When Bill was newly divorced, he lived for a while in a crappy little studio apartment on Capitol Hill in Denver. He could have afforded more, of course, but anyone who has been through a divorce understands that at first you are filled with such self-loathing that you might as well beat yourself with a whip made of twigs. Instead, he lived in an awful abode.
The arrangement in the divorce agreement was that he got his three kids – Allen, David, and Heather – for Thanksgiving and for Christmas Eve. So Thanksgiving Day, the kids arrive at his dreadful apartment. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but what they got was, well, nothing. He had made no plans for the day, intending to take them out for dinner but not realizing that almost nothing was open. In fact, the only place they were able to find was a truly horrible diner on Colfax where the only other customers besides themselves were grimy men wearing dirty trench coats and pushing grocery carts which contained all of their earthly goods. They ate cold stuffing, instant mashed potatoes and turkey loaf – two-toned turkey is what they called it.
Luckily, being McLains, they could laugh about it. However, Bill regretted the day immensely. So much regret, in fact, that he immediately began looking for someplace to eat Christmas Eve dinner that was so special that it would make up for the terrible two-toned turkey.
By chance, he spotted an advertisement in the newspaper for Christmas Eve dinner at the Peck House in Empire, Colorado. Empire is up in the mountains on the way to Steamboat Springs, about an hour drive from Denver. It was the perfect venue for his make-up dinner. It was decorated in lovely fashion for Christmas. The chef offered amazing entrees. Bill told the kids to order whatever they wanted, and they complied. Appetizers, salads, dinners, desserts, all beautiful and scrumptious.
Not surprisingly, the Peck House became the McLain’s tradition for Christmas Eve. After Bill and I became a couple, Court and I joined them. We probably went to the Peck House for some 15 years, rain, snow, or clear skies. For many years there was just the six of us. But then Dave got married and then there were 7. One year Court asked if he could bring the girl he was dating at the time, and then there were 8. Finally, Allen became serious with a young woman, and we were going to be nine. I called the Peck House early in December as I always did, and asked for reservations on Christmas Eve for a party of 9.
No can do, I was told. They don’t seat parties larger than 8. Whaaaaaaat?
I patiently explained that we had been coming faithfully for 15 or 16 years and that we spent oodles of money each year. I also pointed out that there were always, ALWAYS, empty tables. Can you make an exception?
No can do, I was again told. They don’t seat parties larger than 8. Customer service extraordinaire, right?
So that was the end of our Peck House tradition. We never went back.
Traditions are funny, though. They’re so familiar and comfortable. For the next few years, I tried to find a replacement restaurant. Each year we went to a different place. We had varying levels of success. One year we had reservations at a downtown steak house for 7 o’clock Christmas Eve. About noon, I got a phone call from a man who said he was delivering food to the restaurant and noticed that they were unexpectedly closed. Believe it or not, that very kind man (who must have been let in by an employee who hadn’t gotten the “closed” message, or perhaps Santa Claus) went down the list of people with reservations that night and called them all to alert them of the impending problem.
I was never able to find a suitable substitute that enriched us as the Peck House did.
Eventually, grandkids came along and Bill and I bought a house in Arizona, and it’s not surprising that the whole Christmas Eve tradition has changed. Now I cook dinner for Court and his family on the 23rd so that they can have their own traditions on Christmas Eve. We celebrate Christmas Eve with Dave and Jll and their family, and I again cook dinner. While my dinners are always good, I’m unhappy that I haven’t found a traditional dinner. When I was growing up, my mother made New England Clam Chowder and Chili each Christmas Eve. Maybe something will eventually fall into place.
But it won’t be the Peck House.