Food Lover’s Guide to Holiday Entertaining

November 2022 View more

Party season is here.
Whether you’re hosting a traditional family meal or a grand shindig, we’ve got you covered, with ideas for charcuterie, turkey, and cocktails. We’ve even asked our restaurant critic, Phil Vettel, to recommend a few dining picks for when you’re in the holiday spirit, just not in the mood to cook.

All over the board

How to build a party-worthy cheese and charcuterie spread

A bountiful board piled high with cheeses, meats, olives, and fruit might just be the perfect party starter. “It’s such a beautiful way to bring people together, and so easy to do,” says Michelle Parker, owner of Chi-cuterie Boards and More in Geneva. “You don’t have to be a chef, you don’t have to be a great cook—anybody can do it.” 

If you call it a charcuterie board, however, you won’t pass for a gourmand. “Charcuterie is a very specific thing: smoked or cured meats,” says Jill Foucré, owner of Marché in Glen Ellyn. “It’s funny to me when you see someone post a picture of a board with jelly beans on it, like, ‘Look at our charcuterie!’ ” If you’re serving more than just meat, call it a cheese and charcuterie board, party board, or grazing board. 

Whatever you call it, it’s sure to please. Ready to build a board for your next book club session or holiday soiree? For tips, we asked the local pros: Parker; Foucré; Nataly Flores, owner of Bellyfull Boards in Lisle; and Jamane Broome-Hinton, owner of Jolie Charcuterie in Naperville.


When making cheese selections, Flores likes to include at least two common types that tend to please all palates. Among those options: “Gruyère, cheddar, a flavored goat cheese, Brie, even Manchego—because it’s nutty but it’s neutral and it doesn’t have a pungent odor,” she says. For a third cheese choice, consider a wild-card pick such as Drunken Goat, a goat’s milk cheese aged in wine, or Le Maréchal, a Swiss raw-milk cheese ripened with herbs. “These are cheeses you don’t usually find at the grocery store, so your more adventurous guests can really expand their taste buds,” Flores says. 


Cashews, pecans, walnuts, Marcona almonds, and the like add earthiness and crunch. Sprinkle them throughout to fill in the gaps or keep them contained in a ramekin if any guests have nut allergies.


Sliced baguette, toast points, or crackers are all solid choices to accompany your charcuterie and cheese, either placed on the board or to the side. “Be really neutral with your flavors,” Foucré says. “You don’t want the garden-herb Triscuits that are going to have too much flavor all by themselves.” Breadsticks are also a fun match for spreadable cheese. “I love having them in a vessel standing up tall, adding some height to your table,” Parker adds.


“You can never go wrong with Genoa salami,” Flores says. “I also love Sangiovese wine salami—that is delicious—coppa and Calabrese, which is spicier. Bresaola is a nice choice if you don’t eat pork.” Some meats present better than others. “We sell a lot of both Serrano ham and prosciutto; Serrano looks a lot better on a board than prosciutto and a lot of people can’t tell the difference,” Foucré says. “It just holds up better, it doesn’t oxidize and get funky looking.” For a gourmet-leaning crowd, consider adding a slice of pâté or a jar of rillettes. 


“I like to include a spreadable item, whether that’s spreadable cheese, jam, or honey,” says Broome-Hinton. At Chi-cuterie, Parker carries locally made jams that pair well with specific cheeses. “We have a peach-chamomile jam that goes well with a young Gouda, and an aged cheddar-Parmesan blend that is great with a tart cherry and white-tea jam,” she says. Whole-grain mustard is a classic accompaniment for sharp aged cheese and salami, too. 


“I like to incorporate seasonal fruit because you really get to enjoy what’s best at the moment,” Flores says. Slice and fan fall-harvest fruits such as apples and pears, or add a pop of color with wheels of winter citrus. Dried fruit such as apricots, cherries, and figs are a good choice in the winter when seasonal fresh fruit is lacking. 

 Pickled veggies

Olives, cornichons, and other pickled vegetables add a touch of acidity to offset the richness of cheese and charcuterie. “With things like olives, we put them in a little dish so they’re not getting all over everything,” Foucré says. “Some people don’t want olives and don’t want to eat anything an olive has touched.”


“To really fill in all the gaps, you would go in with garnish,” Flores says. “So in the summer, I like to use mint and edible flowers. In the winter, rosemary and thyme look absolutely gorgeous.”

Prefer to leave it to the pros? 

These local businesses specialize in delectable boards
and party spreads. 

Bellyfull Boards 
1650 Maple Ave., Lisle, 

Chi-cuterie Boards and More 
321 Franklin St., Geneva,

Jolie Charcuterie

496 N. Main St., Glen Ellyn,

Three Tips for a Winning Board

Know how much is too much 

“My general rule of thumb is two ounces of cheese per person and one ounce of meat per person,” says Flores. Parker suggests working in odd numbers, which are pleasing to the eye when arranged on the board: “Try choosing three cheeses or five cheeses. Or maybe three cheeses and two meats, which add up to five.”

Pick a surprise element 

Parker likes to include an unexpected item on her boards as a conversation-starter. “I love things that people wouldn’t expect, whether it’s tropical fruit or edible flowers,” she says. “When someone comes into our store, I’ll say, ‘Here’s a cheese that pairs well with these handmade caramels, or this vanilla-infused popcorn from a local artisan.’ It’s fun to have some elements on your board that are not necessarily the typical, run-of-the-mill meat and cheese.”

Focus your options

If you are feeling overwhelmed, Parker suggests choosing a single point of inspiration. “It can be something as simple as your grandmother’s china pattern,” she says. “Look at the colors in the pattern and try to replicate that in the food choices—so that narrows your focus rather than going to the cheese market and being totally overwhelmed. 

Phil Vettel’s Picks for Holiday Dining

This trio of hotel restaurants have
seasonal revelry wrapped up

Dining out takes on a special significance during the holidays, from family gatherings to year-end celebrations of all kinds. Restaurants understand this, of course, and from decor to menu try to raise their game accordingly. Of the many choices available, here are three to consider when you’re looking for festive holiday fare and ambience. 

The Drake Oak Brook

2301 York Rd., Oak Brook

This hotel complex doesn’t hold back when it comes to decking out for the holidays. Think large nutcrackers, a decorated tree, lights strung throughout the gardens, and a chef-created gingerbread house that’s a replica of the hotel property. The Polar Bear lounge pop-up will pack the verandas with cascading lights, large ornaments, and what one representative called “endless garland.”

The Colonial Room’s regular menu features such classic dishes as chateaubriand for two and other steaks and chops, but there will be two special holiday meals as well. The Thanksgiving buffet ($95; $30 ages 6—12) will feature a carving station (turkey, prime rib), raw bar, omelet and waffle stations, and more; special upgrades (seafood tower, chateaubriand, sweets tower) also will be available.

The Christmas Eve buffet ($85; $30 ages 6—12) will offer an antipasto display, cheese board, seafood bar, and such hot entrées as macadamia-crusted whitefish, maple-mustard-crusted steak with pineapple relish, and pepper-crusted rack of lamb. Other dining options to consider include afternoon tea ($45, glass of Champagne included), served from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and the Colonial Room’s Sunday Champagne brunch.

For that winter wonderland vibe, the Drake’s eight outdoor heated igloos will be open for private dining starting November 11. While these fully enclosed domes each boast a small heater, you’ll still want to bundle up a bit. Each igloo has its own theme and guest capacity, ranging from four to eight diners. Be sure to make a reservation for lunch (11 a.m. to 2 p.m., not available Sundays) or dinner (2:15 to 10 p.m.) for a maximum two-hour dining time.


15 S. River Ln., Geneva

The Herrington Inn & Spa along the Fox River is an ideal holiday destination, from the decorated tree at the foot of the lobby stairs to the lighted garland strings that seemingly are everywhere. Atwater’s, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, looks as though it had been pulled from a Currier & Ives painting; the circular dining room is warm and sedate, and its floor-to-ceiling windows overlook the property’s garden and the river beyond—an ideal view, winter or summer. 

Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day (and brunch on Sunday), Atwater’s has a sophisticated, wide-ranging American menu. During the holidays, expect traditional specials such as turkey, rack of lamb, and prime rib. The intimate dining room can accommodate parties up to eight.

“The holidays at the Inn are magical—the Old World charm, the warmth of the lobby bar, and Atwater’s,” says director of sales and marketing Lisa Van Bortel. ”My favorite thing is to sit by the fireplace with the twinkle lights on and enjoy a hot bowl of our famous butternut squash soup; this has been on our menu since we opened almost 30 years ago. There is nothing like it.”

 Che Figata

2155 City Gate Ln., Naperville

The Italian restaurant inside the Hotel Arista (part of the CityGate Center complex) consists of the main dining room; a horseshoe-shaped, kitchen-view food bar; and a side market that carries everything one might need (breads, cheeses, pastas, sauces, wine) for meal preparation at home. Indeed, for Thanksgiving, the market will offer a fully stocked and precooked dinner kit (turkey, stuffing, sides) to reheat and enjoy in your own dining room.

This will be just the second holiday season for chef de cuisine Ian Schlegel, who joined the restaurant in April last year. “Because of our restaurant’s mission, it’s all about what’s in season,” Schlegel says. “Deep, earthy and spiced flavors. Stuffed pastas, butternut squash, cranberries. And deep, hearty meat sauces that just give you the feel
of home.”

Special holiday dinners include a Feast of the Seven Fishes, an Italian Christmas tradition, with Che Figata’s version taking place at its December 14 Table Italiano Wine Dinner. Pescato Del Giorno will be among the dishes served. The restaurant’s December 31 offerings will feature a set-price menu inspired by a Roman New Year’s Eve.

“The decor situation will change with the season,” Schlegel says. “An overall feeling of fall around Thanksgiving, and then we’ll have winter landscapes,
with snow-covered trees and more of a frosty effect.”

Let’s Talk Turkey

This Waterman family farm has been raising gobblers for generations 

Robert Kauffman’s farm-raised turkeys have become so beloved that they’ve developed their own distinctive brand identity. For many, come holiday season, a Ho-Ka turkey is a must for their table. It’s not unusual, in fact, for some folks to call their local butcher every November—whether it’s Casey’s in Naperville or Tischler’s Market in Plainfield—and ask for Ho-Ka turkeys by name. “We get compliments about fresh Ho-Ka turkeys every year,” says Dan Skulavik, the meat manager at Casey’s.  

You could go as far as to argue that Kauffman is the only living turkey farmer in America with actual groupies. No one’s lining up, of course, for backstage passes to see how he raises and dresses his turkeys—a domestic breed called broad breasted whites—on his family-run farm in Waterman, Illinois. But Kauffman’s customers have been known to write him fan mail, outlining in blushing detail how his birds are juicier and more flavorful than anything else on the market. Some say they refuse to serve their friends and family anything but a Ho-Ka bird on Turkey Day.

Small 10-pound birds. Big 40-pound birds. Frozen birds. Fresh birds. Male toms and female hens. Kauffman raises and processes them all. Truth be told, he doesn’t put much stock in all those fancy marketing ploys that others have trotted out in recent years. He’s not convinced that “organic” or “free-range” or “natural” on the label necessarily mean that much. Better to keep in mind just two things, he says: The most-pallid-tasting turkeys tend to be the ones that are shot full of water and sodium solutions. And the best ones are stamped with ingredient labels that include only one word—and that’s “turkey.” 

Which begs the question: What’s the secret? Why are Ho-Ka birds so much better than everyone else’s? Kauffman, who’s been asked this question too many times to count, says he doesn’t really know why. Maybe it’s because his family has been working the same plot of land since shortly after the Civil War, when his great-grandfather decided to settle in Illinois after being released from Andersonville prison. Maybe the secret, he muses, is that he uses older equipment from the 1950s and 1960s to dress and pluck his turkeys. Or maybe people have fallen in love with his turkey because he doesn’t just sell them whole. He’s perfected his own spice mix for his turkey brats and breakfast sausages, and he processes his ground turkey by using skin-on thigh meat, which winds up looking a lot like ground chuck.  

People are always asking him the best way to cook a turkey, and his answer is always the same: He likes to roast it in a giant pan, then wrap it in aluminum foil midway to prevent overcooking. He says, after hearing so much about various brines, that he tried different rubs and solutions but didn’t taste much of
a difference. 

This holiday season, his workforce will balloon from 10 people to 100 to meet the demand from all those Ho-Ka turkey groupies. Last year he dressed and plucked and shipped almost 58,000 birds in November and December alone. He expects a similar output this year. 

Maybe the secret, says Kauffman rather matter-of-factly, is that he starts with good birds to begin with and takes the time to raise them right. 

Perfect pairings 

When turkey’s the star of your holiday meal, bolster your wine-pairing skills with this crib sheet from Master Sommelier Emily Wines, vice president of wine and beverage experiences for Cooper’s Hawk restaurants. 

  • Appetizers
    Recommendation: Champagne
    Low-alcohol, high-acid bubblies will literally make your guests’ mouths water and amplify the taste of premeal snacks.
  • Main Course
    Recommendation: Light reds
    For a traditional turkey dinner, you can’t go wrong with a light-bodied Pinot Noir, which won’t overwhelm your salads or sweet potatoes and will deliver an undercurrent of cranberry that pairs beautifully with turkey. If you’re pining for something other than a Pinot, opt for a fresh fruity Beaujolais Nouveau, which are released every year on the third Thursday of November.
  • Dessert
    Recommendation: Varies
    Look for wines that can spar, sweet note for sweet note, with whatever’s on your dessert table. Grab a lighter Moscato to pair with fruity desserts; a rich ice wine for caramelized treats; or a tawny port for dishes redolent with apple, pecan, or pumpkin flavors.

Raise Your Glass

Use Some Common Scents

David Ligeski, the head bartender at the City Grille in Naperville, insists that richly scented winter cocktails have an uncanny ability to jump-start memories of Christmases past. His holiday old-fashioned, for example, is a traditional blend of bourbon and bitters that’s spritzed with a bittersweet blast of cranberry-infused simple syrup. Ligeski adds an extra sparkle by torching a sprig of rosemary, tucking it into the glass, and sending it out—gently smoking—to his guests. To re-create this aromatic twist at home, he recommends purchasing a crème brûlée torch and experimenting with various aromatic herbs and spices.

Cranberry Old-Fashioned

2 oz. Buffalo Trace

¾ oz. cranberry simple syrup

5 dashes orange bitters

1 bar spoon of Filthy cherry juice

Stir in a glass filled with ice for 10 to 15 seconds, strain into a fresh glass over fresh ice. Garnish with charred rosemary sprig and orange express.

Let’s Get Eggy With It

Some of bartender Sarah Geist’s regulars at barrel + rye in Geneva insist that the holidays wouldn’t shine quite as bright without her seasonal spiked eggnogs. Over the years, she’s experimented with all sorts of festive mix-ins, from sweet oatmeal to spicy peppermint. The secret, she says, is to avoid overwhelming the base eggnog. People who love eggnog want to taste it in their drinks. This year, she’ll be pouring a pecan pie nog made with candied pecan simple syrup and a dash of nutmeg.

Pecan Pie Nog

1 oz. homemade pecan syrup

1 oz. condensed milk

1 oz. whole milk

2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon

2 dashes vanilla

1 egg white

Start by making your own pecan syrup (combine 1 cup water, 2 cups brown sugar, ½ cup toasted pecans, 1 tablespoon cinnamon and a dash nutmeg in a pan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 20 minutes). For the drink itself, combine all ingredients and dry shake and ice and shake again. Strain into a coupe and top with candied pecans.

 Mugging for the Camera

Seth Udell, a bartender at Osteria by Fabio Viviani in Downers Grove, says spiking warm drinks, whether cocoa or coffee, may be the simplest way to whip up a quick holiday tipple but can just as easily send you right over your proverbial sleigh. “Unlike with iced drinks,” Udell says, “you’re not going to see any dilution over time.” So start with a light pour and adjust accordingly. The Osteria’s Santa Secret Cocoa, for instance, is spiked with rum or bourbon, peppermint schnapps, and vanilla syrup then topped with mini marshmallows and a candy-cane swizzle stick swoosh of spice and color.

Santa’s Secret Christmas Cocoa

1.5 oz. rum or bourbon

½ oz. vanilla syrup

¼ oz. peppermint schnapps

7 oz. hot chocolate

Mini marshmallows

Mix everything together in an Irish coffee glass or coffee mug, top with mini marshmallows to cover the glass, toast them with a torch. Garnish with a peppermint candy stick and straw.

 Drink Your Dessert

Interested in eliciting some genuine coos of heavenly delight? Whip up a cocktail that can serve as a stand-alone dessert and pair well with pies and sweets. Patrick Timmis, of Santo Cielo in Naperville, has perfected a dairy-free riff on a Pink Squirrel that’s made with cashew milk. It’s as frothy as a cappuccino but tastes like Christmastime potpourri: raisin notes from the sherry and port, a warm nuttiness from the praline liquor, and a dash of sugarplum from the grenadine. 

Night Panda

¾ oz. grenadine

½ oz. PX sherry

½ oz. Plantation dark rum

1 oz. praline pecan liqueur

1.5 oz cashew milk

Shake with ice and strain into a coupe-style or Georgian glass. Grate nutmeg over the top.

Photos courtesy of Getty Images, iStock images, Bellyfull Boards, The Drake Oak Brook, Autograph Collection, Elan Photography, CityGate Hospitality LLC, Rodrigo Cano (Night panda); Barrel + Rye; and Osteria by Fabio Viviani.