Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Peking Restaurant - Williamsburg,VA

From the beginning I have planned to write a general article about Chinese buffet restaurants, and following that write about individual oriental buffets that I have tried. I have not yet written a general article or about specific Chinese/Asian buffets, but this one is so different that I have to write about it as I am still digesting a wonderful meal.

The Peking Restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia is located at 120 Waller Mill Road in the Big Kmart Shopping Center. (Kingsgate Green Shopping Center – Bypass Road (Rt.60)) This is an individually owned restaurant and not a chain. The restaurant fills four store fronts in a strip mall with KMart. I have seen this restaurant advertised in Williamsburg tourist magazines for years and never tried it. One of the reasons is that the description of the restaurant has been confusing (and still is). It is described as having a buffet, a Mongolian grill, and a Japanese hibachi. It was never clear if each was a dining option or all was included. From the ads it still appears that each is an option. We went in with the idea that we would have the Chinese buffet expecting the standard set up found in so many Chinese buffets up and down the East Coast and perhaps all over the country. What a surprise when we entered. I expected the host to ask what part of the restaurant we wished to dine in – as there across the back of the large restaurant were all three options. He did not ask, he just sat us in the center room. Shortly, a server came over asked for our drink orders. We ordered two sodas and were invited to partake in all that was offered. This is the most different Asian buffet that I have ever been to and at $8.99 per adult and $1.25 per unlimited beverage this is one of the least expensive Asian buffets that I have enjoyed. There is a children’s price. Lunch is priced at $5.99 for the buffet - I do not know if the offerings are fewer at lunch.

Looking about the room it was quick to see that a number of tables were filled with Asian families. This is always a good sign in any oriental restaurant – buffet or not – as these are the people who know best if the food is properly prepared and of quality.

The buffet is in three sections. The first is a Mongolian grill. This is a large round grill with two chefs working at it. Around the grill is a selection of raw meats and fish, vegetables, noodles, and sauces. You pick up a bowl and fill it with any combination that you wish. There were more meats here than I have ever seen at a Mongolian grill including beef, pork, turkey, lamb, trout, sea legs, chicken, and more. The bowl is handed to one of the two chefs and he places the contents on the grill, Each chef has a long stick and pushes your combo around the grill in a circle – each following the other. I have not seen this before. When done your combo is placed in a clean bowl and given to you. The serving bar around the grill continues on with two types of pizza (yes, pizza seems to always be available at Chinese buffets), fresh fruits, and deserts including almond jello which is an authentic Chinese desert. To the side is a soft serve ice cream machine. You then come upon the main entrée bar which is filled on both sides with Chinese dishes (appetizers, entrees, and vegetables) – some of the commonly expected ones – chow mien, sesame chicken, General Tso chicken, egg foo young – and some unusual dishes not usually seen on the “standard” Chinese buffet. This is a long bar and it also included two soups – hot and sour and egg drop. For the less adventurous they even had French fries. The next section of the buffet is an Japanese hibachi grill and hibachi steak is being prepared by a chef behind the counter. There were also bourbon chicken, fried dumplings, scallion pancakes, ands onion pancakes. Following along there were hot, steamed Chinese deserts including steamed cake and steamed tarts. Nest there were steamed dumplings and dim sum, The serving bar continued now to a chef preparing wonton and beef noodle soups to order. Why to order? You selected the ingredients to make a variety of traditional oriental noodle soups or a soup to your liking. There were several types of noodles including Japanese Ramen noodles, Vietnamese pho noodles, and Korean potato noodles. You tell the chef what you want and he places the noodles and greens into a small wire basket on a wooden handle and submerges it into a boiling cauldron. When done he places the noodles or wontons into a large bowl adds more greens and seasonings, and beef and hands it to you. This is a LARGE bowl of hot noodles and soup. The bar continues to a sushi bar where a chef is preparing fresh sushi rolls including vegetable rolls and California rolls for the faint at heart. Through out all of the selections there were a number of vegetarian choices. Oh yes, somewhere along the way was a salad bar.

The food was very good. In fact I broke Rule #1 and ate more than I should because I wanted to try all of the different areas. My wife who is a less adventurous eater than I am was very happy with the selection of choices and had no problem finding her favorites.

The buffet bar though long, is set in a narrow space with a low wall separating it from the tables. At times it was a bit of a squeeze moving through as the restaurant was crowded – a great sign for a Monday night late in August. It was obvious that there were both locals and families on vacation dining. Everyone seemed happy. A few seemed to break all of the rules and fill plates high until nothing could be recognized. (Still a good sign as they were enjoying themselves.)

I tried the sushi. I like raw salmon and tuna. The tuna that was being served was described as “dry” and it did not look like what I am used to so I did not take any. The salmon was described as “spicy”. I tried that and wow was it spicy. I would normally fill a plate with sushi – as I am not an adventurous sushi eater, I did not do that here, but there were California rolls and vegetable rolls, BUT I decided why eat that when there is SO much more.

I like Vietnamese Pho soup with beef. I have only had it in one Vietnamese restaurant in Georgetown, Washington, DC and that is what I have to judge the soup on. The Pho that I had the chef make me here looked the same, but was missing the coconut taste that the soup that I have had before has. Now, I have no idea if Pho is supposed to taste that way. The noodles here were good and plentiful and the soup had the “right” look. It was good but not what I expected. Since the same broth is used for all of the noodle soups that may be the reason.

The table was interestingly set with an acrylic server that was filled with napkins, chop sticks, straws, sugar and sweetener, a bottle of soy sauce, and a discount coupon for 10% of at the gift shop that fills a room next to the entrance selling items from China. The only thing missing was a knife. I am sure I could have asked for one and gotten it, but I looked around and no one was using a knife. I cut my steak with my soup spoon – it was that tender. The service was excellent with the server continually checking to make sure all is well and refilling the soft drinks. You pay after the meal and make sure to leave the server a tip – it is not included.

Years past this restaurant had two locations in the greater Williamsburg area. Now there is only this one. When I first saw this restaurant years ago – and had not gone in - it was one storefront. It has grown considerably. They claim to have been voted the best Oriental restaurant in Williamsburg for the past 14 years. That is saying a lot for any buffet restaurant as it is in competition with non-buffets and comes out on top. The gift shop was neat and unusual too.

I am adding this restaurant to my must visit list when I am in the area – and that is usually twice each year. There is just so much down home country cooking that one can eat until you want a good Chinese dinner. This is it in Williamsburg! The restaurant has a website that is linked at the side of this site.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Country Harvest Buffet - Williamsburg, Virginia

Country Harvest Buffet is located in Williamsburg, Virginia at 1425 Richmond Road and is a small, family run buffet. The (presumably) husband and wife work at the cash register and greet you as you enter. This is a pay as you enter buffet and the adult price of $10.95 includes unlimited beverages. There is a breakfast buffet, a lunch buffet, and a dinner buffet. There is also a Sunday brunch buffet. There is a children’s price – all children pay with a lower children’s price for under 4.

I have visited this restaurant a number of times both in the summer and in the winter. It is not a large restaurant. There are two dining areas on each side of a room with the buffet table filling the center of the room and one side. You are either seated or select your own booth or table depending on the crowd. You get your own silverware and plates. Décor is basic and plain. I have never been here when there has been a large crowd, but there are always people dining here – primarily tourists from nearby Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens.

The buffet starts with a large assortment of greens, salad mixings, and dressings. There is a good selection of prepared salads. There are also three types of breads including a very good corn bread. The salad bar fills the front third of the buffet on both sides. The salad bar section is followed by the dessert bar Here you find an assortment of cakes, Greek pastries, fresh and canned fruit, and puddings. Again this all fills both sides of the center third of the buffet. Finally, the entrees and sides follow on the last third of the bar. There are no carved meats. There is turkey but is served cut up in gravy. There is meat loaf, BBQ short ribs (beef), pork in barbeque sauce, fried chicken, broiled chicken, seafood au gratin, deviled crab. crab cakes, fried fish, and broiled fish. There were a few other prepared entrees that I could not tell what they were (I could have asked – but while some items were labeled, others were not). There was assorted vegetables, mashed potatoes, steak fried potatoes, macaroni and cheese, lasagna, spaghetti and sauce, hush puppies, pizza, baked beans, yams, and others. On the side wall are hot and cold drinks, hot desert cobblers, and two soups. You get and refill your own soft drinks and may switch to coffee or tea if you wish.

Service is decent and dishes were cleared fairly regularly. The tables and restaurant are kept clean, as are the serving areas. The food is good, but a picky eater who does not like country fare may not be happy. They refill food trays regularly, but don’t come close to closing. The restaurant advertises in the local tourist giveaway magazines – don’t be fooled by the lavish photo of what is offered – it does not look like that when you get there. You will find money off discount coupons in these publications for this restaurant.

One interesting note is that the desserts offered here are EXACTLY the same as those offered at another buffet in the area which is a local chain called Captain George. They are not similar desserts – they are the same desserts. We will discuss Captain George in another article, but note that it is a much more sophisticated (classy) restaurant and the desserts there are one of their features. It is interesting that you can get these same noteworthy desserts at this little restaurant. Perhaps there is a connection between the two or one bakes for the other. I do not know, but you benefit for a third the price.

There is a soft serve ice cream machine but it has not worked – and not been fixed – in three years. There are enough desserts that you should not miss it.

This is a small buffet. It is not like the big chains. It is probably one of the better restaurant deals in the area. There is no website. Their phone number is (757) 229-2698.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Golden Corral

The Golden Corral is another of the national chains. This buffet offers a large assortment of "country" foods every night. While they mention a Saturday night barbecue special at the entrance door - steak, ribs, etc. all of that was available on the Thursday night that I visited tonight in Durham, North Carolina..

At the Golden Corral you pay at the door. It was $8.69 per adult. It is thirty cents more on Sunday. There is a modified selection at lunch and it costs less. Beverages are unlimited and cost an extra $1.49.

As you enter you are given your drinks, one plate for each member of your party and your silverware on a tray. You find your own table or are seated depending on the crowd. As you are sitting, either before or after your first trip up, a server comes over and brings more plates. This is the drawback of the Golden Corral - you must get a clean plate and refills of your drink from your server . If he/she is attentive you have no problem, BUT if you get a poor server or it is busy and he/she cannot keep up with the tables you wait for your next trip up. This can lead one to want to break one of our rules and fill each plate to the maximum on each trip to the buffet bars This is not good for both the guest and the restaurant.

The offerings are extensive. There is a very large salad bar with greens and mixings, a large assortment of dressings, and prepared salads. There are four soups. The chicken noodle is quite good with homestyle thick, soft noodles. Tonight there was also clam chowder, vegetable soup, and chili. There are two grills. One is preparing steaks that are over one inch thick and cooked to your order. Also at that grill are spare ribs, and other grilled meats. At the other grill stirfry dishes are being prepared along with teriaki chicken. There were three entree and sides bars. Various types of chicken, pork including pulled pork, meat loaf, pot roast, a taco bar with tortilla bowls and nachos, a baked potato bar, and fresh baked pizza in two varieties. The desert bar includes fresh baked cakes, hot cobblers, cookies, cup cakes, pastries, a chocolate pizza, puddings, ice cream and a sundae bar.

The assortment offered is one of the more extensive of the chains, What was not found were the plainer things found in some of the other chains - carved turkey, roast beef, etc. My wife likes to eat plainer than I and though had a lot to choose from she did not find the meats that she would normally select.

I found the steak to be tougher than the steak that I have had at Ryan's and even Old Country Buffet - BUT it tasted much better than the broiled steak at OBC. It is cooked on a chargrill as you watch and it is possible that tonight it was just not the right piece for me. It is very thick and it was cooked just right.

The decor is plainer than the other chains - the tables and chairs are basic and simple wood. It is well lit. I have been in a GoldenCorral in another state that had air conditioning problems on several very warm nights and the room was uncomfortable. Here, tonight, the temperature was perfect.

The management here seemed very attentive and there were several loudspeaker announcements to staff to keep things just right. If they put the dishes out on the counter like most of the other chains everything would be great. The restaurant was clean. The server was attentive - though he was covering a large area and at one point we waited a short while for plates. All food was kept full - though I heard someone ask for the chicken pot pie and was told that there was no more. There was PLENTY of everything else.

I know of two Golden Corrals that have gone out of business. There had been one near my home and it lasted for a few years. On two visits - and this is more than five years ago = it was pretty bad. The trays were not refilled, the servers disappeared, and the cleanliness was poor. It is no wonder that it closed. The other was one in Pennsylvania and when we went to go back to it found that it had closed. I do not know why - it had been pretty good.

I recommend this chain - try it. There is a link to the chain's website at the side of the blog.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Ryan's Grill, Buffet, and Bakery

Ryan Grill, Buffet, and Bakery is a large chain of buffets across the South. The furthest north on the East Coast are restaurants in south central Pennsylvania. This is my favorite of the buffet chains that I have dined at. This evening we had dinner at the Ryan's in Fredericksburg, VA. It was the same as my experiences have been in Ryan's in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, and other locations in Virginia.

Dinner is priced at $8.39 and soft drinks are extra at $1.39. Soft drinks are unlimited and may be changed to coffee at desert. What sets this chain apart is the charbroil grill. Steaks are served to order and there is also smoked sausage and pork cooking on the grill. Next to the grill is a carving station with beef, ribs, pork barbecue, and fajitas. There are three soups, a taco bar with fried and steamed tortillas, as well as nachos. There are several varieties of pizza. There are two salad bars with assorted greens and toppings along with prepared salads, apple cob salad, homemade tuna salad, and others .There is an assortment of fresh fruit. There are two entree and vegetable tables with fried and broiled chicken, two kinds of mashed potatoes, and assortment of vegetables, a variety of entrees including chicken pot pie, spaghetti and meat sauce, and several others. The deserts are on a large u-shaped server with fresh baked cakes, cookies, hot and cold deserts, puddings, four flavors of ice cream and sundae fixings. Food is southern-style and the fried chicken is as good or better than some I have had in restaurants in the South that specialize in home cooked fried chicken.

Beverages are served to you by your server and how well this works depends upon your server. We have usually had attentive servers and the beverages where refilled regularly and the dishes where picked up quickly.

The decor is wood and metal - more masculine than the "dainty" decor of Old Country Buffet. (The decor at OBC appeals more to my wife than Ryan's. I don't notice much as the food is the area of focus here.)

The food is good. My steak was cooked just right - I like it rare on the inside and crisp on the outside. It was not tough and it did not need steak sauce to give it flavor. When you sit at your table your server comes over and offers you rolls. These are very good and hot - but be warned as they are drenched in butter, which makes them so good.

You pay as you enter and order your drinks then. The cashier will ask if you would like to place your tip on the charge card and if you say yes you will be handed back the cash to put on your table. This is great if you want to keep your expenses on your charge card or don't want to be concerned at all about cash. When you get to your table your server will check your receipt to learn your drink order.

There are three special nights - Tuesday is catfish, Saturday is barbecue, and Wednesday caters to kids. Most of the usual menu is available on those nights as well. Prices do vary by night. At one time these restaurants were closed on Mondays but that no longer seems to be the case, but you may want to call just to make sure before you visit. There is a link to the chain's website at the side of this page.

As you can tell - I like Ryan's. There are none where I live and I have traveled out of my way when traveling to visit a Ryan's.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Tom Sarris's Orleans House

Located in Rosslyn, Virginia, just over Key Bridge from Georgetown, at the corner of Lynn Street and Wilson Boulevard is Tom Sarris's Orleans House. This is NOT a buffet restaurant, a smorgasbord, or an all you can eat restaurant but it does have a salad bar that is included with every menu entree and the salad bar is offered as an all you can eat menu choice.

This is considered a "classy" restaurant with "real" restaurant ambiance, a liquor bar, and decor that resembles the balconied streets of New Orleans. At the center of the restaurant is a steamboat which is the two sided salad bar. Around the restaurant are some Washington artifacts such as a large "grandfather" clock from the historic Willard Hotel - a Washington landmark.

I include this restaurant on this site because it is the closest that you will find to a buffet restaurant in Washington, D.C. that is affordable. In a city with menu prices that exceed $50 to $100 per person, the all you can eat salad bar here is $8.00. Entrees start at $10.95 for beef ribs and you get the salad bar. The food is good, portions are adequate, and the salad bar let's you get your fill. The featured entree is Prime Rib in three different sized cuts.

The salad bar is just that - salad - several choices of lettuce, spinach, mixings, cheeses, and toppings. There are also prepared salads and an assortment of breads. The house dressing is a green creamy concoction that reminds me of a commercial dressing that has not been available for years - Green Goddess. It is very good.

We found this restaurant 25 years ago when we could no longer afford to go into the city and eat at the very nice, but extremely expensive assortment of restaurants serving stuffy foods in miniscule portions. At that time the small cut of prime rib was $6.95 - it is now around $15.00. Entrees are served with potatoes and the salad bar = anything more is extra. There are free refills on the ice tea (which seems to be standard everywhere but in the northeast).

You can go up to the salad bar as many times as you like, but the entree is consistently timed out to arrive as you are about to finish your first plate of salad. You still may go back for more, but the servers always seem not to be at ease as you do this when you are getting the salad bar with the entree. Over the years, we have found this to be the case at several restaurants in Virginia that include a salad bar . It is like an unspoken rule - one trip. No one has ever stopped us from going up again - and again. As the server seems to be timing the delivery of your entree by your salad I tend to break my own rule and fill my plate high on the first trip.

So if you are in Washington, DC on a budget and you are hungry - and you like salad - go over to Tom Sarris's Orleans House.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant

The Lancaster County, Pennsylvania is the home of the Amish people and also the one of the original homes of the smorgasbord, buffet, or all you can eat restaurants in the US. There are probably more buffet restaurants in Lancaster County than any other place with the exception perhaps of Las Vegas. It seems as if almost every restaurant in this region offers an buffet alternative to the menu. One of the nicer of these restaurants is the newly renovated Bird-in-Hand Family Restaurant. Yes, Bird-in-Hand is the name of the town.

Located on Rt. 340 in Bird-in-Hand, this restaurant is located in a complex that includes the restaurant, a motel, a bakery across the road, and an adjacent farmers market, all owned and operated by the Smucker Family (no relation to the jelly). The restaurant more than doubled in size in the past year and with the renovation the buffet - which had been one long serving table- has become a large scatter buffet with a soup bar with two soups and chili, a salad bar, a bread and cheese bar, a two sided entree and vegetable bar, a seperate children's bar, and an extensive desert bar.

The price is on the expensive side compared to other local restaurants but it includes unlimited soft drinks and coffee and with that the price comes close to the norm. The price on Monday to Thursday is $13.99 and Friday and Saturday is $14.99. This restaurant like many restaurants in this area that are locally owned is closed on Sunday. Also in this area local restaurants close at 8:00pm. Some serve until 9:00 pm but you must be in before 8:00 = some CLOSE at 8:00. This restaurant will seat you until about 7:45 pm and serves until about 9:00.

They call this the Grand Smorgasbord and it is grand. There is a breakfast smorgasbord, a lunch smorgasbord, and a dinner smorgasbord - and each is different. You can also order the salad bar or the desert bar without the rest.The restaurant opens at 7:00am for breakfast.

The lunch buffet and the dinner buffet have daily special items added to the regularly served fried chicken, dark and white meat turkey, baked fish, a local dish called pork and sauerkraut, real mashed potatoes, noodles, baked dried corn (another local dish), filling (a local stuffing), and an assortment of vegetables. There is also pizza.

On the Friday night that I was recently there the special items included pork ribs, fried clam strips, fried shrimp, and ham loaf (a local meat loaf made with ham). All was good and the trays were refilled right up to closing. The soups were chicken noodle, beef vegetable, and chili. This restaurant makes an exceptionally good local soup called Chicken Corn and thier recipe sets this one above others.

The children's buffet is included with the smorgasbord and adults may partake as well. The food is plainer and kid-friendly - and it is set at a height easy to reach for kids (still follow the rule about kids going up by themselves). On the kid buffet were nachos, hot dogs, some of the items on the larger bar, and others made to a kid's taste.

The desert bar is large and offers a number of local deserts, cakes, pies, puddings, self-serve soft serve ice cream, and slushies. If you are new to the area try the shoo-fly pie. Desert is unlimited.

Drinks are served to your table by a server who was thier with refills before you asked. The servers are attentive - check with you often and clean the dirty plates away before you return to the table.

Over all there are no complaints. The food is good. The service is good. The room is pleasant. Expect to wait from ten to thirty minutes in tourist season - which covers both the summer and pre-Christmas (there is a lot of outlet shopping in this area).

The restaurant is frequented by locals and the Amish (don't stare), as well as the tourist crowd. There are bus groups at times, but there are several dining rooms and plenty of room. The restaurant only takes Visa and MasterCard. There is a small gift shop in the lobby. There is a link to the restaurant and the complex in the links section at the side of the page.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Rule # 14

Rule # 14 is so important that it merits its own post.

Never take a serving piece from one item and use it for another item.

The serving pieces must not be moved from one item to another or carried along and used to place multiple items on your plate. Why is this so important? There are a lot of people with allergies these days - some so sensitive that even the smallest amount of something that they are allergic to mixed into something that they eat may result in a severe to fatal reaction. If you take the spoon out of the Chicken Blog - which is sauteed in peanut oil and use that spoon to scoop up the string beans you have now put peanut oil into the string beans. Someone with a peanut allergy could die. Not an exaggeration.

Do people move the utensils? I saw it this evening and I have seen it before. A woman filled her plate along the entire buffet table at the Chinese Buffet with the serving spoon from the first tray. To her I am sure it seemed convenient - I have this spoon in my hand already. I took some of that, now why not take some of this, and oh, look at that over there. The spoon made it along the whole serving table. And it never made it back to the original tray - which now has no spoon for anyone else to use.

Aside from allergies, it is rude, and who wants mashed potatoes mixed into the corn? If you want to mix things together do it at your table in your plate with your own utensils.

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.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The "Rules" - A Baker's dozen to Start

Smorgasbord in Swedish translates to "open sandwich table". In Sweden the smorgasbord is an art in dining. The main table holds a variety of small dishes with foods of every variety. The diner comes to the table and places a few of the foods on a plate and returns to the dining table to enjoy them. Sounds familiar - pretty much the same as here right? Well, not quite. Diners do not mound everything that they see on their plate at once filling it high resulting in a mix of food that are now hard to distinguish one from the other. The Swedes take a bit - it is called the first plate. They take the appetizer items and enjoy them first. When done, they get up and get the second plate. They may go back three, four or more times - each time taking a bit of their favorites. The meal is relaxed. It is not a feeding frenzy - and dining at a buffet restaurant in the US should not be either.

When dining at a buffet there are some rules. No one posts all of these rules - some restaurants will post some of them - mostly without notice by their guests. If you stop and think about it all of the rules are common sense. None of the rules are intended to make your dining experience any less enjoyable - and in fact, all will make you a happier diner and make your fellow diners happier too. Here are a baker's dozen of the "rules". There will be more as we go along.

Rule #1

All you can eat is not a challenge. It is an offer!

This first and foremost rule has been stated before, but it cannot be repeated enough. This rule was first realized by wife who readily convinced me of it when I was moaning and groaning on our way out of one of my favorite buffet restaurants. This is not all you CAN eat - it really is all you CARE to eat. If you keep this rule in mind you will not ever regret eating more than you can comfortably hold.

Rule #2

There is no limit to the number of times that you can go up and get food.

Too often I have seen diners fill their plate with everything at once from salad to desert. I once saw a man try to figure out how to pour soup onto the top of an already filled plate of food. I have seen. You do not have to take it all at once. You are allowed to go back and get some more - as many times as you wish (some restaurants do set time limits - but I have yet to see a limit that was not two hours or longer. There is no need to put the salad and dressing on the plate, pile some chicken and roast beef on top of that, scoop on a heaping portion of mash potatoes, pour some gravy over that, and top it all off with a slice of chocolate cake. Think I am exaggerating - there is always more than one doing this at any buffet restaurant at any time. I will talk more about this in the next rule. Besides, getting up between plates gives you some exercise to digest and does will not disrupt the meal if it is done properly.

Rule #3

Take your food in courses - as you would be served if ordering from a menu.

If you order from a menu you would be served you rappetizers first, then your soup, then your salad, then your entree, and then your desert. Like the traditional Swedish Smorgasbord - First Plate, Second Plate, Third Plate. You will set the pace for your meal, relax, and enjoy it more.

Rule #4

Everyone must pay!

Everyone who sits down at the table with you must pay for a buffet meal. The only exception to this is if menu dining is also offered and then everyone at the table must order or select the buffet. It is not permissible to not order and then pick from someone else's buffet plate. It is also not permissible to order from the menu and then supplement with items taken from someone else's buffet plate. Some restaurants solve this problem by charging before the meal at the door. Some say if one orders the buffet at a table then all must order the buffet. I have too often seen someone argue with the server - and then the manager that they should not be charged for the wife, son, daughter - whoever, because they did "not" eat anything.

Rule #5

No food is permitted to be taken out of the restaurant.

This is usually posted in many buffet restaurants. Some will charge extra if they catch you removing food from the restaurant - some will have you charged with shoplifting.

Rule #6

Take only what you will eat - do not waste food.

Some restaurants post this rule. If you fill a plate and leave most of it over the restaurant may charge you. This rarely, if ever happens, but you should really avoid this. Of course, if you really cannot finish your plate then don't get yourself sick - but also do not then go up and get more.

Rule #7

For a more social meal, it is polite to wait for the others at the table to finish their plates and then go up together to get more.

If everyone gets up and down at different times you might as well be eating alone. Wait for the others - of course, in a very large group this is not always possible.

Rule #8

Take a clean plate every time that you go up to the buffet tables.

Never bring your dirty plate back up to get more. Take a clean plate each time and leave your dirty plate on the table to be picked up. Some restaurants have the server bring you more clean plates. This is not always good if you have an inattentive server.

Rule #9

If you put it on your plate, leave it there. Never return food to the serving tray.

Once it hits your plate, its yours. No one else wants what has touched your plate.

Rule #10

Never eat at the buffet tables!

Your table is there for you to eat at. Do not sample at the buffet tables or while walking around the room. All too often there is someone standing at the buffet eating from the steam table.

Rule #11

Children under 12 should not be going up to the buffet tables alone.

Children - well behaved or not - should be escorted to take their food. I like kids, but all too often they are a problem when they are up there by themselves - not returning the serving utensils to the correct tray, spilling overwhelmingly full plates, etc., etc. In addition, children are below eye level and with hot soup being carried and plates of hot food, they often are not noticed and walked into or spilled on.

Rule #12

The buffet table is not a cafeteria line.

Wait your turn for a particular item, but there is no need to walk around the buffet table in a line - no one moving ahead of the other. Take what you want and go to the next item that you want.

Rule #13

Tip the server.

Many people do not leave a tip in a buffet restaurant. Just because the server does not deliver the food to your table does not mean that you do not have to leave a tip. Usually the server in a buffet does more work than a server in a menu restaurant. He/she needs to be more attentive, continually clean away the dirty plates, and bring more beverages (if beverages are not self-serve). How much you care to tip is up to you. You should leave at least a dollar per person or a percentage (10 or 15 percent) if the meal is over $12.00 each. If it is a restaurant that you frequent often you should leave more. Some buffet restaurants include the tip in the price, usually those who charge as you are going in. This is made clear at the cashier. In these restaurants the tip is taken care of and there is no need to leave more. If the tip is not included and you have an inattentive server - and a pile of dirty plates left on your table through your meal - tip less and let the management know.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Types of Buffets

There are many types of all you "can" eat restaurants. The term has generally been associated with cheap, lesser quality restaurants, but that can be far from the case. There are a number of buffet restaurants or restaurants that offer buffet dining as an option that are considered fine dining and appear in the best restaurant guides. While the average price for a buffet meal is around $12.00 per adult, there are a number who charge much, much more and offer the dining ambiance of the best five star restaurants.

The way the meal is offered also varies. There are buffet restaurants that are self-serve There are buffets that are cafeteria-style with someone serving you from behind a counter. (You will often get a larger portion than you really want when it is served to you this way, so make you wants clear to the server - ask for half or a small piece if you want to leave room in your stomach for something else.) There are all you can eat meals that are served to you at your table - family-style on large platters or the server returns (if you are lucky) and offers you another portion. There are some that are a combination of two or more styles. Common to most is that a server or bus-person will clear the used dishes on a regular basis.

The type of food that is served varies as well. Most of the big chain buffet restaurants offer what they call "country" cooking, which tends to be in the style of "southern cooking". There are buffets that specialize in a cultural style of cooking - Chinese, Asian, Japanese/Sushi, Italian, Indian. (The Indian restaurants that I have come across in many areas seem to offer a buffet lunch and a menu dinner. Perhaps this is a way to get those who have not tried the cuisine to experiment on their own terms.) Pizza Hut in some areas offers a buffet pizza lunch. The seafood buffet is popular in the Chesapeake region. Most of these restaurants are fine dining establishments with a multitude of regional seafood dishes offered with a price to match. There are "International" buffets that offer cuisines from several countries as diverse as American, Chinese, and Italian. (Though I suppose some would argue that today that is all considered "American" food. There are some menu restaurants that offer a soup and salad bar or just a salad bar to compliment your meal. This is usually offered as a separate menu choice or in combination with an entree, sometimes included in the charge or sometimes for a discounted additional charge with the price of the entree. Some soup and salad bars offer enough variety including some small entree items that they are satisfyingly enjoyed as a meal in themselves without the need for a menu entree. The Olive Garden serves unlimited soup and unlimited salad as a menu choice or combination menu choice that is server served to your table. (In my experience this selection is a problem for the server - who often does not appear again until the entrees are in hand - and then there is confusion and commotion about what do with your entree as more soup or salad is sought. While I have enjoyed their soups this is not a good selection when dining with others.)

The diet-conscious and vegetarian may enjoy a buffet as well, as most offer extensive salad bars and vegetable selections. For those on a diet take note that what makes the vegetables tasty at many buffets is the amount of butter or fat that is added.

One thing to be aware of is that the term buffet has also come to be used for a food or salad bar that does not offer all you care to eat. These are found in supermarkets, delicatessens, and some food courts. Sabaro's Italian Buffet is this type of buffet - it is sold to you by the pound. You fill your plate and it is weighed at the cash register. You pay by the weight and there is no removing anything from the plate once you put it on.

So, don't be quick to judge a restaurant because they offer buffet or all you can eat dining.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

It is Not a Challenge

Buffet. Smorgasbord. Food Bar. Soup and Salad Bar. All You Can Eat! All of these refer to a quickly growing and fastly becoming popular form of dining acrose the United States. These restaurants come in many forms from the big chain, standardized establishments, to the small town family restaurant, to the quickly multiplying Chinese buffet, the Casino Buffet, and on and on. Twenty years ago you only found this type of dining in a few specific regions - the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, for one, Las Vegas, another. Now they are everywhere. The one thing that they all have in common is that they offer all you can eat. Now, did you notice the highlighted word in bold print - offer - it is an offer and NOT a challenge! The correct wording should be all you care to eat - but when the mentality is that MORE is better, then that ALL YOU CAN EAT becomes very appealing. We (my wife and I) have found that once you get past the idea that you have paid your ten dollars and now you need to eat everything in sight, you will enjoy these restaurants much, much more.

Stand in the lobby or just outside one of these restaurants and listen to the comments of the folks as they come out. "Oh, I am going to burst!" "The food was great, I am stuffed - I feel like I am going to throw up!" They got their monies worth- but do they really want to feel that way after a meal. If they do, then the buffet was the correct dining choice. If they don't they could still enjoy the buffet, but just need to approach the meal with a little more sense. I am not a health or diet nut. Far from it. I have walked out of a few of these restaurants and made the same comments - there are times when you just cannot resist going back for one more plate.

These restaurants are a lot of fun but there are a few unspoken "rules" that will make the experience a whole lot more enjoyable for you and everyone else dining there. As I go along in these articles I will share some of these "rules". I will also be reviewing some of the restaurants that I have visited in my travels. I invite all of my readers to comment. Tell us what you think - agree or disagree. And if you have visited a restaurant that I have not written about, please tell us about it.