I Pushed 'All You Can Eat' Restaurants to Their Absolute Limits
In a time of great austerity, how can I exploit the free food to keep me alive?
I've always been obsessed with the "all you can eat" buffet. Growing up as the youngest of six, we raced through dinner to see if we could beat one another to seconds while there was enough left. This has given me anxiety around food and the instinct to eat quickly, abruptly, and at volume. So from the moment I first gazed on one of those buffets, I was inspired. This was an environment where I could eat without pressure, where the food was never going to run out. It didn't take me long to realize, however, that they're an absolute sham, mainly because most of the food available in buffets is so starchy and filling that you can hand in your dignity and try to eat like Gary Barlow in '94, and still only swallow 50 cent's worth.
At 13, I used to try my best to maximize the experience: eating until I was too full to move, schlepping my way to the toilet, making myself sick, and going back for more like a hedonistic Roman nobleman. It wasn't the best con, really, and it just made me feel like shit. So I stopped going to all you can eats. The love affair ended.
Then a couple of years ago, I moved to London. Broke and in the city of greed, I got obsessed again. How can I maximize their value? How do I beat the system? The house can't always win. After many sleepless nights, jotting into my notepad, by God, I had it. Four different cons crafted carefully with one purpose: to take down the man and to finally get our fair fill of an all you can eat buffet.
I start my con in Brixton, where it is far, far too hot. With this A4 paper complexion of mine, I desperately need a drink to curb my headache and sandpaper tongue. But that's not an option because I have no cash, and I've managed to lose my debit card for the third time in four months. All I have in my pockets is a set of keys, a pen lid, and a receipt from last night's Nando's. I ordered: one extra hot wrap, corn on the cob, and a bottomless drink. I drank: one glass of Diet Coke. One glass! That's not bottomless, that's no refills. They're making a killing off of hapless optimists like me. In a moment of madness, possessed by desperation and dehydration, I stand up like I'm ready for a tank on Tiananmen Square. I take an empty bottle into the Nando's on Stockwell Road and walk straight up to the machine to get my fill.
I stop nervously to take a sip of out of my two liter bottle. No cold hand on the shoulder, no rushing manager, not even a glance: Nobody gives a shit. So I carry on for a few minutes, sipping and filling until eventually leaving absolutely gobsmacked (literally, my teeth are aching). It is one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Could I come back in a week, a few months, or a year and sip on a Fanta? Who knows, but I am chalking this one down as a win. I'll never go thirsty again.
THREE MEALS FOR THE PRICE OF ONE
The next day, I show up in Camberwell with a new plan: to spend the whole day eating all of my meals at a Chinese all you can eat, working on my laptop in between. I've never actually been in the place, and whenever I look through its windows, it seems to have that sordid, saddened air of a DMV. But inside, it's actually buzzing. Regulars are giggling and fist-bumping the guy behind the counter. It's like Cheers, but everybody is Norman. I plan to eat sensibly, but with the locals lining up, piling their plates high, I guess I succumb to peer pressure. Breakfast is an arid mountain of noodles, rice, fries, and seaweed. I go back for seconds and then thirds. After half an hour, I'm as good as done. If you ever want to see the look of someone who hates him or herself, just watch the door of an all you can eat.
It's a chore, trying to function when you feel like several bladders of vegetable oil. The place empties and fills again, hours pass, Years & Years play on the sound system, and still none of the staff say a word to me. There's not too much more I can stomach by lunchtime. Looking at more spring rolls and Singapore noodles, I feel a bit sick. I'm not sure for exactly how long, but I fall asleep at the table after lunch. It's 5:30 PM by the time I can face dinner, and it turns out I learned nothing from the breakfast fiasco. With that, it's over. It's pretty fucking incredible that—in the city where a pint costs you $7—you can eat an unlimited amount of food for as long as you want for $10. On the way out, I ask the guy if it's OK or normal for people to stay for as long as I have today. He shrugs, looks up at the clock, and says "Sure, you only stayed for six hours and fifty minutes. It's cool, brother."
I head to an extraordinary establishment situated upstairs at Victoria train station. Twelve different types of pizza on the buffet and 20-odd pasta dishes, being refilled every 20 minutes—it's an artisan beauty in the buffet universe. So it made sense for me to slip into a work outfit, sweep my hair back, and blend in with the commuter clientele. And it works: They sit me in a prime window seat; maybe they think I'm Steve Parish? In 30 minutes, I eat what I want, and a little bit more. Wiping my mouth with tissue as I get the bill, I ask if it's OK for me to take a slice or two home for the foxes in my garden. They say, "It's against policy, sorry." Fine. Sometimes you just have to play by the rules and accept something for what it is. Let me just take my briefcase, and I'll be on my merry way. I must not forget my briefcase, you see, because I'm a businessman, and it's filled with important documents, meeting minutes, and...
Pizza! Endless pizza—stacks of it. The MacGuffin of my story. I won't take one or two slices, I'll go for 26, thank you. Like an Andy Dufresne captivated by greed instead of freedom, with every plate I took from the buffet, I'd eat one and covertly slip three or four into my foil-lined case. They didn't see it coming. That's dinner for three or four days taken care of for about $11. Boom!
See that photo? No, that isn't an illusion. Your monitor is not broken, and you do not have a duplication virus. That's my friend Gavin Sparks and me, and we're gearing up to pull off the finest ruse Wimbledon has seen since the invention of Greg Rusedski's hairline. We're going to Jimmy's.
For the uninitiated, Jimmy's Restaurants run the tightest ship on the buffet scene—they'll throw you out for looking at one of their chefs funny. The Nando's, Chinese, and pizza places were benevolent but small-time. This, my friends, is the big time, and it's going to take more than a poxy briefcase or Evian bottle to pull the wool over their eyes. That's why I got my main man Mr. Sparks in. So the heist goes like this: Sparks strolls into Jimmy's at 5:55 PM, he orders a buffet and a Cobra beer.
After enjoying their worldwide scope of world class cuisine until his appetite is quenched and drinking exactly half of the beer, he will send a text to me. I will then ring him. When he feels that vibration in his pocket, Gavin will answer and lackadaisically stroll outside to take the call. Chatting, he'll dawdle out of the window's vision to the right of the restaurant. He will carry on walking until he passes me, who will have been walking down the street on the phone to Gavin. I enter Jimmy's on my phone and end the call. Taking his seat at the same table on the left-hand side of the restaurant, I will take a sip of Cobra and fill my boots. At precisely 6:56 PM, I will ask for the bill and pay for exactly one buffet and one beer. Genius, right? I know, it's one of the best.
So, did the whole thing come off without a hitch? Did we each come away from the glittering heist with a bellyful of diamonds and a smile? For legal reasons, I'll let you figure that one out.
In many ways, I spent the past four days tasting complex carbohydrates, syrup-based sauces, and different types of oil, but what I really tasted was freedom. The essence of freedom, on tap. It turns out that you can literally do whatever you like at a buffet for stock market crash prices—there is no limit. All You Can Eat is liberty and love; it may well be the most open-minded, independent, and emancipating culture that exists in 21st-century Britain.
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