It's the difference between choosing to be up late and having to be up late. On Thanksgiving Eve at my house, the five of us are busy with last-minute dusting, table-setting, kitchen prep and making (or inflating) beds for our seven holiday overnight guests. But Thanksgiving Eve brews up a much different busy for Brian Grano and his Mickey Finn's Brewery & Pub Food in Libertyville.
Thanksgiving Eve not only has become one of the biggest bar nights of the year, Grano says, but it also is one of the best.
Customers don't have to show up in a clever Halloween costume. There's no pressure to kiss someone special as the clock strikes midnight. You don't need to buy a Secret Santa gift. There won't be some knucklehead next to you vomiting into a leprechaun hat. There is a great chance you will see people you know. And the only obligations you have the next day are to sit upright, eat and leave room for pie before a nap.
"It's definitely got a different vibe to it. It reminds me of homecoming," says Todd Cotter, 43, of Gurnee, who says Thanksgiving Eve at Mickey Finn's has become a tradition. This year, he and his wife will go there with his sister, a couple from Antioch and a couple from Libertyville, who all grew up in the area and have been longtime friends. They'll drop their kids at the home of the Libertyville couple, and the older kids will baby-sit for the young ones.
"It's grown into this big phenomenon," says Grano, 46, noting he decorates the place in the days leading up to Wednesday and adds three hosts, a dozen more servers and a half-dozen more bartenders to handle the extra business. Up to 500 people will pour into the pub on Wednesday. Next fall, Mickey Finn's plans to move from 412 N. Milwaukee Ave. to a new, larger facility 345-347 N. Milwaukee Ave., meaning this should be the last Thanksgiving Eve in its old historic building.
"Wednesday from the get-go is crazy," Grano says. "We're busy right out of the gate."
While some of us are frantically trying to finish up at work Wednesday, so we can fight the traffic and get home in time to vacuum the guest room, Mickey Finn's opens at 11:30 a.m., and the regular "Black Wednesday" lunch crowd arrives.
"It's a lot of families who have family in from out of town," the pub owner says. Grano knows the names of his regular customers and he also has become friends of those special guests who show up once every year on the day before Thanksgiving.
"I've now seen this one guy's brother nine years in a row," says Grano. "It's the hardest day for me to leave the bar because I can't leave without walking by someone I want to talk with."
As the afternoon turns into evening and some of us, exhausted from work and the daily commute, begin tackling the list of chores that need to be done for Thanksgiving, unencumbered people in their 20s and 30s pack Mickey Finn's. Many of them are out-of-towners returning to the place where they grew up.
"It is quite literally the biggest reunion in the county," Grano says. "It's just a big party with people who went to school together. These people love it because they know each other."
Customers stake out spots for Carmel Catholic High School, Libertyville High School, Warren Township High School, Vernon Hills High School and other local institutions. Samadhi Vibe, a local blues, rock and funk band, adds to the festivities. The mood is joyful and happy and doesn't tax the security forces the way a St. Patty's Day or New Year's Eve crowd might, Grano says.
"I don't recall there ever being an issue on a Black Wednesday," he adds. "This Thanksgiving week is all about families and friends."
As the clock passes midnight into Thanksgiving Day, some of us are still setting up the "kids' table" in our living room. But the dining room at Mickey Finn's remains full.
"Every seat is packed with people catching up," Grano says, allowing that the crowd grows younger as the night grows longer.
"We come in earlier and try to get home by 10 o'clock," says regular customer Cotter, who notes that he and his friends don't stay as late in their 40s as they did in their 30s or 20s. "Every year, it's gotten a little earlier and earlier."
Cotter must get up before 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving to make good on another tradition -- deep-frying the turkey.
When the bar finally empties about 1:30 a.m., some patrons move on to bars open later. Grano sleeps.
"It's a rough couple of weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. I'm usually pretty worthless on that day," admits Grano, who closes the pub on Thursday and will join his family at his mother-in-law's to celebrate the holiday. But his rest doesn't last as long as turkey leftovers.
"There will be people waiting at the door before we open on Friday," Grano says. That's the day Mickey Finn's releases "Santa's Magic," the most popular beer it brews. While the pub might serve up 75 glasses of a popular beer on a good day, it often sells 250 Santa's Magic a day, he says.
"It's like no other beer we brew," Grano says of the strong Belgian ale served in a 16-ounce, tulip-shaped snifter topped with an inch of white foam.
The day-after-Thanksgiving crowd grows every year. "It's like Whoville," Grano says of the downtown Libertyville scene that includes a tree lighting and carols. That brings a different crowd to Mickey Finn's.
"We might have the parents of the kids who were here Wednesday," Grano says. "Friday is all the people who couldn't come on Wednesday because they were busy cooking or whatever."
Unless, of course, Friday is spent cleaning up your house after all the relatives leave.