Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Old Country Buffet

Buffets, Inc. claim to have "invented" the first scatter buffet - that is a variety of food bars rather than everything on one bar or one long, cafeteria type setup. The first restaurant opened in 1983 so I am not so sure that the claim is accurate as I know of a fancy Pennsylvania Dutch area buffet that was doing this before then. They operate 360 restaurants under several names across the country making them one of the largest chains, if not the largest chain. They are the most readily found of the buffet chains. The menus are standardized to the day and each restaurant looks pretty much the same as the rest. The restaurants are Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, Country Buffet, Country Roadhouse Buffet and Grill (one location in North Carolina), and Soup N Salad (one in California and two in Ohio). With the exception of the Soup N Salad, they are all pretty much the same. I had the good fortune to be in North Carolina in just the spot where the Country Roadhouse Buffet and Grill happened to be - it was not planned that way. Their menu was a little more extensive with the addition of a chargrill and hot off the grill meats.

I will write about Old Country Buffet, but as I have said they are all the same. You pay as you enter and either seat yourself at a booth or table or are hostess-seated depending upon how busy the restaurant is. The restaurants are kept clean and the tables are cleaned quickly and thoroughly between seatings. You are given a color paper strip to place on your table to show that it is reserved. The price is under $10 with children's and senior prices. Beverages are included in the price.

They claim that there are almost 100 items offered at any one time and this is true. There typically is a tossed salad bar with soup, a prepared salad, fruit, and bread bar, two entree and sides bars, a carving station with two to three meat that includes another entree and sides bar. There is a dessert counter with hot deserts and baked goods, two ice cream machines - regular and sugar free, and a sundae toppings area. There is a two-sided beverage bar with sodas, ice tea (sweet and unsweet), coffee, milk, chocolate milk, and water. There is also a condiment area. There are two soups offered - one always being chicken noodle or chicken rice plus one other. The carved meats include ham, turkey or roast beef There are recent specials that include steak on Thursday and Saturday night and salmon on Wednesday and Friday nights.
The menu changes by the day with a few days a week repeating when a special theme is offered such as barbecue night. Lunch is served with a different menu from the evening offerings and the price is lower at lunch. We will review each night's menu in a future article. In the 50's and the 60's Howard Johnson's Restaurants were so popular because no matter where you where in the US you could go into any Howard Johnson's Restaurant and find it to be the same as any other - with the comfort of knowing what to expect. This may also be said about Old Country Buffet and the rest of the names in the chain. Most that I have been in up and down the East Coast have been pretty much the same inside - decorations similar, if not the same, food bars laid out in a similar manner, and the menu consistent. There have been a few that vary slightly in appearance. The restaurant is very family oriented and there are always lots of kids. Some nights there are balloons and there has been the Old Country Bee entertaining the children and the adults - a host/hostess in a large, cartoon, bee costume.

I tend to eat dinner late - from 7:30 and later. They are open until 9 during the week and until 10 on Friday and Saturday. They do tend to run out of items toward 8:00 and usually substitute something else - though not always equally. For instance, the sausage runs out and is replaced with potatoes - now quite the same. I have found that the manager who is on duty makes a big difference in the operation of these restaurants. Frequenting one near my home, I know that there are the A-List managers who make sure everything is out when it needs to be and then there are the B-List managers who don't quite do as good a job.

A few problems show up - consistently in most of the Old Country Buffets that I have visited. One is ice - the two ice machines must be refilled manually and ice runs out quickly with a wait for someone to refill the machines - if they actually do. This could be fixed easily with automatic ice makers on the machines, but they have yet to take the hint from the crowds and growls at the ice dispensers. The restaurants do not seem to take into account days when there will likely be larger crowds - school holidays, etc. and these are the nights when items run out way before they should - especially specials. They need to prepare for these nights with extra food preparation. There have been occasions when all of the entrees run out at once - with a long wait for replacements or refills to arrive. One other problem is the new steak special. The steak is carved into pieces at the carving station - if the steak being carved is rare or well done that is what you get. It is also brought out one or two steaks at a time with a long line waiting. The steak is gone after five or six on the line and more has to be gotten from the kitchen. The lines remain long. Other chain buffets offer steak either cooked to order at a grill or placed out at the carving station in quantity and variety from rare to medium rare to medium to well done. Steak is new at Old Country Buffet. The steak that I have gotten there has been tough. I love steak, but I do not run for it at OBC. The special may not be offered long - though it is a staple at most other chains every night. If this is an experiment, perhaps they will make some adjustments when they place it on their menu as a regular item - or it will be taken off the menu. Oh yes, the chicken soup - always on the menu but rarely contains noodles or rice - lots of carrots, chicken, and celery though. When there are noodles they are "from the bag (or box)" - not bad, but not as good as the soft, doughy noodles found in the soup at other chain buffets.

Overall, I like Old Country Buffet. I dine there almost once each week - it is the only buffet chain located within two hundred miles of my home and there are two reasonably close to me. It is not my favorite buffet chain restaurant, but the food is good and there seems to be a quality that is maintained from restaurant to restaurant.

There is a link at the sidebar to the chains website under Old Country Buffet.


cmitroka said...

So I gotta comment because Old Country Buffet is my favorite buffet, with the possible exception of Shady Maples Smorgasbord. There is a catch however; I’ll only go there on Thursday and Saturday nights. Saturday is the best; there’s Orange Chicken, Brisket, BBQ Beef Ribs (This is my favorite food ever), Baby Back Ribs, and Shrimp. Thursday is similar, except the Orange Chicken. So these are the only foods I eat there. As for dessert, most of the cakes and cookies have a pretty high amount of calories for what you get. There is again an exception… the Soft Serve Vanilla Nonfat, Nutrasweet, Frozen Yogurt. It’s amazing this stuff tastes good. Plus, the have a hot fudge pump, Richs whipped topping, butterfinger crumbs, and cherries. If you use the toppings in moderation, you’ll be enjoying a few desserts without the guilt. This place is outstanding.

Robert A said...

Take a look at my December 19, 2005 article about Saturday Night at the Old Country Buffet.

The OCB near you (I am sumising in PA as you mention Shady Maple) seems to have a bit more than the one near me - there is no whipped cream at the one I go to.

Your humble author.