I'M HOSTING Christmas dinner for 16, and I'm kind of sweating it.
I never sweat hosting the Thanksgiving meal, since the menu, by state law and family decree, must never change: Roasted turkey, a hay bale of stuffing, 87 different potato sides and enough desserts to stock a Wegmans pastry case, if Wegmans sold only chocolate pastry.
Same old, same old, and everyone's happy.
Christmas is different in that, menuwise, anything goes - so anything is possible, including failure. I make a really good chicken-with-prunes-and-wine dish, but I've made it so often that dinner guests at my house have come to believe it's the only entree I know how to prepare. It's not, but when I prepare one of my lesser-tested dishes, it's always served with a side of worry.
I don't want to feel worried on the savior's birthday.
If only Larry Lawrence would let me and my guests eat at his house instead. He's the chef at Rosa Blanca, the new Jose Garces-run cafe at Dilworth Park, and he'll be off that day, preparing his 17th annual Christmas breakfast for extended family.
The gang includes his wife; their six daughters, three sons and assorted significant others; seven grandkids; and a bunch of cousins. Then there are the last-minute walk-ons, including two of Lawrence's co-workers from the cafe, who know that his Olney door is always ajar on Christmas. He's expecting up to 50 guests.
Holy myrrh in a manger!
"Basically," jokes Lawrence, 51, "it's a catering job."
The out-of-town kids descend on the house a few days before Christmas, from all over the place. This year, a son is coming from Tennessee with his girlfriend. Two more sons are flying in from Germany; one's in the Army, the other plays pro basketball in Berlin. They'll crash on spare beds and couches, or on blankets on the floor.
"I love it; I love it - it's the best," says Lawrence. "My kids are so close. There's a lot of joy."
On Christmas morning, the rest of the guests start squeezing into the house at 10 a.m. The dress code is mandatory: Pajamas for everyone. In the past, grown adults have worn onesies and Dr. Denton's, crazy housecoats and Yule-themed flannels, Santa hats and reindeer slippers. Lawrence, an Eagles fan, always wears his Birds jammies.
Hey, they're green.
Lawrence will barely leave the stove, turning out piles of shrimp and other fishes with grits; frittatas with ham and bacon; smoked salmon and asparagus; and whatever else he pulls from his well-stocked freezer to whip into something worth wearing an elastic waistband for.
The drinks, by the way, are always memorable, including Larry's spiked cocoa.
Spiked? For breakfast?
"It's Christmas," says Larry.
His cocoa sounds a lot like the "boozy hot chocolate" on the menu at the Dilworth Park Rosa Blanca, whose liquor service kicked in only two days ago. That specific elixir is yummied up with spiced rum, whipped cream and cinnamon. Other hot and mixed drinks, plus wines and local beers (to be added next week), ought to make for a wild twirl around the ice-rink just a few steps from Rosa Blanca's door.
"The vibe here is great," says Larry, who chatted with me between the breakfast and lunch rush at the cafe last week. "The fountain in the summer was beautiful. And so is the ice rink. Look at that line," he says, gesturing at the kids waiting to stagger onto the ice. "They love this place."
Which is music to the ears of Michelle Shannon, although it's a tune she's been hearing since Dilworth Park opened in September.
"The public has really embraced the park," says Shannon, vice president of marketing and communications for the Center City District, which runs Dilworth. It joins the CCD's other space-transforming parks - Sister Cities and Cret, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and pocket-sized Collins Park, at 1707 Chestnut St. "We don't have hard data yet, but anecdotally, people tell us they love it."
Dilworth Park workers like Larry, who oozes friendliness and passion for his new gig, no doubt contribute to the draw. The park, which comprises the western apron of City Hall, was for so long a dark, dirty and grim plaza that it was impossible to think of it with anything but sadness. And the smells . . . my God, who could imagine that urine stench would ever be replaced by the aroma of coffee and cocoa?
Today it's no longer a miserable tundra to hurry across but a fun destination whose new denizens - like Larry - make it feel alive and happy.
The way Larry's own house will feel on Christmas Day. And the way I hope mine will feel, too - even if I have to spike the cocoa.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly