Restaurants Open, Serving Cheer At Christmas (Sans the Nog)

The phenomenon of retailers opening on Thanksgiving has received plentiful attention, much of it critical, while restaurateurs who choose to serve on Christmas Day are ignored. Let’s be explicit: We’re against the inexorable transformation of Thanksgiving into a shopping day but completely support the restaurants that choose to serve on Christmas.

Not everyone has a big family. Not everyone has the resources — time, energy, money — to cook a big meal. Although many more families regularly dine at restaurants compared with 40 years ago, being absolved from serving The Best Christmas Dinner Ever can still feel like a terrific gift to some.

Unfortunately, choices are limited even in the state’s two biggest population centers of central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas. And the restaurants open tend to fall into three categories: hotel, all-day breakfast and Chinese. (Cue “A Christmas Story,” where Ralphie and family dine on “Chinese turkey.”)

Dimming the cheer even more is the fact that Arkansas restaurants can’t legally serve alcohol on Christmas Day — not a flaming rum punch or mulled wine (“heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves”), not even a nip of brandy.

Chuck Magill, director of marketing at the Capital Hotel, notes: “Not only is this financially costly to the restaurant and the servers, but it is a source of great irritation from out-of-state diners who can become quite vocal in their displeasure. Interestingly, the holidays are not that difficult to staff with people who do not have families and enjoy being busy. The negativity, however, is really frustrating and unfortunately results in even lower gratuities.”

Michael Langley, director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, doesn’t see that rule changing anytime soon. “That’s just one of those — how do you put it? — taboos with the Legislature,” he said.

Langley agrees with Magill that the prohibition is silly and that maybe if repeal were framed right it could gain support. It’s a question of showing “hospitality” to Arkansas’ guests, Langley says: “They’re here. They’re visiting. They’re spending their money. They’re going to be here for the sales after [the holiday]. They would just like to be able to have a drink, a glass of wine in their hotel room.”

Put that on Santa’s list for next year. As for this Christmas and dining choices, what follows is a by-no-means-comprehensive list for the Little Rock-North Little Rock area, with a side trip to Russellville. Calling ahead is highly recommended.

• The Little Rock Marriott in downtown Little Rock (formerly The Peabody) will serve a Christmas brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at $45 for adults and $16 for children 6-11. It also is offering a special three-course dinner from 5 to 10 p.m., and its restaurant, Pancetta, will be open. (501) 399-8062.

• The elegant Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock will be offering four courses at $85 per person plus taxes and tip on Christmas Eve, and it will be open for breakfast from 6 to 11 a.m. Christmas Day. It will, however, be closed for lunch and dinner on Christmas. But its sister restaurant in the hotel, Capital Bar & Grill, will be offering an ala carte menu as well as a special three-course holiday menu at $35-plus per diner on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (501) 374-7474.

• Opal Mae’s at 321 W. B St. in Russellville has a Christmas Day buffet menu, priced at $17.50 for adults. It’s open from 11 a.m. to “the last reservation,” and reservations are recommended. The restaurant’s owner, Dennis Martin, says he opens the restaurant for every holiday except the Fourth of July, which is picnic time. (479) 967-6725.

• The Riverfront Steakhouse at the Wyndham in North Little Rock has Christmas brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., $24.95 for adults. Reservations suggested. (501) 907-4826.

• Holiday Inn Presidential-Camp David Restaurant, 600 Interstate 30, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. (501) 975-2267.

• Luby’s, 12501 W. Markham, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. (501) 219-1567.

• Taj Mahal, 1520 Market St. Special buffet, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. (501) 520-4900.

• Panda Garden, 2604 S. Shackleford, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (501) 224-8100.

• Fantastic China, 1900 N. Grant St., 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; 5-9:30 p.m. (501) 663-8999.

• Forbidden Garden, 14810 Cantrell Road, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. (501) 868-8149.

• Bar Louie, bar and restaurant, 11525 Cantrell. Opens at 8 p.m. (501) 228-0444.

• Casa Manana, 6820 Cantrell Road, (501) 280-9888. 18321 Cantrell, (501) 868-8822. Open until 4:30 p.m.

• IHOP, 101 N. University Ave., (501) 664-2014. 11601 Hermitage Road, (501) 954-7737. 24 hours.

• Waffle House, all locations. 24 hours.

• McDonald’s, 701 S. Broadway, (501) 372-2661. 104 S. University, (501) 603-2228. 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.