Friday, August 08, 2008

The Mystery of the Golden Corral

The Mystery of the Golden Corral - sounds like a Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew book. It is not a book but a odd tale, a tale about a Golden Corral restaurant that was there, and then was not there, and then there again.

A number of years ago we went to a Golden Corral in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. This was the second Golden Corral that I had ever been to. The first was when Golden Corral was first starting out offering a buffet along with a grilled steak menu. That first experience was terrible and that Golden Corral is no longer in business. That first experience has nothing to do with our story.

So... a number of years ago we went to this Golden Corral in Lebanon, PA. It was small but so much nicer than that first one. Lebanon, PA is not an area that we often get to, but we do drive through or stay nearby on business perhaps once or twice a year. We found ourselves in the area a few years ago and decided that we would go back there. We drove up to where the restaurant is and it had closed. The building shut up. I checked the Golden Corral website's restaurant locator and that Golden Corral was still listed. Several times after that in years between then and now, we happened to drive past the location. The building remained but it was still shut up tight. Again, I would check to see if the listing on the website had been deleted - but no, it was still there.

Now, we were going to be in the area again this July. A week before our trip I checked the website. There was the listing. I said to my wife that this is really odd. Some websites rarely get updated, but to list a location - with a phone number for a restaurant that has been closed for years just did not make sense to me. The night before our trip I decided to call the number. I printed out the locater map that the website provided to see if the restaurant was in the same place as the restaurant that has been closed. It was. At the top of the map there was a telephone number for the restaurant. I called - "The number that you have dialed has been disconnected," said a mechanical recorded voice. The restaurant was still did not exist.

I went back to the Pennsylvania Golden Corral restaurant listings. Looking at the listing for this restaurant I realized that the number that I just dialed was not the same as the number on this list. Odd. OK - I called this other number. "Hello," a man answered, "Golden Corral." Ah ha! Like out of the mist, there was a restaurant there! The phantom Golden Corral IS there and open!

Of course, when we got to the area we had to go there. Driving up I half expected to see the dark building closed up - the Golden Corral that answered the phone returning to the phantom zone. But, there it was with its bright red Golden Corral sign lighting the front and a parking lot full of patrons.

The mysery Golden Corral is located at 1147 Quentin Road in Lebanon. PA. This is in northern central Pennsylvania. We entered the bright restaurant and noticed that it looked much larger than it had when we were there years before (at least it seemed larger). It must have recently reopened (despite the continued listing over the years) as I over heard a discussion between one of the wait staff and a diner who stated that this was her first time being back - and that just a few of the employees were still there who had been there before.

So how was the phantom Golden Corral?

The layout from Golden Corral to Golden Corral can vary. Some are larger than others, some have more to offer than others. This was one of the larger layouts - though not the largest that we have been too. Once we discovered a small double sided buffet server tucked to the side of the dessert area with a number of additional entrees and side dishes were were much happier with the selection. At first, before we saw this additional server we were noting the absence of dishes that we knew most Golden Corrals offered - especially ones of equivalent size.

I am not going to go into the details of everything that was offered on the buffet. I have written about Golden Corrals before. The salad special that was started as a feature a year ago - an extensive salad area that includes several cold sliced meats - chicken, beef, ham - that assemble into hearty chef's salads. This is great for anyone who would like to eat "light" and have salad rather than the heavier foods, but still have a nice selection of meats to go with the salad. My wife had the chicken from the salad section and it was good.

A short time ago, I wrote about season or monthly features at chain buffets and at that time I introduced Golden Corral's current soecia feature of fish every night in addition to the usual entrees. I tried several of the fish entrees on this feature. There were crab cakes. These were thin crab patties - similar in appearance to Old Country Buffet's fish pancakes and crab cakes. THe similarity ended at the thinness and shape. These were far better. My only complaint is that I do not think that real crab was used but rather the "krab" subsitute. I am basing this not on taste but on color. Some of the crab pieces - and there were many in each cake - were edged in red - usually an indication of "Krab". The consistency of the crab cakes was loose, but I have had really good and authentic crab cakes in "real" crab restaurants that were just as loose. They tended toward the salty side, but definitely tasty.

Also offered on the fish feature were two types of fried fish that I tried. One was tempura batter fried pollack. The other was crispy seasoned fried fish. Both were pretty much the same. The seasoned fish was a bit tastier than the batter fried. The fish was the same. The "crispy" fish's coating was fried darker. There was also fried shrimp and broiled fish.

Two things can make or break a Golden Corral. One is the wait staff who attend to your table and the other is how the chargrill is operated. This is what I mean. At Golden Corral the person assigned to your table must bring you the clean plates that you require to get your meal. He/she must keep bringing you clean plates. This is not a place to have a waitperson who disappears and never comes to your table. The chargrill is where steaks are grilled in mass to various stages of doneness and the grill man/lady must keep steaks cooking to meet the demand. There have been occasions that I have experienced where the grill person has stopped cooking steak early in the evening and closed the grill for cleaning - and other experiences have involved steaks not being cooked to keep up with demand, and the chargrill being closed and steaks fried on the fry grill that is to be used just to keep the steaks warm while serving.

My experience this night was great with both the young lady who tended to our table and the young man who was working at the grill. There were plenty of steaks and they were continually put out on the chargrill to cook as they were needed. The young lady for our table continually came around to clear away dirty plates and leave a stack of clean ones for us to continue eating. She brought refills for our soft drinks and at dessert offered us hot coffee or tea. I made sure to leave her a larger tip than I normally would leave.

Over all this was a good buffet experience. Some of the trays could have used a little stirring - particularly the ones at that additional server off to the side. It was as if the staff also did not realize that it was there. The soft ice cream was overly icy. It has been almost a year since I have been to a Golden Corral, but I recall the ice cream as better.

The owner of this Golden Corral and several others primarily in New Jersey has a Golden Corral frequent diner card which gives you a free meal for every $200 in meals spent. I have not seen this at other Golden Corral's that I have been to and it certainly is not mentioned on the website as chain-wide.

When we entered and paid I noted that the price of $10.49 on weeknights and $11.49 on weekends was more reasonable than prices at OCB. But then I realized that soft drinks are $1.99 each. This brought the weeknight meal to $12.48 which is on the high side - but without the soft drink and just water you can eat for almost $10. Prices are going up at almost every buffet - along with everywhere else. Price increases cannot be too much of a surprise.

We left the restaurant happy. As I got into my car I looked back at the restaurant. It faded away...

Nah! But that would have been a great ending! Hopfully, when I come back to this area again - maybe in a year, this Golden Corral will be there ready for my return.


Anonymous said...

As of Feb. 09, The resturant has dissapered again.
Arnie S

Robert A said...

This is so bizarre. I recently discovered this also and I refer to this in an article that will appear next week - March 27, 2009.

Anonymous said...

That Golden Corral has re-opened under new management and has very good food again. Watch it advertised on TV. We go about once and week since it's re-opened and it's good! Abe