Each year, an all-volunteer crew decorates the iconic Raleigh restaurant from top-to-bottom with thousands of lights, nutcrackers, reindeer and more.
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Trey Thomas
When it comes to Christmas bedecking, there’s the Biltmore Estate, there’s Dollywood and there’s the Angus Barn. Even Scrooge would catch his breath in the iconic Raleigh steakhouse’s fantastical holiday display of thousands of lights, ornaments, legions of nutcrackers and reindeer.
Angus Barn owner Van Eure and her dedicated team of volunteer decorators unleash the ladders and LEDs in early October. Each year, they reach new heights in bringing the Christmas cheer (literally: there’s now a 40-foot flagpole-turned-tree out front).
Each room in the restaurant, from the Wine Cellar to the Wild Turkey Lounge, has its own decorative holiday theme, with the main dining room always adorned in traditional red and green, in a display that garners as much attention as the Angus Barn’s award-winning food and wine selections.
“For many families, dining at the Angus Barn at Christmas is a tradition across generations,” says Eure. “We want to make sure it’s an unforgettable memory.”
She and her team erect scaffolding inside and aerial work platforms outside the restaurant, hanging lengths of garland, giant peppermint candies, stockings, wreaths and ribbons galore. Decorations are kept as high as possible, so as not to encroach on the prime table space, which accommodates some 800 diners at a time.
It was 20 years ago, at her sister Shelley’s urging after a visit to The Greenbrier, that Eure began decking the barn out for Christmas. In the early days, the staff assisted with decorating, arriving early in the mornings to hang candy canes and bells and serving food as usual at night.
Then, about eight years ago, one of Eure’s neighbors, Kate Parke, stopped her in the street and said she wanted to help. Parke had a crew of church friends whose children all attended preschool together, freeing up their mornings.
“I love Christmas and I like to decorate, so I knew we’d be good at this,” says Parke, who has a knack for channeling passion into productivity. She and her eight friends became the initial volunteer crew, donning pink t-shirts that read, The Real Housewives of Angus Barn.
Undaunted by the physicality of the work, the way it is tough on the hands and sometimes the heart (garlands fall, lifts threaten to tip, lights go out), the volunteers set to work hanging the tens of thousands of ornaments on the ceiling of the entrance. “We got it done,” says Parke, “and we never looked back.”
Now there’s a sign-up limiting eager volunteers to 20 per day. Parke is at the barn from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. five days a week starting in September.
This year, they’re sporting Angus Barn Christmas Crew hoodies for what has become a cherished ritual: spending their fall mornings listening to classic rock (Eure’s choice) while assembling a Christmas locomotive, setting up two new animated reindeer at the front door and tucking in final touches like snowy owls and snowflakes into the garland.
Parke also makes around 50 trips per season to Michael’s for decorations, where she’s been known to bring some cheese and crackers or pie to a patient check-out clerk.
Eure and her team are always adding more to every room, but the kitchen will be missing one important element this year: chef Walter Royal, who passed away unexpectedly in May after 27 years as head chef at the Angus Barn. The jacket Royal wore when he won Food Network’s Iron Chef America is now framed, hanging above the table that was “his” for years.
“Walter was a force, and losing him is a horrible blow,” says Eure, “but the cooks are proud to be able to say that because of Walter, because of how well he trained them, the Angus Barn is going to be okay.”
New head chef Scott James, who worked with Royal for nine years, this year saddles up for his first Christmas at the barn, serving up classics like the bone-in Royal ribeye and BBQ pork ribs to families who have often waited all year to dine beneath shimmering garlands.
The most popular holiday time slots at the Angus Barn fill up a year in advance — some patrons book the next year’s table on their way out the door. (Reservations have even been seen for resale on Facebook Marketplace.) In December, the kitchen churns out 2,000 gingerbread cookies a day, handed out by elves to patrons as they exit.
When Eure’s father, Thad Eure, Jr., opened the Angus Barn with business partner Charles Winston in 1960, critics doubted the potential of a restaurant situated so far from civilization, halfway to Durham on the two-lane Highway 70, where there wasn’t much beyond a pay phone every few miles.
RDU Airport and Research Triangle Park were new, but before long, people needed access to both, and the Angus Barn was no longer in the middle of nowhere.
Now, the big red barn is an icon, especially when lit with hundreds of thousands of lights, edging the rooftop, the trees and the famous windmill out front.
Some rooms are white and snowy, others glittering gold — all together it is a wonderland of splendor. Many of the lights now stay up all year, only to be turned on at Christmas.
But in the second week of January, all the other decorations — ornaments, ribbons, nutcrackers, wreaths — are carefully taken down by the same loyal team that puts it all up.
The decorations are tucked into labeled boxes and stored until the next fall, when Eure will be back tying bows and traversing the scaffolding, leaning from the rafters to ask someone to toss her up another little artificial silver tree.
“Life is full of challenges,” Eure says, “but at Christmas, when people walk through the doors of the barn, I only want them to feel magic.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.