ISSUE   |  Homemade Holiday

10 Tips: How to Create a Laid-Back Thanksgiving, Northern-California Edition

November 23, 2015 4:00 PM

BY Sarah Lonsdale

Photographer Julia Spiess of the blog Dinners with Friends is German and, like me–a Northern California Brit–is not fully vested in the whole tradition of Thanksgiving. We make good guests and bring great side dishes, but the idea of cooking a turkey in November just seems wrong (to me, that’s strictly a Christmas day affair). Looking for inspiration for a more laid-back approach to the day, we turned to Brit expat Maxine Gilbert, owner with her surfer/chef husband, John Gilbert, of the Parkside Cafe at Stinson Beach, half an hour north of SF (and accessed via a somewhat death-defying, winding panoramic road). The Parkside Cafe sits a stone’s throw from the beach and includes a bakery, cafe, and snack bar, which John and Maxine have been running for the past 18 years. The restaurant is open on Thanksgiving, but the couple also manage to stage their own celebration. It’s all about family, friends, and good food–just a little more casual than most.

So if you’re looking for a change of pace, here are tips for a nontraditional celebration, courtesy of Maxine and John.

Photography by Julia Spiess for Dinners with Friends.

Above: An Italian wood-burning stove anchors the dining room at the Parkside Cafe. It was installed by a couple of builders from nearby Bolinas. In lieu of traditional tiles, Maxine opted for a clean cement finish.

1. Entice the senses. John notes that the cafe, with its wood-burning stove, becomes all about “hearing, seeing, and smelling what’s going on in the hearth.” Even without a woodstove, some sort of fire adds atmosphere to a room.

2. Keep the backdrop simple. Maxine explains, “Everything is either black or white, even the pots are all black. I wanted no artwork or color, just the food and bread to be the art.” The table is made from a slab of sycamore and positioned at the center of the room. The couple sourced the wood from Arborica, in West Marin; Maxine likes the dark streaks that run through it.

Above: Maxine carries appetlizers–Dungeness crab on flatbread with fresh persimmon, celery, and shallot vinaigrette, and a tray of Point Reyes oysters.

3. Work with whatever is available. The couple are lucky to have great pickings in their area: “We get fish from a couple of guys in Bolinas before they head into the city to sell their catch. The greens are from Star Route or Gospel Flat, and we serve wine from Bolinas-based Sean Thackery

4. Consider two napkins. Layered napkins provide good contrast on the table, and if you’re eating multiple courses, it’s a nice luxury to have more than one. The Gilberts’ napkins are shown here with Provení§al Flatware by David Mellor. 

Above: Maxine and John set their table with black ceramics from Heath’s Coupe line and inexpensive Duralex tumblers, a longstanding bistro favorite.

5. Use black dinnerware. Food shows really well on dark plates.

6. Pour wine and water into glass tumblers. The Gilberts stick with classic Duralex bistroware from France. In addition to being nearly unbreakable and well-priced, these glasses are not as obtrusive on the table as traditional stemware (and their size keeps quantities sensible). For sources, see Object Lessons: Iconic Cafeware from Duralex.

Above: Levain fresh from the Parkside bakery.

7. Serve bread on a tea towel. John explains. “Linen is good for wrapping bread and keeping it warm and absorbing the heat moisture. Plus, it holds all the crumbs and looks so nice.”

Above: Food is set out on the counter beside the oven.

8. Serve food buffet style. It’s communal, celebratory, and familial.

9. Clink a glass between courses. Taking a pause to toast and chat about the food creates a sense of occasion.

Above: Chestnuts and one of Louesa Roebuck’s signature foraged arrangements.

10. Roast chestnuts. The crackle in the fire adds to the atmosphere. John uses an old recipe that calls for the chestnuts to be scored with an X at the top. He then boils them in salted water for six to 10 minutes until there’s foam on top. He lets the chestnuts cool down, adds oil, salt, and pepper, and then puts them on the fire using a roaster with side air vents. 

Above: In the oven, a pot of red curry squash puree sits ready to be served. The squash is from Gospel Flat Farm, in Bolinas.

Above L: The accompaniment to the soup: seeded levain Gruéyere toast. Above R: Another staple of the Gilberts’ dinners: olives warmed in the oven, served with unsalted butter sprinkled with a pinch of Maldon salt. Maxine concedes, “I know it’s not local, but it really is the best salt.”

Above: Maxine enlisted Stinson local Louesa Roebuck to create the floral elements. Everything was foraged up the coast in West Marin; as Louesa explains, “The persimmon were the most glorious thing happening now and they provided the bone structure. I mixed autumnal hydrangea with pale, delicate lavender hydrangea, then added some clematis gone to seed that introduced a theatrical, fluffy, sensual note.”

For more tips on holiday entertaining, see these posts: