Friday, April 18, 2008

How To Review a Buffet

Most of the articles that I post on this site are buffet reviews. Along with all the rest of the buffet fun that I write about, those are the most important articles that I write and the heart of this site. I thought that I would share the process that goes into those articles and and in the process give you an little more understanding of what I am looking for and why I may say what I say about a particular restaurant.

I sometimes get a comment a comment from a reader - generally an anonymous comment - telling me that if I do not like restaurnt X then don't go there. First off, let me say, that if I only told you about the good buffets and hid the not so good (or outright bad) buffets I would be doing you a disservice. I don't go into a buffet expecting it to be or hoping that it will be bad - in fact, just the opposite. I am always expecting to find the next best buffet. I want to find it so that you will know about another great meal to go have adn I will have another place to go again and enjoy. More often than not, that is the case. But, sometimes, as you all know - oh boy! And when that happens I tell it like it is. I am not going to hold back from you so that you might get stuck there too. I do not want anyone to waste good money on a poor meal or a bad experience. And, you know what, if it is a restaurant near by and if was not good, I usually go back again - in time - and see if it got any better or if it has stayed just as bad. If it is better I let you know. If it is the same - I may or may not depending on the experience.

So what happens when I review a restaurant? Well, first I have to find a new restaurant to review. This is getting more and more difficult because sometimes it seems that I have found them all in the places that I go. Traveling helps and I enjoy sightseeing and history so we travel by car several times a year. When we are going to a new area I start researching in advance to find the buffets that are there. We will sometimes even plan a stop around a buffet - as long as it does not take us too far from where we need to be. This was easier when gas was cheaper. Lately, I have been getting great suggestions from readers who use the email link at the side of the site or the comments section on articles to tell me about a buffet that they have been to or know of. This is great and I have been seeking some of these out when I can.

When I write an buffet review article on a buffet I am assembling all of my observations and experience of a visit to the restaurant. While I am at the restaurant I am taking mental notes. I am not writing while I am eating. I tried once using a digital recorder during a meal and it was a bother to have to listen to the meal all over again later in the hotel room to write the article. Oh yes, not all of my articles are written at home. Articles are written the night of the meal or the next day and if I am traveling that means writing with the laptop. This at times happens very late at night and after a long day of travel or sightseeing- and that accounts for some of the off spelling or grammar that I may miss when I proofread before posting that same night. So, as I am in the restaurant I am committing everything to memory. We do write down the hours and the prices just to make sure that I have it right.

I am always at the buffets that I write about with my wife so I have her opinions to compare my findings with and we can sample more than one of us could taste on our own. If I am finding something - let's say - not right, I immediately ask her about it and in a way that does not reveal what I am thinking. Most of the time she is finding the same - if she isn't I will go back and re-sample or re-examine what it is. It may be that what ever it is appeals to different tastes or different points of view. And I will take note of this later. We recently went to a nice looking buffet that I felt was terrible from the moment we started eating. I kept asking her and she agreed but though she thought it was not so good, she was not as put off as I was. The entire meal went that way. I came back and wrote the article and decided not to run it until I go back there. Everyone and every place has an off night - maybe that was mine or theres. To be fair I will try it again and re-write that article - if necessary - before I post it.

When we walk into a buffet I am looking at the attitude of the staff from the moment that we walk through the front door. Is everyone smiling? Are we welcomed courteously? Are we taken to a nice table or pushed into a corner?

I am also looking at who is also eating at the restaurant. While we are walking to our table I am sizing up the crowd and also getting my first glimpse at the buffet server set up. I want to see if the restaurant is crowded? Are the people eating there working people, business people, seniors, families, the elite, or a pleasant mix? This tells me who the restaurant appeals to and who feel they can afford eating there. In a restaurant that specializes in a particular national cuisine, I look to see if there are people of that nationality dining there. One of the best things to find in an Asian buffet is a room full of Asian people eating there. So all of this happens in the first few minutes walking into the restaurant and sitting down.

Up to the buffet servers and I start taking in how many and what type of servers there are. Why do I tell you in every article how many double buffet servers, single sided buffet servers, etc there are? This will give you an idea of how much there is being served. I cannot name every dish - though sometimes I try to. A few servers or small servers hold less offerings. A large expansive system of buffet servers that are full tells more than a restaurant's claim of 100 dishes every day.

Looking at the buffet servers I take note of what is on each one. Which are cold and which are hot? There are things that I may not care to eat that night but I want to make sure to tell you that they were there for the taking. I don't eat squid or octopus, but if it is there and you like it you should expect to find it after you read my review.

All through the meal I am watching the staff and I am still watching the people who are dining. Are children running around the room? Are children up to the buffet by themselves? I am also looking for the odd things that I see almost every time I go to a buffet. The lady who put ice cream on her plate next to her steak. The boy who filled a taco shell with macaroni and cheese. These make great articles on their own. I am also taking note of the staff around the buffet servers. Are they keeping the counter clean? Are they making sure that serving utensils are not mixed from one tray to another? When they refill are they taking the food from the old tray and putting it on top of the new tray or do they take it way - or at worse- are they putting the new on top of the old? If there is a carving station is there someone there?

Looking all around the dining room and the serving area I want to see that the restaurant looks clean. I understand that there is a high traffic volume throughout the day in the restaurant but spills need to be cleaned up quickly, dropped food - even under tables - should be taken away when the table is set for the next guests. Restrooms need to be clean as well and one of us, if not both, will check out at least one of them. Most buffets do an excellent job keeping their restaurant looking clean. There is no reason why others cannot if some can.

Together we try a variety of the food served. At a buffet that I have never been to before I try to take a small amount of many of the offerings - much like a tasting menu at a fancy restaurant. I recommend this to everyone whenever going to a new buffet. Try a little of a lot, find your favorites and go back for more of those. I want to taste fresh tasting food, food that is not dried out, food that is properly cooked, and food that is so good I want more. When I am selecting foods from the serving trays I look to see that they have been well maintained. This may be my own term for stirring the serving trays, keeping the food moist, and removing food that has dried out while sitting in the steam table. Did you know that is what most buffet servers are? There are large trays of hot water under those serving trays that keep them hot. Sometimes that heat is such that delicate foods will dry out or keep on cooking to the point of becoming overcooked and hard. These need to be removed - whether there is a full tray there or not. Many buffets do this well. When they don't I will say that the serving trays need maintaining.

Serving staff - what would be waitresses and waiters in a regular restaurant - need to be removing plates regularly from tables - and not stacking them on empty tables nearby. They need to make sure that sugar and sweetener packets are on each table along with condiments that may be on the tables. If servers bring your drink refills they need to make sure your glass is full - even if you do not ask them first. They might ask you before they refill it and that is fine. In a buffet in which you pay as you leave, is the server bringing the check to my table before we are finished? Is this a hint? Did everyone keep smiling though the whole time that I am in the buffets? Did I overhear any disputes? I want to let you know all of this.

One of the more important things for me to find out and tell you about is value. I have encountered prices from $5 a meal to $75 and more a meal. You can find value at each level. You can also find meals that are commonly priced less with no less offered at other restaurants. These are the restaurants that lack value. If you are getting a lot of different, good things for a bit more money that is fair. When prices go up for understandable economic reasons that is fair. But when prices go up at Buffet A and stay the same at comparable Buffet B - not so fair. The buffet has the right to raise prices and charge whatever they like but that does not mean that we will just keep going there.

All of this churns around in my head and comes down through my fingers and into my computer. Brevity has never been my writing style. I just start writing and keep going until it is all out. In the process I tell it like it is and try always style it in a way that is interesting and, if possible, amusing. Brevity has never been my writing style. I just start writing and keep going until it is all out.

I post articles, as you know, late Friday nights. This started when I was dining, running home and writing, and then posting. More recently I have been writing in advance and holding articles for weeks to come. This way I can be sure that I always have a new article. So new articles get posted betwen 10:30 pm and 11:30 pm Friday nights so that the weekend starts out fresh. From my thousands of readers I guess I am doing something right. I thank you all for reading and coming back each week. Keep on reading. Have fun at the buffets!

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