Friday, February 26, 2010

Shady Maple Celebrates 25 Years!

Shady Maple Smorgasbord - our pick for best buffet - ANY WHERE - three years in a row is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year with a special two week long feature menu starting March 1, 2010 and ending March 13th.

Shady Maple, of course, is always good but things are going to be turned up a notch (as some famous tv food guy likes to say) for their Silver Anniversary Celebration in the next two weeks. I was actually surprised when I saw that Shady Maple has only be around for 25 years with the opening of their original smorgasbord restaurant in 1985. I guess I knew this but it seems to me that I have been going to Shady Maple much longer than that. I still remember that original building with fondness - miss it, sometimes too. The building is still there in the front where the supermarket is - across the other side of the parking lot in the building that now is a furniture store. There are lines at Shady Maple now to get in, but back then there was one very long line that circled around the old lobby entrance room several times and then headed out the door. At some point a covered addition was added to the building to extend the line under cover and protection from the weather, but there were nights when the line filled that too and still headed out the end and outside. In 2000 the new, huge smorgasbord building was opened at the back of the property.

It is time for nostalgia but it is also time for some good eating. There will be some specials on the smorgasbord for lunch and dinner. Carved honey ham and smorgie cheesesteaks will be added every day at lunch and dinner. Monday to Thursday lunch goers will find fruit smoothies. At lunch and dinner on those days there will be waffles and ice cream covered in whipped cream! At dinner Monday to Thursday there will be TWO chocolate fountains - milk and dark chocolate - to dip all sorts of treats into. Every night at dinner there will be Shady Maple's famous delmonico steaks on the grill.

The celebration is not just food. There will be hourly drawings for prizes too. Each smorgasbord meal purchased gets you an entry form to the drawings. You must be 18 to enter and you must be present to win the hourly drawings. Prizes are items from the gift shop. There will also be a grand prize drawing on March 13th at 8 pm and all entries will be included in the grand prize drawing with many chances to win a bunch of great prizes from a group dinner for up to 25 people at the smorgasbord to gift cards. You don't have to be present to win one of the many grand prizes - but of course, you have to have purchased a meal during the two celebration weeks and submitted your entry form.

If you have been thinking about trying Shady Maple, this is the time to go. Remember it is just the next two weeks! Keep an eye on the Specails page of their website as they have something special just about every weekend during the winter/early Spring months.

Shady Maple Smorgasbord is located at 129 Toddy Drive in East Earl, PA. Take Route 23 East or Route 322 South to get to the restaurant. The phone numbers are 1-800-238-7363 and 717-354-8222. There is a website and it is listed at the side of this page.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Breakfast Buffets

Regular readers will know that I do not write about breakfast buffets. Just about every buffet chain and many independent buffets offer a breakfast buffet - some daily and some just on the weekends. In addition, it seems like every hotel/motel around the world has a free breakfast buffet every morning for their guests. Breakfast buffets are everywhere. So how come I don't write about them. Simple answer I don't eat breakfast.

We are night people. If there are three meals in my day they start at lunch and end with a breakfast like "snack" late at night (or perhaps I should say very early in the morning). I have stayed in many, many hotels over the years since the first hotel had the idea of giving a breakfast buffet free each morning. I have never been to one - they are generally closed up and put away by the time we are out of the room in the morning and on our way for the day. (An aside - my opinion about hotel "free" breakfasts - lower the price for the room $10 and forget the so called "free" breakfast.)

Now I cannot say that I have never been to a breakfast buffet. I have had a number of restaurant buffet breakfasts in years past, but it has been so far back that it would not be fair to write about the breakfast buffets in those restaurants as I have no idea if they are still the same as when I was there. But I do know about breakfast buffets and what is offered. And some of them sound pretty good.

The ever-popular Shady Maple Smorgasbord serves a breakfast buffet every morning when they are open starting at 5 am(Five a.m.!) until 10 am. Old Country Buffet has a Saturday and Sunday morning buffet ending at 10:30 am. As I say, there are many breakfast buffets to be found.

One of my favorite breakfast buffets is long gone. It was at a truck stop in Lancaster County, PA. What made it my favorite - and why I went there - was that the breakfast buffet started at Midnight. This had been a regular Friday night thing when we were in that area. We would have a very light dinner - a sandwich perhaps - and then at Midnight we would head on over to this restaurant/truck stop for a breakfast buffet dinner. Now, a thing to know about breakfast buffets is that if you are going to eat what will tempt you, they are a heart attack waiting to happen. Close your eyes and think about a large buffet server tray of crisp, hot bacon. Now, move along the server to see another tray full of breakfast sausages - not those little frozen ones that they sell in the grocery store - but real sausages, spiced for breakfast, with a well done skin that snaps when you bite into it. Move down a little further and there would be another tray of slices of breakfast ham - nicely griddled. This was what we would find at this little single buffet server buffet - that doubled as the salad bar for the restauant during the day. In those early days of breakfast buffets, things were not cooked to order as they are in the breakfast buffets that you will find today - so there would be a tray full of scrambled eggs, another tray full of pancakes, and still another tray full of hot waffles. Add to this a tray of home fried potatoes. But that was not all - this buffet was in the heart of PA Dutch cooking and while not a restaurant that generally featured that style of cooking, they had to include some of the local items on the menu and for that they included scrapple and creamed chipped beef. Scrapple is a loaf of liver and grain, finely chopped and mashed together into a loaf which is sliced and then fried on a griddle until crisp and brown. I do not like liver but I like scrapple. Creamed Chipped Beef is a dish that your father or grandfather will make a face at as it was a common food served to soldiers by the Army during World War II - there it gained the not-so-affectionate name of "Sh_t on a Shingle", as the creamed, beef, dripping mixture was poured over a piece of toast. I had never had this dish before this little breakfast buffet and I reluctantly tried it - recalling my father's tales of how terrible it is - and loved it. Get past the association of that historic name (and there is good reason for this name once you see the dish), try it, and you will find that it is a pleasant mix of cream and very thin sliced dried beef. Of course, there were "healthy" breakfast offerings on the buffet as well - a variety of hot and cold cereal and fresh fruits. But you and I know that the fruit and cereal is not what you are there for. Yes, eat this - and eat all you care to eat of this - too often and you will soon find yourself with very clogged arteries and a surgeon standing over you.

Don't go looking for this breakfast buffet as it is long gone - the truck stop restauant is still there but it is years since the breakfast buffet there. Most breakfast buffets are not too different. Others that I have been to were pretty much the same. In recent years, breakfast buffets offer "made to order" omelets, eggs, pancakes, crepes, and such. I am sure many will want to tell you that they enjoy so many healthy things at breakfast buffets - fresh fruit like melon, strawberries, oranges - and of course, oatmeal and hot grains - and dry toast, don't forget the dry toast as it is roughage and it is good for you. But those trays of breakfast meats are constantly calling to you. Bacon has that distinct and addictive smell that will fill the room and it knows your name... "Here, come over here, Bill, Mary, Tom, Jane, all the bacon you have ever seen in one place and it is yours for the taking."

No, I don't do breakfast buffets. But you might like to try one some time if you have never indulged. Just don't make a regular thing of it, because this is way beyond a "hearty" breakfast.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Best Buffet Coupon Deals

No, this is not another of our annual awards, but I have to share with all of you the two best buffet chains that offer regular coupons for free meals. I get coupons from all of the big chains. It is easy to do - just register your email address at their website and you will start receiving offers. Old Country Buffet even sends out a free meal coupon when you register - just for registering, but the OCB coupons are few and far between.

The two best deals are the two large salad buffets - Soup Plantations/Sweet Tomatoes and Souper Salad. These chains have buffet locations across the country but not further north on the East Coast than North Carolina. Each regularly sends out Buy One Meal, Get One Meal Free coupons regularly - at least once, if not more a month.

Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantations is the larger of the two chains and the larger restaurant setup. I had the pleasure of dining at one of their two locations in North Carolina a few years ago and you can read my review of that restaurant here. The feature of this buffet is soup and salad and they have an amazing variety of soups and a vast assortment of mixed salads. The offerings vary each month and there are themes that are changed month to month. One of the things that you will learn being on their email list are the features for the month - and always a coupon to go with it. The price is already reasonable but with the coupon two can eat dinner for less than ten dollars US. There are not many places where that is possible any longer. There is also more on the buffet besides soup and salad. There is pizza, a baked potato bar, pasta, and a great assortment of baked goods and desserts. I was very pleased when I visited this buffet on that very hot afternoon in North Carolina - and my picky eater wife after a little convincing from me that it was OK to ask for plain pasta was happy too. This was an experience and one that I wish was close enough to enjoy again some time soon. The only complaint that I have about this chain is that they do not move further north on the East Coast. If you are lucky to have one near you - if you live on the West Coast there are plenty of locations as it started in California (where salads are well known) - get on their email list and start getting coupons. If you are on Facebook, they also have a page and they run contests there with even better deals!

Souper Salad is another chain that I was able to go to on that same trip in 2007. This buffet was in South Carolina - the furthest north location in the chain. A reader had told me about the chain just before my trip and when we planned our itinerary I made sure to be close enough to try it. You can read about my visit here. This is a smaller chain and, at least, the location that I dined at is a smaller restaurant set up than Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantation. But though the offerings were less it was very enjoyable and if anything good could be less expensive, this was it with a price a few dollars less than the other chain. Here again, the order of the day is soup and salad. Like the other chain, there is a potato bar, a pasta bar, pizza (read my original review about the pizza), a variety of really good baked goods, and desserts. Despite its size there were somethings that I actually enjoyed more at this buffet than the other (and I dined here first before the other). Again, if they were only further north. This chain is in the western part of the US and in the south east, but no further north than North Carolina - I think. The website, while cutely animated, has one of the worst restaurant locators that I have ever encountered. It is slow and after waiting for what seems like forever no results ever come up. After a long wait I did manage to get the Spartanburg location to come up so it is still there and the only one in South Carolina. If you have one near you, and you are a buffet goer, you probably know about it. Go to the website and sign up for the "club" and you will start getting coupons- Buy One Get One at this price - two can't eat lunch for that little and here the same price is for dinner or lunch, weekend or weekday!

As I say, these are the best and most regular offers. Occasionally for some special date, OCB will send out a coupon with a reduced price meal if you buy one and they send a similar coupon for your birthday. They are odd with their coupons - they mail coupons in some areas. They mail coupons to my sister-in-law who lives about twenty miles from me and not near an OCB, but here where there is a location there never is a coupon in the mail. I have a nice sister-in-law who sends me hers.

It is always nice to get something for nothing.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Nine Dollar Cup of Soup or Why I Like Buffets

We were invited out to dinner by relatives who have quite a bit more spending income than we have. The dinner was on them and the restaurant was their choice. Needless to say, they did not choose a buffet. The restaurant that they chose is a small restaurant on Long Island in New York that consists of a bar and a small dining room - nothing fancy with a tavern atmosphere and they fashion themselves as a "steak house", though there is a little more on the menu besides two or three types of steak. When there were such a thing as neighborhood restaurants, one could safely described this as that. This being Long Island, the prices are extremely high. The menu is ala carte. An entree includes a potato and very small serving of vegetable. This is not a restaurant that one would know by name and is not a restaurant that is noted as a fine restaurant.

When I am out like this I always wait for my hosts to order and when looking over the menu and deciding I pick two entrees at different price levels. I always order the one that is lower than what my hosts are ordering. I never want to be seen as taking advantage and I believe it is polite to order conservatively while still having something enjoyable. Both of my hosts ordered salads. A basic salad was $11.00. Two slices of tomato and two slices of onion were also $11.00. Salad was not included with the entrees. As I was not going to sit there as they ate their salads before the entrees were brought to the table, I ordered a cup of soup. Th ecup of soup - a so-so cup of bisque cost $9.00. I toyed with the thought to order the bowl - which was $11.00, but felt that the nine dollars was enough of a waste - and certainly, this was the most expensive cup of soup that I have ever had. I only wish that it was the best cup of soup that I have ever had. Entrees were in the $28 to $40 range, though one person in our party had a vegetable platter which consisted of a few pieces of broccoli, some carrots, and a piece or two of squash - and this was priced at $16.00. Yah!

Ridiculous, but I am sure that there are some out there reading that will say that this is what you have to pay for a meal out. Really? I rarely pay anything near this amount and I eat out quite well. And this is why I like buffets. Even the most expensive of the buffets that we have encountered - even the all you can eat lobster buffets or the fancy five star hotel buffets - are proportionally not as expensive as this small (and typical) neighborhood restaurant. And when you are finished with your meal you have gotten something worth the money that you paid. This is what I mean when I talk about value for your dollar in my articles - and I will say regardless of the price level when value is delivered. Certainly, at this particular restaurant with its high prices, the food was no better than any I have had a most of the buffets that I have recommended. The steak was not as good as some that I have had a Ryans, Wild, Wild West Casino Buffet in Atlantic City, New Jersey, or some other buffets that I have been to. No better attention was paid to how it was cooked - and the quality of the beef was not as good as it was not really tender, as one might expect in a restaurant that claims steak as its specialty.

Yet, my hosts return here often. I have tried to bring them to buffets - some very nice ones, but because it is a buffet their attitude is that it cannot be good. This is an attitude that I often encounter about buffet dining. It cannot be good if it is served in quantity. It cannot be good if it is priced reasonably. But many of you know and agree with me that this simply is not true. Had I left this restaurant feeling that the steak was the best steak that I have ever had and that the nine dollar cup of soup surpassed all other soups that I have eaten, I would not be as amazed by the prices charged because if you are serving something THAT good then perhaps (and just perhaps) you can charge a ridiculous amount for it, but I would still find them lacking in value. And yet I know there are restaurants out there that go even further than this one and charge these prices and serve portions that are barely visible on the plate.

I will stick with buffets when one is available. Now, of course, I don't only eat at buffets, but when I am at a menu restaurant I look for similar value - and around here that is not so easy to find.