Image by Alex Cook
A glutton doesn't want much from life, other than a limitless supply of food, ready access to air-conditioning, a shower massage, and eventually, a full-time attendant. For such a person, only one form of food service will do, and it's not a stool at a modernist tasting counter. It's a buffet, and only a buffet. But how should a glutton navigate a buffet? And what should be one's overall strategy?
Before going any further, let's make it clear what I mean by a buffet. There are the vast, imperial casino versions, opulent troughs so spacious that even walker-assisted senior citizens can find space inside them. And then there are the small, fast-casual versions, like the Old Country Buffet and Golden Corral. Finally, there is the bottom-rung of unassisted dining, which includes both the deli and breakfast buffets. I like all four of these options and consider myself something of an expert in each.
The Casino Buffet
The casino buffet diner is an apex predator, feasting on what is to my mind the summit of self-service dining. But taking advantage of one requires planning. The thing to remember about even a small casino buffet is that it's big. Very big. Typically, there will be multiple hot entrees, ranging in ambition from macaroni to veal Oscar. There will be a dessert area with up to three flavors of Jell-O, a wide selection of towering pies and cakes, and possibly, a jumbo salad bowl filled with pudding. Any buffet worth the name will also have at least one carving station, where a friendly man will be hard at work on a large joint or steamship round of roasted beef, helpfully ladling floppy slices, with knife and carving fork, onto your waiting plate. The key here is pacing. No one can exploit a given section in a single trip. Multiple return visits, planned far in advance, will avoid the embarrassment of overloaded plates, unsightly stains, or—worst of all—a quiet word with the manager, every glutton's deepest fear.
The “Fast Casual” Buffet
Within the glutton-feeding business, the term “fast casual” denotes restaurants that aspire to slightly more than just brightly lit suicide booths manned by pretty, unattainable girls. There are waiters who will occasionally come by to refill water glasses, and, if pressed, to remove used plates. But the food selection is smaller, the trays replenished less frequently, and the meat of lesser USDA grade—Select rather than Prime, but only seldom Cutter or Canner. They are cheap, though. Since the clientele of such places are generally octogenarians with cataracts and/or dementia, you can really let yourself go here, away from prying eyes.
The Deli Buffet
Of all three categories, this is the one that presents the greatest potential for value, and the least risk to personal dignity. The key to making the most of the deli buffet is to go very late in the day, or even at night, when the food is at its least appealing and hence, least likely to sell. An enterprising owner will often give courageous customers a deep discount, and guess what? The joke's on them, because deli buffet food is at its very best late at night. The food, once scalding hot, has now cooled down to a warmth slightly greater than body temperature, which is the best (and easiest) to eat quickly and in great volume. Better still, the various foodstuffs, all of which tend to be greasy, have slowly dehydrated, and are now little more than tepid grease vessels. So have your fill of leathery little tater tots, ultracaramelized spare ribs and plantains, richly dense and dry macaroni and cheese, and, best of all, roasted potatoes that are all crust and cream, magic starch with which to fill a vast and distended stomach.
One warning: because deli buffets charge by the pound, a meal here can run into serious money. For this reason, they are best used for midnight snacks and between-meal treats.
The Breakfast Buffet
No discussion of buffets could be complete without touching on the most common—and in many ways the most vital—of all contemporary buffets, the breakfast buffet. Like everyone else, I am drawn to these, but nearly always let down by them. The eggs tend to be dried out, the bacon of poor quality, the home fries a joke, and the sausages, well, a crapshoot at best. The ideal strategy is, I believe, to make fresh toast, butter it, and construct a thick, salty sandwich made entirely of bacon, accompanied by plump sausage links. (Of course, this is assuming that the butter doesn't consist of hard little foil-wrapped bricks, which it always does.) A single spoon of eggs will provide a nutritional fig leaf.
Now get out there before your rival gluttons do. Even a buffet will eventually run out.
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