Saturday, May 27, 2006

Stephens City Buffet - Stephens City, Virginia

Just south of Winchester, Virginia in the northern section of the Shenandoah Valley is Stephens City. We were looking for a buffet restaurant in the Winchester area and other than the Golden Corral and a buffet located at a truck stop, which at best that we could learn was only a soup and salad bar served with the menu, what we could find was a restaurant called the Western Steer Buffet and Bakery in Stephens City. I did a quick Internet search and learned that this was a chain buffet, but could not find anything about this specific one. We decided that we would head out the ten miles south on US I81 and take a look. If it appeared good on the outside - as if that is a way to know - we would give it a try. We took down the location of the Golden Corral, just in case. So off we went.

We got off the correct exit and drove in the direction of the restaurant, We saw a large sign, high over the road - "BUFFET". We turned toward the sign - but it did not say Western Steer. The top part was blank and on the changeable sign board below it said Stephens City Buffet and then lunch $4.99, dinner $7.99. We turned in to the parking lot and parked. There were several cars in the lot and an elderly couple coming out of the door. I looked into the window and it looked large inside. There was a large buffet set up. My wife looked through the glass and agreed that it seemed nice enough. We double checked the address and this was the place. We decided to go in. As we went into the entrance door I commented that it seemed big through the window and my wife then said, "unless that was a mirror." We got up to the cashier desk and yes, there was a mirror. It was still large enough, but not quite so as it seemed.

You pay here as you enter. It is $7.99 and this is a Saturday night. The price does not seem to change. Soft drinks are $1.59 each and are refillable by your server. At dessert you may convert your beverage to coffee. There is a dining room at the side of the large buffet area and there are two dining rooms in an adjacent area. One is a room for private parties. At the cashier on the wall are menu items that you may order with or instead of the buffet. The buffet is $5.99 with any entree. Mostly these were steaks and burgers. There was an all you can eat crab legs menu item - this was outrageously priced at $35.99. Oh my! So don't come for the crab legs.

The restaurant was very empty. There were a few diners but not many, especially for a Saturday night - or a holiday weekend in a tourist oriented area. We were in at 7:30 - too late? Later after 8 more people came in along with a large party heading for the private room.

You seat yourself at tables or booths. Your server greets you and brings you your drinks. She also brings a large stack of napkins. The servers here are VERY nice. This is the South, after all!

We went up for soup first which was at the end of one of two entree steam tables. There were four soups. Here I first began to wonder if we should have not come in. The soup tureens in the steam table were crusted at the tops with dried soup. All of them. There was a red soup, a brown soup, a cream soup, and what appeared to be chicken noodle soup. I took the ladle of the noodle soup and gave its contents a stir. It was very thick. After a bit of stirring it looked more like chicken noodle soup and I ladled it into a bowl. It looked ok. Back at the table, it was very salty. It had fresh made noodles that had broken down. Under the salt taste it was good. But I was still turned off by the crusty pots.

Next we were up to the salad bar. There was a long salad bar with greens and fixings, prepared salads, Caesar salad greens and fixings, ripe, wedged, whole tomatoes, peel and eat cold shrimp, and prepared salads. There was a section of cut up fresh fruit and whole apples. Some of the prepared salads at the end of the table looked dried out - chicken salad and two indeterminable salads all looked VERY unappetizing. I again said to myself, "Oh boy!" The greens. fresh vegetables, and toppings looked ok and I made a tomato salad with some pepperoni on the side and some olives. It was good. But those dried out salads lingered in my mind.

The hot entrees and sides were next. There were two buffet tables - one long and one short. There was an interesting assortment of meats. There was a large bbq pork shoulder. The meat fell off the large bone with the serving tongs - as it should and you could pull yourself off some pork bbq. There was a spread of bbq sauce over the shoulder, but none on the side and the pork needed some. The pork was warm, but not hot. (It should have been.) There was steak - pre-cooked and over done. Toward the end of the meal more steak was being cooked just behind that serving table in view. I went and got another fresh piece. It was not much better than the first - a little moister but just as over done. When I went for sides I took corn which was a mix of yellow corn and hominy - I know it was hominy because there were large cans of vegetables about as decoration - or quick grabs? - and one of them was hominy and it looked like what was in with the yellow corn. I went to take mashed potatoes and a large fly buzzed over the serving spoon as I lifted it out of the potatoes. The spoon went right back in. Again, oh boy! Now, my mind is running with the thought of flys and their offspring, maggots. I went to the other serving table and took some french fries.

My wife commented that the food did not seem like restaurant food - that it was more like home cooking. And she was right. Actually, the food was not bad and most seemed to be home style, if not actual home cooking. The fried chicken was very good with a light home like crust. There was also baked chicken, which my wife says was ok. There was hot, spiced peel and eat shrimp. It was good with Old Bay seasoning on it. It was not overcooked and the spice was just right - not too heavy. There was liver - if you like that. There were fried chicken strips that we first thought was fried fish. There were fresh made biscuits that were very good. There was a taco bar, but the taco meat was mixed with beans and was dry looking. It needed stirring. I passed.

As more people came in, buffet staff seemed to realize that things needed tending. The tray of dry looking baked beans was removed, an empty tray put in its spot and then the beans were poured in. Now they looked as they should - no longer dried out. The temperature of the steam tables were turned up and water added under some of the trays. Now steam was visibly rising from the trays. Too late. This is apple country. A try of fried apples was brought out. My wife took some - they were good but not sweet.

Dessert appeared to be baked at the counter, but each item looked like it came from a box - the apple pie, mini-donuts, glazed cake donuts, and cookies. There were two dishes of cookies - both chocolate chip. One was chewy, the other seemed crisp and from a box. There were mini apple turnovers - these were dry. There were two trays of hot cake like puddings. Both looked dried out. There is an ice cream machine which was definitely ice milk and not good.

Service was attentive. Dishes were cleared readily and drinks were continutally brought to the table. The server kept checking in to make sure that all was well.

My opinion of this buffet is based on the maintenance of the food on the buffet tables and not the taste. What we took tasted good. But there were many things that I would not take because they were dried out, crusty, or looked like they sat too long. There was too much out for the number of people dining and not enough was taken to keep it fresh. Things needed to be stirred. Things needed liquid added to them. Frankly, I wondered if we were not going to feel sick after the meal - WE DID NOT. I want to repeat that - we were OK after the meal. But why should one have to wonder?

Evidently, this was once - not too long ago - part of the Western Steer chain (which has no website to find out about the chain, but I know that there is - or there was - one in Orlando, Fl and one in Elkin, West Virginia). Why is this no longer part of the chain - any number of reasons - and I do not know. Perhaps they did not keep the standards? I do not know. The restaurant was CLEAN. The ladies room was very good. The mens room was OK food was ok. It needed TENDING.

I will say in conclusion that this buffet is FAIR. It is not bad. It is not good. I would not recommend it. I might try it again (if I am in this part of Virginia again), but honestly, I have to say perhaps not.

An aside is that there were signs posted that say that Virginia State law requires that a clean plate be taken each time - how nice ! Perhaps the Stae of Virginia has read the rules of buffets posted on this site. Each should be a law in every state! There were also signs posted saying that they are required to check the temperature of the food three times a day and they must tell the patrons what it is supposed to be; this too was posted. Though I am not quite sure that it was accurate.

The restaurant is located at 131 Town Run Lane in Stephens City, Virginia. There is no website. The phone number is 540-869-6907. The buffet closes at 9:00 pm and the hot tables are closed down at 9:30 - this is posted and is fair notice. Should you try it? Maybe not.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Complainers

Last night at the OCB we are sitting next to a table of two couples - around their mid to late fifties.Their entire dinner conversation were complaints. First it was about the food at OCB which they did not seem to hesitate to heap upon their plates. "The barbecue chicken is like shoe leather - how could you eat that? I had it the other night it was terrible." "Oh yes!" shoveling it in.This went on through the entire meal. It reminded my wife and me of an old joke that used to be told in the resort hotels in the Catskill Mountains (For those of you unfamiliar, these resorts were the incubators of new comedians and the final hurrah of vaudavilians.)The joke goes like this - Two people meet in a restaurant. One says to the other - "The food in this place is terrible." The other replies, "Yes, and such small portions!" That was how the night went at the table next to us. When they were finished bashing the OCB - at which, again, they had no hesitation to keep filling their plates - they began bashing a diner that they recently went to. Another couple - regulars at this OCB - came over that they seemed to know and they engaged them in the diner complaints.

So why were we ease dropping? Unfortunately, we could not help it - they were loud enough to hear at every table in the area. Why is it that people at buffet restaurants have a need to hold loud diner conversations. This is not the first time we have had to listen to the conversations at the tables around us for the entire meal. For some reason - and perhaps one of you has a theory or explanation about this - many people eating at buffets do not feel a need to speak quietly - just loud enough to speak to the people at their table - as one might expect in another restaurant (and as I might add, is what happens at other restaurants.)Over our buffet meals we have gotten to hear about disease, diarrhea, bugs, disagreements over estate settlements, and oh so many other things that we really would rather not have listened to.

Our friends, The Complainers, then went on to speak about two immensely huge women who were sitting at a table on the aisle. Now, these women were large - they were sitting at a table for four and, believe me, if even a child wanted to sit in the chair at the place at the table next to either one there would not have been room. (They must have exceptionally strong chairs at buffet restaurants.) Now, I noticed these ladies and frankly, it is none of my business, nor anyone else's how they look. But The Complainers had to make conversation (loud conversation) regarding the two ladies. The ladies ignored them.

So should there be a new rule - When having dinner conversation, speak softly only to those at your table, and not loud enough to be heard at every other table - perhaps this will show up in my next update of the rules of buffets.


Ok, I have got to share this with you. It was seen at a Ryan's a few weeks ago. This was the all time topper of taking everything to eat on one plate - a woman had a steak on her plate. She then took that plate to the ice cream machine and swirled out a large portion of ice cream - not on the steak, but next to it. She then went to the whipped cream and placed whipped cream on the ice cream, which by now was dripping over and running under the steak. Steak ala mode! Oh my!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

We've Been Robbed!!!

I am sitting in front of the TV and flipping through the cable channels and I see a commercial for The Learning Channel and their new line of Life Lessons figurines. These are cute little statues with cartoon-like figures in a variety of comical "life" situations. They go through the collection - which are offered for sale on their website when WOW - did I just hear what I think I heard? One of the figurines is entitled "ALL YOU CAN EAT IS NOT A CHALLENGE". Excuse me. I do not recall getting an email or any contact from The Learning Channel asking my permission to name one of their figurines after the title of my web blog. Yet there it is - and offered for sale no less.

A week ago I am at the movies. Commercials come on the screen - yes, in this country you pay $10 for a ticket to see a movie that lasts less than 90 minutes and you get to watch commercials before the movie starts - I do not mean previews of other movies (those are great). I am talking about product selling commercials. So the commercials start and SPLAT - across the screen is the same TLC commercial for these figurines and there we are again! Right up there on the big screen. A thrill if I got any credit for it - but no credit given.

This blog site was titled and established at the beginning of August 2005. Just scroll down to the beginning articles to see. This ad campaign started no earlier than March 2006. This blog site is my copyright under the laws of the United States. It is published and available to the general public. I've been robbed!

So what am I going to do about it? Well, for a start I will be contacting The Learning Channel and let them know that they have infringed on my copyright. I happen to know a copyright and patent attorney and I know an attorney that likes to fight for the underdog. What do I want? Well, I never started this expecting to make a buck, but hey, I have readership and I put a lot of effort into this to make it both informative and entertaining. From my readers I only ask for your continued visits to the site. From these fatcats in big industry that stole from this humble, little guy... Well, we shall see. We shall see.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Buffets in Hagerstown, Maryland

We take an annual trip down to the Hagerstown, Maryland area. This is in northwestern Maryland near the Pennsylvania border and interestingly, an hour from Washington, D.C. and an hour in a different direction to Baltimore. It is also near the point where Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia meet. Lots of history in the area - which is why we go. Anyway - as you near the Pennsylvania border into Maryland there is a billboard that is two sided - seen from both directions on the road (Route Interstate 81)- for a restaurant called the Antrim House. It is a huge billboard with buffet very prominently displayed. It is about 20 minutes from our destination in Hagerstown, Maryland. It has caught our attention for three years now, and this year I decided that it was time to check it out. So why isn't this review called The Antrim House - because we did not go. Here's why.

We first decided to do an Internet search to find the exact location and see what it has to offer. The restaurant is in the town of Greencastle, PA. We found a website that featured The Antrim House - Restaurant and Coffee Shop. For anyone out of the US - when something here is a "coffee shop" it usually denotes a small restaurant with a counter at which you have lunch. The website had a small photo of a portion of a dining room. It looked like a nice "little" restaurant. BUT nowhere on the website did it ever mention buffet. Nothing in the photo looked like a buffet table would fit in to both the size of the room and the decor - as it appears. Now, as I have said, the billboard is HUGE and the word BUFFET is prominent. So why doesn't the website which had a restaurant menu even mention buffet - or salad bar for that matter - which also was on the billboard. It was all too odd to chance dinner on. With the price of gasoline, even the drive back twenty minutes up to PA was not worth the chance. We did not go. If anyone has ever eaten at the Antrim House Restaurant in Greencastle, PA and knows about the buffet - please share it with us! I am still intrigued.

So with the Antrim House out of the running for dinner last Friday night, we needed to find something else. We looked in the phonebook and found Richardsons Restaurant in Hagerstown,which also has a buffet. I have passed this on the road and it never looked like a fancy restaurant on the outside. We started our Internet search for this restaurant and found not only a website, but some reviews on other sites. The reviews were mixed. Some liked it and some said it was just fair. There is a featured buffet on Friday and Saturday nights - Friday is Seafood and Saturday is Prime Rib. One of the reviews raved about the prime rib. I asked my good wife to call and find out the price. (it was Friday night - my wife is not found of seafood. I enjoy it. She will only eat shrimp.) If we were going on Friday night I wanted to find out a little more - there was no price for the buffet on the website. She asked how much the buffet was this night - $24 - she then asked how much, she called it roast beef and not prime rib,was on Saturday night (perhaps a better choice if she was not going to eat the seafood for $24) and she was told that the "roast beef" buffet was that night - not Saturday night. Now we were confused - and my wife hung up the phone without clarifying what that meant - no seafood, seafood with a roast beef choice, or a very confused restaurant - or perhaps due to my wife's not stating PRIME RIB, this led to the confusion. Never the less - we did not go! Oh why? you ask. Because $24 is a very high price to pay for a buffet. Some of the most complete buffets that I have been to are around that price - but I know that I am going to get great value for that cost. Let's face it, your humble author is not getting paid to eat in these buffet restaurants nor is the check picked up by blogger. I have to pay out of my pocket - times two (can't leave the wife at McDonald's) and I am not taking too many chances past $12 to $15 per person. ESPECIALLY, when one of my FAVORITE buffet chains is just down the road.

We went to Ryan's! There is a Ryan's in Hagerstown. There is also a Ryan's in Chambersburg, PA which is just off I81 on the way to Hagerstown - and we ate there on the way down the night before. Ryan's two nights in a row? you may question. There are no Ryan's near where I live. In fact, the Chambersburg Ryan's is the closest Ryan's to my home - and that is about 200 miles each way.

Ryan's seem to vary a bit from restaurant to restaurant - not in the menu but in how they are maintained and how the layout of the restaurant is. Some are larger. Some have different, but similar decor. Some are great. Some are not kept well.(There is a recent comment on the Ryan's article on this site that talks about a bad experience in a Ryan's in Michigan - Sorry about that!) My wife finds the Ryan's in Hagerstown nicer and better than the one in Chambersburg. The decor is different - the metal work railing that decorate the room are black in Chambersburg and my wife feels that the restaurant is dark as a result - not bright and cheery. The railing are brass in Hagerstown. She likes this one because it is brighter. She also commented to me that the food was better kept at Hagerstown - I found nothing wrong with the food at Chambersburg, but she noticed that things at Hagerstown were a bit moister and fresher. (Have I ever shared that my wife is ALWAYS right? - and she reminds me of this often. As a matter of fact, with a few small exceptions, she is. I will not tell you now how she once got us lost in the woods in our car. She blames the map.)

I like Ryan's. I like the steak. At Chambersburg, I hit it lucky perhaps, but my rare steak was perfect and tasty. The inside was not raw and the outside was charred. This is just the way I like it. In Hagerstown, the steak was also good, but not as properly cooked as that first piece the night before. I will not go into a description of Ryan's again - read the previous article. But, we ate in Ryan's two nights in a row. It will be August before I get to one again - in Virginia (stay tuned!)

The third night we ate in the restaurant that I reviewed in last week's article. Read about that one - I still say it has the BEST dessert bar anywhere!

So if you are heading toward Hagerstown, you know now what your buffet choices are. If you get to any of the ones we did not go to, please share it with us. I am going back to the area in a year and I will go to one of those if I know more about them.