OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS: "In 25 years, I've never cooked a Christmas dinner," says chef Patrick O'Connell, who routinely closed the Inn at Little Washington (Middle St., Washington, Va.; 540-675-3800) to spend the holiday with his partner, Reinhardt Lynch, and their families at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia. "It was always a little sad to close up the place and shut off the lights."

And this season? "We're going to throw a party!" O'Connell announced last week, hoping to fill the luxury restaurant's 100 plush seats with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations, priced at $118 and $148 a person. The tab doesn't include drinks, tax or tip, but -- amid crackling fires, roving carolers Dec. 24 and carriage rides Dec. 25 -- the occasion should be one for the memory books.

In the inn's over-the-top tradition, the multi-course menu will highlight brined turkey roasted with spruce needles; a rib roast using organic Kobe beef and accompanied by Yorkshire pudding; and goose prepared the way the chef's grandmother made it, with a prune and apple stuffing. There's even "a lump of coal" for diners who have been naughty (and you'll want to be among them, considering that it's actually chilled goose foie gras decked out in jellied oxtail consomme, rolled in minced black truffles and offered on sauternes aspic). O'Connell designed the feasts "to capture flavor memories without falling dead afterward." Desserts will include peppermint ice cream or mini-tastes of the rest of the kitchen's desserts (diminutive portions of mincemeat strudel, buche de Noel and frozen eggnog souffle).

Did his crew balk at being asked to come to work for the holidays? O'Connell says "the staff is upbeat and into it" -- as are members of their families, who have been recruited to sing carols for his dinner guests Christmas Eve.

-- Tom Sietsema