Dining At The Trough

The Scandinavians call them smorgasbords.

Methodists refer to them as potlucks.

But “buffet” is the word Americans commonly use to describe an expansive spread of food featuring a variety of options, from salads to cheeses to meats, breads, potatoes, desserts and more.

Commonly, a bountiful display of edibles is viewed positively by those with hearty appetites and economical minds. And just the mention of a buffet is enough to activate some salivary glands.

Maybe it’s my years of experience as a Happy Chef waitress that spoiled them for me, but despite the speed of service and “something for everyone’s taste” benefits afforded by buffet-style restaurants, I’ve never been their biggest fan.

Ah, I recall restocking the Happy Chef Sunday buffet with fresh loaves of Slim’s bread, cottage cheese and commercially produced, artificially yellow potato salad that was packed in nondescript white buckets. Watching people pile plates high with macaroni salad, whipped cream-topped cherry Jello blocks, sliced roast beef, corn kernels and gobs of gravy-drowned mashed potatoes, only to drop bits of food in Hansel-and-Gretel-like trails en route to their tables, was–I cannot deny it–something of a turn-off.

Honestly, it was kind of gross to collect the abandoned morsels, such as squishy mayonnaise-coated noodles, in my napkin-covered fingers. Cleaning the plastic “sneeze guards,” euphemistically known as “food shields,” that supposedly protect diners from each other’s germ-rich mouths and noses? Yet another aspect of the job that provided scant personal delight.

Of course, personal pleasure wasn’t included in the Happy Chef server’s job description; the $2.05 hourly wage was, I inferred, considered adequate reward for my labors.

Clearly, this view of buffet restaurants is not universally shared. Early last September, as my husband and I drove home after an emotional day of depositing our daughter on campus for her first semester of college, we stopped for gas and a quick bite at a Mankato Hy-Vee.

We opted to share a two-entree Chinese meal and settled ourselves at a table in the dining area with one plastic platter and two forks.

Behind us sat two men (may I tactfully say they’re probable patrons of Casual Male XL?) who were availing themselves of the grand buffet.

They conversed as freely and loudly as they consumed the contents of plate after plate, politely thanking the patient employee who returned often to clear their dirty dinnerware.

We weren’t trying to eavesdrop, but what we nevertheless learned is that these gentlemen–let’s call them Sam and Max–were highly knowledgeable about every buffet option from Albertville to Fairmont.

Specific price points (for adults, seniors and children), hours of operation, menu variety, dining room ambience and, above all, value were mentioned and chewed over at length. The best place for dining with kids? Try Faribault. But that diner north of Brooklyn Park, where they include unlimited beverages? Super cheap. How about the unlimited crab legs at You-Can-Eat-It? Got that covered. Too bad about Cheap-As-It Gets closing in Waseca, though; that place had the darndest broasted chicken.

Had we been taking careful notes, I could have published a definitive dining guide for buffet restaurants in the bulk of Minnesota towns based solely on their detailed narrative. As we shoveled in our own portions of fried rice and orange chicken, sharing a lone egg roll, it was a struggle not to choke as the men’s colorful language and descriptions left us unexpectedly chortling.

A May 23, 2012, Forbes article by writer Adam Ozimek addressed the economics of all-you-can-eat buffets, analyzing how restaurants can afford to keep offering them when guys like Sam and Max are determined to consume as much food as possible at each visit.

“Well, I got my money’s worth,” groaned Max, finally leaning back in his chair and patting his ample, Santa Claus-like belly.

So did we, Max. So did we.