My mother loves all-you-can-eat buffets, though for the life of me I’ve never quite shared her enthusiasm. In her case the reasons are simple: she hates waiting and likes the idea that she can see and select her own food from a huge range without being encumbered with waiting staff.
Being naturally shy and exacting in standards, dealing with middlemen en route to your dish does not come easy to her. Granted waiters in some establishments specialise in belittling and patronising diners, but in a Chinese they are a means to an end. If their role is restricted to ferrying food from the kitchen to the serving dishes, clearing away the empty plates, and keeping your drinks refreshed, they are not getting in your way.
Also the fact that she chooses to starve herself for most of the day but then indulge in one big meal. Presumably the current popularity of such restaurants in austere times is based on greed – that you can eat til it comes out of your ears without anybody turning a hair. Buffets are palaces, places to worship before the shrine of never mind the quality, feel the width. Quantity matters, and buffets for a set price represent value for money in the eyes of most diners, though in practice eyes may often be bigger than bellies. Some buffets now put up signs saying that plates of food not eaten will be charged.
I remember being with my family in Florida and going for what was supposed to be a Chinese buffet but actually had all manner of food on display. There was more food than you could shake a stick at. Aisles of it, laid out logically so you began with the starters, progressed to the middle courses, majored on the mains, and finished with desserts. As we were eating, my kids in their usual sparrow-like way, I noticed a couple at another table. She was big, and I mean BIG, in the American way. But he was so vast that he could literally only get one cheek on his chair, a testament to all you can eat dining culture.
Buffets do indeed have their place, and there are some very good ones. Hats off to the Chilli Banana in Wilmslow, my home town. Their Sunday lunch Thai buffet is really excellent, the food is freshly made and very tasty. But most usually when you eat at buffet places, the whole is much less than the sum of the parts. Even if the turnover is brisk, dishes are often dried or fried under the uv lights, yet frequently tepid by the time you get back to your table. There may be some dishes that were quite decent when they were made, but in the course of time have lost much of their appeal. Of course, if the food is being cooked freshly from raw materials to begin with, that helps, but you suspect that the cheaper end of this market populate their serving trays with mass-produced dishes churned out from a factory. Certainly the Chinese starters will be bulk buys, and the sushi ain’t going to be the real deal.
For me, a dish cooked to order from scratch is the best solution, and waiting a reasonable time while it is cooked helps build the anticipation. If you’re in a hurry and don’t want to appreciate the food, a buffet may be your answer, but dining out should really be more than a refuelling exercise. For many people it’s a ritual, something you do – maybe you go to your favourite Chinese every Saturday night, or finish a drinking session with a curry? Buffets make the eating ritual easier, but the true pleasure of appreciating food harder to come by. Buffet eating is a ritual in itself, almost a badge of honour to eat for the sake of eating.
What is worse is when you find mix & match global food buffets, where you could, for example, construct a plate of roast beef, pasta and curry. The worst nightmare was one such place. It is called Charlie Choy’s, and it is located on the Army & Navy roundabout in Chelmsford, and I only went there for one reason – it was between two rehearsals and I needed food in a hurry, but did not have time to go home. The food, ambience and the whole experience was so unspeakably dreadful I came very close to doing what I never do – walk out. This demonstrated precisely my point about restaurants: you can get a bargain for £50 but be totally ripped off for £12!