Eating out for Thanksgiving is often dismissed as a betrayal of the holiday's central concept: the traditional home-cooked meal. But a visit to restaurants serving dinner on the big day reveals families celebrating and giving thanks nonetheless.
Some old favorites among Madison Thanksgiving repasts are no more, such as the busy buffet at the White Horse Inn or the feast at the old Ivy Inn, organic long before local eats went mainstream. Thankfully, new entrants have stepped up to the challenge.
Here's a detailed, though hardly comprehensive, list of reasons Madisonians and their guests have for skipping the kitchen this Turkey Day.
Hotel restaurants are the most traditional option for eating out on Thanksgiving, one where the operative principle is excess far beyond most ambitious home-cooking standards.
The grand dame of hotel holiday spreads is at the Admiralty Room in the Edgewater Hotel. Running noon-8 p.m., this buffet ($39 adults, $19 kids 6-10) builds on main courses of turkey, ham and prime rib with an array of classic holiday dishes. Shrimp cocktail and other seafood play up the lakeside setting.
The Capitol Chophouse at the Monona Terrace Hilton isn't one to be outdone when it comes to extravagance. Its buffet ($37 adults, $10 kids 7 and under) is open only briefly, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., barely enough time to indulge in its lush repast. It features a children's buffet, a breakfast station, free-range turkey and prime rib, sides, cheese and dessert tables, and a chocolate dipping station, as well as extensive seafood offerings, including king crab and fresh oysters.
The Madison Concourse Hotel rounds out the downtown troika. This buffet ($35 adults, $10 kids 4-12) is open 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and has an earthy, seasonal vibe. Turkey and prime rib are accompanied by salads, a sliced fruit display, cheese tray and a dessert station, but it's the sides that stand out, including wild mushroom ravioli, butternut squash with candied pecans, and stuffing with chestnut, dried fruit and pancetta.
Finally, George's Chop House at the Holiday Inn West is the most affordable of the bunch ($20 adults, $12 seniors 65-plus and kids 6-12, and $10 kids 3-6), with seatings 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. The perk here is that the turkey is carved tableside, with leftover bird going home for any party with four or more paying adults. Along with the expected fixings, the buffet also includes seafood stuffing and house-baked breads and pies.
Elsewhere, the Orpheum Theatre buffet ($26, $13 kids under 12) runs 1-7 p.m. and features over 20 dishes, the standard holiday items accompanied by choices like flank steak and sweet potatoes with roasted pecans.
The Essen Haus has been in the Thanksgiving dinner biz for more than a quarter-century, and serves a family-style dinner unlike other restaurants open for the holiday. The meal ($16 adults, $7 kids 6-10) runs 11 a.m.-7 p.m., and is served family-style in large bowls, with extras available upon request. Turkey servings are based on the size of the party, with a whole bird for seven or more people, half for four to six people, and sliced pieces for groups of three or less. Leftovers can be taken home.
The Great Danes at Hilldale and in Fitchburg are serving a buffet 10 a.m.-3 p.m. ($20 adults, $10 kids 6-12). The menus will differ slightly, with the standard dishes accompanied by Cajun-fried turkey (Fitchburg only), leg of lamb and a seafood bar.
The most mythologized of Thanksgiving dishes might be deep-fried turkey, a heart-stopping preparation that's best left to professionals. Kipp Thomas, who once offered it from his now-closed soul food mainstay Kipp's Down Home Cookin', has revived the treat in partnership with Zander's Capitol Grill. Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m., its buffet ($15 adults, $4 kids under 12) builds upon a traditional array of dishes with deep-fried bird and Kipp's hard-to-beat mac-and-cheese. (A Kipp's takeout dinner for 12-15 runs $75, and includes a 14-pound deep-fried turkey, garlic mashed potatoes and 12 cornbread muffins; orders must be placed by 7 p.m. on Nov. 23.)
International options for Thanksgiving generally follow the "just-add-turkey" model.
Taj Indian Restaurant is serving its regular lunch ($8) and dinner ($10) buffets on Thanksgiving, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. While diners won't find the trays bearing squash or stuffing, dinner does have turkey curry on the menu.
A menu that straddles North and South America may be found at Samba Brazilian Grill, serving 11 a.m.-8 p.m. The upscale churrascaria's buffet ($25) offers its usual first-course treats like olives, dates, cheeses and salads, as well as the regular rodizio service with its seemingly never-ending skewers of meats, but also adds turkey, dressing and other trad eats to the spread.
The true spirit of Thanksgiving is in sharing. Several free meals seek to fulfill that ideal.
St. Mark's Lutheran Church (605 Spruce St.) is hosting a noon dinner, provided by Faith Community Church, open and free to the community. Those not able to join in person can contact the South Madison Coalition of the Elderly to request a free home-delivered meal, with reservations required by noon on Nov. 23.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church (5701 Raymond Rd.) is likewise offering a free community meal with all the trimmings, 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
At Neighborhood House (29 S. Mills St.), Alliance for Animals is putting on a turkey-free, vegan Thanksgiving at 5:30 p.m. The meal is free, but donations will be accepted and volunteers are needed for cooking and cleanup.
Reservations are required or at least recommended for nearly all of these Thanksgiving dinners, so make sure to call ahead.