the holidays, and embracing all that brings my way!

Deirdre Michalski is a travel and culinary writer covering topics near and far. You can read more about her adventures on her website TastesAndTravel.com.