Thanksgiving eve -- the night of a thousand reunions -- is among the busiest evenings of the year for Bakersfield restaurants and pubs across the city. In fact, restaurant owners have taken to calling the night "Black Wednesday" -- both for being a red-letter day for overindulgence and its role in getting cash registers ringing.
Being the kickoff to the holiday season, there's an undeniable festive spirit in the air, owing to the return of scores of college students, other family and friends and working stiffs eager to clock out early to get the party started.
And nowhere is the tradition more established than at Wool Growers, the unofficial hub for mixed crowds of all ages.
"In my 41 years here at Wool Growers, I see up to fourth generations coming in with their babies," owner Jenny Maitia-Poncetta said. "It's neat. My mom says she loves watching all these families, and when the kids come up and introduce themselves as 'so-and-so's son, and 'I've been coming here since I was a little kid, you remember me?' You see all kinds of people, especially young people, who are all very respectful to the older patrons."
Most of her customers have become accustomed to the change in atmosphere on this particular night, though Maitia-Poncetta added that she still makes a point to remind them.
"Realize, it's not going to be a nice, quiet evening. If they're thinking about being somewhere it's nice and quiet to be able visit with their family, that's not what they should be expecting. It's a lot of people and a lot of noise. For older people I can see where it might not be that much fun and a little chaotic. But it's fun."
Beyond the large groups of families filling up the Wool Growers banquet room, Maitia-Poncetta said the scene resembles a college campus, with students eager to let off some steam between studies.
"It's like having spring break, but indoors. It's gotten a little bit better with everyone having cell phones now but, before, everyone was looking for each other and they came here searching. The chaos has become a bit more organized now, and the last two to three years have not been as crazy, but some years I haven't been able to leave the back register because of the amount of people."
Maitia added that another highlight of the evening is watching the girls come and go.
"I see it all. The girls dress up in outfits you would not believe. They dress up like they're getting ready for New Year's Eve. They're really here to impress. It's kind of nice -- you see these beautiful, young women all dressed to a tee."
One of the ways the restaurant stays organized, Maitia said, is by making menu adjustments designed for serving larger-than-average crowds.
"We usually pick six or seven of our best sellers, like the shrimp scampi and of course the lamb chops and ox tail stew, all of the ones that we think are the most popular, so the kitchen can get it out faster. All of our staff will work, and not one complains because the servers make some pretty good money. They're happy to work."
Maitia recommends reservations -- and making them soon.
"I always tell people: It's not a typical night at Wool Growers. We have our normal seating arrangements, so that everyone can get done early and head home to spend time with their family, but it has never quite worked out that way. We serve until everyone gets fed properly."
After four decades, there isn't any particular moment that stands out in particular for Maitia, though she does marvel at the stamina of her younger clientele, who, after filling their bellies, are ready to keep the party going.
"We start to wind down about 11:30 to midnight, and you'll see them all jumping into cabs. I have to admit they are pretty responsible. I'm proud of our young people."
Wool Growers is located at 620 E. 19th St. For information and reservations, call 327-9584, or visit woolgrowers.net.
A few blocks away, Narducci's Cafe has become another popular destination for those looking to have a celebratory meal with friends and family the night before Thanksgiving.
Narducci's owner Julie Shine said her cozy restaurant and bar has figured out how to handle the influx of both the hungry and thirsty crowds streaming through her saloon doors after she opens at 9 a.m.
"Anyone coming in from out of town usually comes over straight for lunch or dinner right off the road. We are busy all day and all night, but the huge crowds usually hit right after dinner, mostly college kids, a younger crowd who can walk from all the Basque restaurants and bars. We will get some of the overflow crowd from some of the other restaurants, but we will be full for dinner either way."
Narducci's menu is available from opening until the kitchen closes at 9 p.m. And like at Wool Growers, Shine recommends making reservations now.
"If they're coming for dinner, they need to do so as soon as possible. Lunchtime they don't need to, but it's always best to call early. A lot of people forget how busy we get. We take dinner reservations and give them an hour and a half allotment. We take them in advance but are starting to fill up now."
Following dinner, the festivities continue throughout every area of the establishment, from the large banquet room, smaller dining room, outdoor patio and rear lawn, if need be. There will be a deejay and $5 cover charge for those arriving after 9 p.m.
"This night is much more relaxed and less formal than New Year's Eve," Shine said.
"You don't have to worry about your outfit, expensive dinner, and those types of things. We have room for people to filter into so they're not just stuck at the bar. We have the dining room, the main banquet room, the patio for people to filter into so they're not just stuck at the bar."
Narducci's Cafe is located at 622 E. 21st St. For reservations and information, call 324-2961.
Other Basque restaurants in Old Town Kern are Pyrenee's Cafe, 717 East St., 323-0053, and Noriega Hotel, 525 Sumner St., 322-8419.