Dreaming of the Buffet, R.I.P.

Photo by Asiya Kiev

Even before the pandemic, buffets were struggling, with tastes leaning towards quality versus quantity. One day, remembering the buffet will be like remembering when you weren’t required to wear seat belts in the car, if you are old enough to remember that.

You love buffets. When traveling, you select the hotels that offer free continental breakfasts of usually stale cheese Danishes and bruised fruit settled in metal baskets. The level above continental breakfasts are the buffet breakfasts with hot food like the extraordinarily yellow and chunky scrambled eggs, crispy and almost clear bacon, and cubes of potatoes. On cruise ships, you prefer the extravagant displays of appetizers, salads, and regional cuisine dishes to their specialty dining restaurants for the reasons of a wider selection of food items, the lack of waiting, and no dress code.
As you follow the host to your table, you scan the counters of food. Every part of the dining room is covered with food apportioned in bite sizes. Before you sit down, a server takes your drink order, which you give while standing. What’s the point of sitting down if you’re just going to get back up? Then you’re off to retrieve an empty plate to fill with whatever you want to eat. There’s no filler of bread. Heck, you could start with dessert.

Holding onto your large melamine dinner plate, you dodge other looky-loo diners who hold plates piled high with crab legs and ribs, the expensive stuff. They’re not paying attention to who is in front of them and are about to run into you because you are also staring at the food covered counters wondering what you could fit on your plate so you won’t have to make so many trips.

The long counters of colorful food and textures are apportioned on four-inch plates, or hidden, like a gift, under silver covers of rectangular warming trays. At the stations of meat, where self-service is not typically available. A single-arm heat lamps hang over slabs of meat where a chef, at least that’s what his name tag says, wearing white renders a tine and a butcher knife to slice a piece of brisket or pork and tenderly place it onto your waiting plate.

You amble past the pasta station, the casseroles, the charcuterie, and buckets of olives and salad toppings to head straight to self-serve meat station, the lower end meat like chicken and burger patties. An older gentleman is about to step towards the chicken warming tray as well and you step in front of an older gentleman before he scoops in on the best drumstick in the pile of drumsticks. Leaning into the tray, you eyeball the drumsticks, checking to see if the skin has shriveled because it’s too dry. Then you glance at the fries in the neighboring tray. Will they taste like the shoestrings they’re named after? Is it worthy of your limited capacity? Your stomach can handle whatever your eyes can. And we’re not talking about your stomach capacity. We’re talking about your fourteen-inch dinner plate capacity. You want to fit at least four things on your plate before going to your table.

A tong with scraps of chicken skin and oil at the ends sits on a plate in front of the warmer. You grab the handle and aim the prongs at the least dry drumstick. Sometimes, inexplicably, tongs are placed in front of scrambled eggs or chili and you wonder whether the staff cares at all. You can only shrug and do what you can with what you have, like a chimpanzee with a stick.

As soon as your fingers touch the handle and slide in your hand alongside it into a grip, you feel stickiness and greasiness. Faint disgust is forgotten as quickly as you feel the saliva accumulating in the back of your mouth. You assure yourself that you’ll wipe your hands or wash them once you return to your table to set down your plunder. But of course, by the time you get back to the table, your family is excited about sharing what they picked up from the sushi bar or the dessert bar and your own plate is filled to the brim, mixed with Chinese noodles, Texas garlic bread, Polish sausage, that drumstick, and a bean salad because you need fiber in your system after all. It feels like you’ve plundered treasure and can now enjoy your spoils. You selected things you always wanted to try but never wanted to order and buy.

You’re already thinking about what you missed on the first round. Then you pick up the garlic bread with that hand you touched the tongs and put the garlic bread in your mouth, germs and thoughts of hand-washing forgotten. After you finish your plate of food, some scraps left over, you go back for your second plate, and touch more tongs and serving spoons so you can pick up the coleslaw, the deviled eggs, and the scallops.

Kids act as if they’re in a candy store, spooning mac and cheese and mini hot dogs onto their plates. Buffets are a parent and a child’s dream, especially for the picky eaters. Arguments between the generations are avoided, and children feel a sense of control while parents feel like Santa Clause on Christmas morning. The kids you saw earlier running around with their overfilled soft serve ice cream cones are now speed walking to their table where their parents are eating sushi rolls and nigiri. These parents are nice to bring their children to the buffet, not like that one mother who left her four kids in the car while she spent nine hours eating at the buffet. You notice the parents are just eating the fish off their nigiri and leaving finger thick beds of rice on their plates.

After five plates of a cornucopia of savory dishes, two plates of desserts (your meal now counted by the number of plates versus what you have on them) and an ice cream cone, you put some cash down onto the table for a tip and slowly get out of your seat. Your eyes glance at the other tables and notice no one else left tips next to their dirty plates. Apparently, no one else recognizes the staff quietly picking up plates, refilling drinks and keeping the counters stocked, even if they’re not directly serving the diner. The diners must feel as if they did all the work spooning food onto their plates and walking to their tables. You clutch your stomach, waddle out the door with a bloated belly from the hour of chewing and swallowing, and as you walk through the parking lot, you finally let out a long fart you’ve been holding in since the second serving. Only when you get home do you wash your hands.

Now, you’ve been reading about how the buffet restaurants are going to change their serving style into a cafeteria style to reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses. Lines would form along the counters. But worse yet, those serving you from the other side of the counter won’t pick what you want unless you tell them. They’ll spoon out the baby corn out of the fried rice instead of the string beans you prefer. You won’t be able to slip in front of anyone to get something “quickly”.

If the self-serve buffet is truly dead, maybe you’ll have to agree on a restaurant, wait for the food to be cooked, and settle on the reasonable portion they give you. Sigh.


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