L.A. holiday celebrations kick it down a notch

The economy's in a tailspin, the recession is in full swing and the screen actors are talking about a strike. Happy holidays, L.A.! The atmosphere might seem all wrong for that time-honored hammock of highballs and halvah that stretches from Thanksgiving weekend to New Year's Eve, and it seems reasonable to expect that most of the usual 'nog-fueled festivities and iceberg-sized mountains of shrimp cocktail might melt away like the polar ice caps.

But the party-hardy holiday spirit's not extinct yet.

The company-sponsored fete does seem to have gone the way of the dodo. But the personal side of the holiday calendar is soldiering on -- it's just dialed back a bit. We're not quite at the point of passing a basket of Jiffy Pop and a six-pack of Pabst with the crew from the Neighborhood Watch. The shift is more subtle than that. Evening-long buffet dinners are being downsized to three- or four-hour cocktail parties. Consumption is less conspicuous. And there's a lot more comfort food, along with a lot less latitude in the liquor department.

"This year it's all about wine, beer and Champagne instead of open bar," said Hollywood Hills resident Julie Passo as she waited with her kids in the Santa Claus line at the Grove recently. "I don't think I've even heard of any parties this year that are doing open bar." Passo, who said that this season she's gotten about a quarter of the number of party invitations that she received last year, has also noticed a change in tone. "If it's a dinner, this year it's more likely to be casual attire instead of holiday attire."

Robin Gordon, an Encino resident also at the Grove with her family, sketched a similar picture: "We have an annual party with some friends of ours," she said. "And this year we decided to have a cocktail party instead of a big dinner, and we're not going to do a gift exchange. We all just kind of decided that was the best way to do it."

Elizabeth Ragagli, a set decorator for TV commercials, said most people she knows are trying to strike a balance between a sense of the holiday spirit and fiscal responsibility -- especially in light of a potential strike. "Instead of ordering baskets of baked goods for vendors and salespeople, we're going to all get together and bake them ourselves," she said. "And last year for New Year's I was in San Francisco, where I spent $400 for dinner. This year my friends and I are going to opt out of an $85-per-person dinner and just show up after 10 for cocktails."

Caterers and party planners have been experiencing -- and recommending -- the same sorts of shifts to keep money woes from intruding on festivities. "Instead of Champagne, I'm suggesting sparkling wine, and instead of hiring wait staff, doing a really nice buffet," said event planner Bryan Rabin.

Carol McNamara, director of special events and catering for Joan's on Third, says that while there has been a drop in demand for the company's start-to-finish catering (in addition to food, they can arrange lighting rentals, valet parking, decorating and staffing), they've seen an uptick in the amount of holiday menu foodstuffs being ordered for delivery, as well as a shift in what folks are ordering. "We're definitely selling more comfort food this year," she said. "Macaroni and cheese and beef tenderloin with crème fraîche. People are telling us they want something homey."

Julie Passo agrees "100%. The slider is really big this season," she said, referring to the popular bite-size burger.

So it only makes sense that a "mashed potato bar" would turn out to be a smash(ed) hit for Patina Restaurant Group's holiday catering. "I was surprised how much people are into it," said Bonnie Glassco, senior director of special events. Chef Joachim Splichal "created that concept about 12 years ago. We brought it back about four or five months ago, and it's been really popular." Glassco said. "You've got mashed potatoes, which are inexpensive, along with a little lobster, bacon and imported pancetta, cheese and onions. It ends up being this wonderful presentation that mixes the basics with luxury."

But keep the party hats and fondue forks close at hand. It seems that the social calendar is revving up for early next year. "Among the cancellations we've had for December -- and these are mostly corporate clients -- they're saying to keep the deposit because they'll want to do something in the spring after the sting of layoffs" has subsided, she said.

"I've actually gotten more invites for [Barack] Obama parties and people talking about that celebration than holiday parties," Ragagli said, a sentiment Passo echoes: "There's a big buzz in my neighborhood about Obama inauguration parties instead of Oscar parties."

Which means if that actors strike does end up forcing a cancellation of the Academy Awards, at least there's a mashed potato bar out there that we can all believe in.

Tschorn is a Times staff writer.