At 5 on Thanksgiving morning, the cooks file in. If the pies and bread don’t arrive before the police close the streets for the Thanksgiving Day parade, somebody will have to meet the delivery truck. One server will spend the day covering for co-workers on their 30-minute breaks. The staff meal, served buffet-style in the bar, will feed 70 employees. The first of about 700 customers will be seated just after 1 p.m. and the last around 8 p.m.
Bonnie Jenkins, the general manager, has worked 20 Thanksgivings at Keens. In her view, because the logistics have been honed over the years, the dining rooms are filled with something resembling tranquillity.
“The restaurant has a little different feel to it,” Ms. Jenkins said. “It doesn’t have that same New York buzz: rraaahwr, rraaahwr.” She made a noise like a toddler running over a plastic dinosaur with a Tonka truck. “It’s more ‘La la-la, la la-la’,” she sang, and this time she sounded like a child directing a small choir of stuffed unicorns.
Those la la-las may also be attributable to another factor: the civilizing effect of restaurants. Thanksgiving can be a time when relatives express their mutual affection. Or it can be a time when long-simmering resentments, feuds and political differences spill over like the filling in an apple pie.
The presence of other families in restaurants seems to act as a guardrail, keeping the dinner conversation from careening into a ditch.
Even families for whom arguments at the table are as routine as saltshakers seem to appreciate a little restraint. The family of Fran Kessler, who worked for many years as an assistant to the editors of New York and Esquire magazines, gave up on a home-cooked Thanksgiving after the infamous year one of her younger relatives nicknamed the undercooked main course “turkey carpaccio.”
Ms. Kessler is active in Democratic politics and has strong views that can cause friction with her Republican relatives. “In our family, we fight over everything,” she said. “But maybe we don’t yell at each other as loud in a restaurant as we would at home.”
Large, squabbling tables are less common on Thanksgiving, though, than two-tops — couples without children, taking advantage of their freedom and escaping a home-cooked meal. Restaurants are also a haven for people who are, by default or design, alone on the holiday. Gotham Bar and Grill sets places at its long bar for solo diners, and if they don’t want to eat the whole, formidable menu, Mr. Portale lets them order à la carte.
There is, however, one disadvantage mentioned by almost everybody who eats out on Thanksgiving.
Ann Viney, a retired health care fund-raiser, began going out for the holiday because her relatives lived in the United Kingdom and her husband’s were “scattered across the United States.” The two of them made a habit of it, eating at kitchens overseen by Wolfgang Puck in Los Angeles or Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York.
“You avail yourself of the best chefs with every possible component of the dinner, you can sleep in, you can watch the parade, you can watch the dog show,” Ms. Viney said. “But I’ll tell you the one thing you miss.”
As good as they were in other respects, she said, the restaurants never sent her home with leftovers.
“I don’t know that we had anything left,” she said. “And you don’t go to Jean-Georges and ask for a doggie bag.”