Food & Drink

The 5 Stages of Eating Thanksgiving at a Restaurant

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Six years ago, my friend Jerome (whose name has been changed because he lied and told his mother he had a nice, home-cooked dinner that evening) and I were stuck on our college campus for Thanksgiving. As two 20-year-olds who could hardly maintain basic levels of human hygiene, much less cook a meal for ourselves, we did what any young men would do during a moment of crippling self-doubt, bewildering hunger, and abject loneliness. We headed to the nearest Denny’s.

Below are the five stages of eating Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant. Years ago, I endured and prevailed through these at Denny’s with my dumb friend, Jerome. Please, learn from my mistakes.

Stage 1: Denial

“I’m not here. This isn’t happening.”

I imagined myself inside my grandma’s kitchen, surrounded by relatives I didn’t really want to talk to, and the smell of potatoes and stuffing filling my nostrils as I deflected queries about my personal life and ignored racist comments about the new mailman being “an ISIS.” But my fantasy of family was shattered by dishes clattering in the Denny's kitchen. 

I wiped the complimentary tap water off my lips and looked around at the uneventful misery around me. I could not believe I was here. I could not believe on this holy (or, just important, I guess) day I was without my family, listening to a Muzak version of ABBA’s "Dancing Queen" under florescent diner lights.

I avoided the dead eyes of my roommate, who seemed just as shell-shocked as I did. I avoided looking around at the surprising number of patrons around me. I avoided picking up that stupid laminated menu, with its stupid Grand Slams® and senior specials. Then I heard our server’s voice enthusiastically wishing us a happy Thanksgiving, and asking if we wanted any drinks -- her LED turkey pin blinked idly next to a name tag that read “Sharon.”

Stage 2: Anger 

“Fuck your Grand Slams®, your laminated menus, and that horrible turkey pin.”

What are the circumstances that drive people to eating out on Thanksgiving? No friends, no family? Oven broken? Feral wolverines have taken over the house? Are you just plain lazy? Why weren't these people at home?! My disbelief at the situation turned to downright anger. No one should have to spend a holiday at Denny’s, regardless of its status as a sensible, quality dining establishment open 24/7. I should not have been there. The servers, the cooks, the manager, the customers -- none of us should've been there. We all should've been with our loved ones, or at least a highly paid escort, roasting chestnuts and carving gourds and staring at giant inflatable versions of cartoon characters from the '40s, floating over NYC.

Why didn’t my parents come get me? Why didn’t I plan ahead and go with one of my college friends to their home? It seemed as though all of my life mistakes were coming to a head right there in booth #17, and my slight annoyance turned to white-hot hate. I excused myself to the bathroom, where I splashed cold water on my face, looked myself in the eyes, and said, out loud, “Calm down, Wil. It’s just a turkey dinner. It’s honestly no big deal! You are great, you’re fine!” Someone walked in, mid-sentence, and looked terrified. I escorted myself out. 

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Stage 3: Bargaining 

“Look, I’m pretty sure we can still make a turkey, or at least a Cornish game hen. We still have time!”

When I got out of the bathroom, I promptly slapped the menu Jerome was holding out of his hand. I had a new plan! We were going to get out of there, head to the Walmart, get our own turkey -- or at least a bigger-than-normal Cornish game hen -- and do this right. There was still time! I was manic, and the cold water on my face had turned to beads of sweat. I texted my mom on my flip phone for gravy recipes, and in my delusion, started to laugh uncontrollably and spew lines at Jerome about sweet potato pies and discounted cutlery.

It was going to be fine. We weren’t going to have to eat at Denny’s! We could have our own meal, on our own terms, with only a kids' table. We would govern ourselves, like Lord of the Flies! Just with way less murder and much more frozen cranberry product... but the same amount of asthma medicine, actually.

There was only one problem. “Dude, we don’t have any money, or an oven. Also, I already ordered when you were in the bathroom,” Jerome whispered. Our fate was sealed: we were officially spending Thanksgiving at Denny’s.

Stage 4: Depression 

“All I can taste is tears and gravy.”

I did what any basic bro at Denny’s on Thanksgiving would do and ordered the Holiday Turkey and Dressing Meal -- a loose, possibly pre-heated likeness of what mom used to make. What was my life even?? At 20 years old I was already living the sunken, broken dreams of a 45-year-old bachelor.

I couldn’t look my practical turkey dinner straight in the gravy pile. So instead, I turned my attention to the poor souls around me. There were random people eating solo, likely drifters and grifters, dodging the law and looking for a place to post up for a few hours. Several families littered the joint, with children playing "duck, duck, goose" around the buffet tables, as their parents buried their heads in their hands, obviously feeling just as bad as I did.

Right next to us, an elderly couple in the Western Pennsylvania uniform of Carhartt, camo, and Wranglers sat in silence, eating the same watered-down turkey dinner I had just ordered. This is where shit got real. I was one of them now -- the kind of person who needed to go out and buy Thanksgiving dinner. I hadn’t felt like a bigger failure since I ironically misspelled the word “failure” in my second-grade spelling bee. Seriously though, how did they include that word in a grade-school spelling bee?

Stage 5: Acceptance

“So it goes; pass the salt.”

As I sat idly using my spoon to mold my Thanksgiving-esque dinner into new and interesting globs (Jerome gave zero fucks about his current situation, and was currently eating his dinner with the blind rage of a bull in a red-cape shop), I accidentally made eye contact with the old woman across from me. This opened a door to conversation I had been keeping tightly shut. “Why aren’t you at home this Thanksgiving?” she asked. I told her things just didn’t work logistically, and that I couldn’t make it this year. She explained that their daughter and grandkids spend Christmas with them every year, but that Thanksgiving is for the in-laws. This year, they just didn’t feel like cooking. “So, we decided to come here. And we’re having a nice time, too.”  

As I looked around, the depressing characters that had once caused me so much gloom were beginning to bring me some solace. The lone wolves picking at cheeseburgers and short stacks could just be shift workers, fitting in an extra meal (with a proper Thanksgiving waiting for them when they got back home), the families who couldn’t provide a turkey dinner for their kids could just be saving up for a vacation (or maybe their little weirdos just preferred to eat at Denny’s?). Besides, who made it a rule that every Thanksgiving meal has to look like a Norman Rockwell painting? Didn’t we, as Americans, have the right to celebrate the anniversary of that one time our forefathers decided to stop killing Native Americans for a day and eat dinner with them instead, any way we wanted?

I felt a newfound positivity. At least I had the luxury of being able to eat hot food at all, right? At least I had a family out there that would accept me, assuming I had adequate transportation. I was a fortunate person, despite my current situation. Altruism surged in my veins.

“Hey, would you and your husband like to join us for dinner, ma’am?” I asked the elderly woman, next to me, beaming.

“Oh,” she said, fingering the pearls around her neck, nervously, “No, not really.”

The aftermath

As Jerome and I walked out to our parked car, doggie bags filled with extra turkey (“You get a free second helping, for being with us today... Gobble Gobble!” Sharon said), I looked back at the Denny’s sign, and realized that I would never take any of my Thanksgiving meals, or my family, for granted again. Nor would I feel sympathy for anyone who decided to eat at one of the few restaurants open the last Thursday in November.

They all have their stories, just like I did.

And even though I passed it almost every day for the remainder of my college years, I never stepped foot in that Denny’s again. Partly because of sentimentality, but mainly because Jerome stole the jelly rack from our table, and they totally knew.

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Wil Fulton is a staff writer for Thrillist. He actually likes Denny's, a lot. Follow him: @wilfulton.