Friday, November 26, 2010

My Thanksgiving at a Buffet

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about having your Thanksgiving meal at a buffet restaurant. Well, this year, we did exactly that. We have been looking through the newspaper advertisements for several weeks, going through the internet for local restaurants serving buffet, and considering the suggestions made by readers of the article. By the way, thank you all who made suggestions! What we encountered was that in this area where the only "American-food" buffets are Old Country Buffets was that either catering halls or menu restaurants were serving a "buffet" Thanksgiving dinner between certain hours on Thanksgiving Day. Some were describing the meal as "brunch" which would be served until early evening. Most were specifying a time limit to your "seating" of one hour and a half. We have had holiday meals like this in the past and what we have encountered at these restaurants is that their employees are not happy about working on a holiday, the restaurant is not accustomed to the art of serving a buffet, and they are all to eager to get you out so that the next group may come in. No one was talking about serving a whole turkey. Turkey breast was what was "featured" - some with fancy variations there of. We went up to a week before Thanksgiving deciding what we were going to do - and making a meal for two at home remained on the list of choices. I like turkey. I am not fond of turkey breast. I find that it has a different texture and taste than "real" turkey. So if I was going to eat turkey breast for Thanksgiving then what went with it was going to be important to where ever we chose. Prices ranged from $30 per person to $50 per person. Looking over what each meal was offering with the turkey there were going to be a lot of things that we both don't care for or we cannot eat. We were becoming more and more frustrated and then I suggested that we go to Old Country Buffet.

Those of you who read this site regularly know that I am not a great fan of Old Country Buffet. I should say that I am not a great fan of our local Old Country Buffet. But we have been frequenting another Old Country Buffet that involves a bit of a drive from where we live, but is far superior to the local restaurant. That would be where we would go - and that is where we did go. I did make sure that there actually would be a Thanksgiving menu served including the traditional dishes and checking at the OCB this past weekend I was assured that there would be. OCB would be open to 7:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day. Instead of $30 or $50 per person, dinner - pretty much the same dinner as would be served at all of those other restaurants - would cost the regular price of $10.99 plus $1.99 for beverages. I did have my concerns that trays would be replenished, turkey would not run out, and that there would not be a line a mile long to get in.

We decided to get to the OCB for 3:00 pm. A good time for Thanksgiving dinner and close to the traditional time for my family for this holiday. We arrived just about that time and there was a short line - about a dozen people ahead of us and a good part of that were large parties. We waited just five minutes to get to the cashier. The manager was seating people at tables. This is Mr. Jolly who I wrote about several weeks ago. He greeted each group and led them to their table. Those he knew - and that was quite a few - he greeted like family and old friends. Despite having to work on the holiday he was making this a very pleasant experience. I will add right here - though out of time sequence - that while we were dining, a family came up to him and thanked him about the dinner saying that they really appreciated that the meal was so pleasant and that it really meant a lot to them. His response was one that every buffet manager should remember - always! He said, "I thank you. If it were not for you coming today, I could not feed my family." He said this with sincerity. If only all OCB managers had this attitude - holiday or not.

So, we were seated and we started our meal. The menu served for the holiday meal was similar to a Sunday menu at OCB but with some significant differences geared toward the holiday. There were three soups - chicken noodle, corn chowder, AND French onion soup. I had the French onion - which I know is served on some night at OCB but rarely a night I am there. It was full of onions and just slightly salty. It was good! My wife had the chicken noodle which was full of noodles. You may wonder why it would not be but there is a certain other OCB that should rename the soup chicken celery soup because that is all that is in it on most nights.

Following the soup there was the usual OCB salad bar and I had the Caesar salad which at this OCB I can always count on having a good amount of dressing on it. (Again, at another certain OCB the Caesar salad is wet lettuce with a tablespoon of dressing mixed into the entire tray.) I am sure that this Caesar salad was just like the others that I have had at this location but today it was particularly good - perhaps it was just the festive feel of the meal.

Festive - that is something that I need to note right here. There was a holiday feel to this meal and that was created in no small part by the people working. The table staff seemed pleased (even if they weren't) to be working. So did the people working at the buffet, the two managers, and the gentleman expertly carving. People were greeted. "Happy Thanksgiving" could be heard and there was the feeling in the restaurant that this is a holiday. There were singles, couples, small families, and large families all around the dining room and at the buffet servers. There were quite a few singles coming in - and what better place to have a holiday meal with people all around when you dine alone. (My wife had an idea for the restaurant and perhaps some manager will read this and do this next year - there should be a table set aside as an option for singles to sit together and have company. It could be offered and just as easily refused if someone wanted to sit at their own table. All that this would mean for the restaurant was holding two tables put together for this ever changing group.) There were a number of children with their families and all were properly behaved.

Back to the meal. Time for turkey. The turkey was, as expected, the usual OCB turkey breast. There was also roast beef and baked ham. On the buffet tables there was baked chicken, fried chicken, and chicken with dumplings. There also was baked moscatelle - macaroni with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese and there was pizza. There was green beans with ham (the new way to serve green beans at OCB replacing the plain green beans of the past0, carrots, corn, candied mashed sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, mashed white potatoes, baked potatoes with bacon and cheese, macaroni and cheese, stuffing (two trays), squash, and a dish of rice and vegetables in melted cheese sauce (never saw this at OCB before). The taco bar had the usual. There were corn bread and baked rolls. Of course, cranberry sauce was over at the condiments bar. (A few times I heard the manager telling people - and pointing - "The cranberry sauce is over here!")

The carver was working continually. Ask for a thick or thin slice, one slice or several, it was given without hesitation. All of the trays on the buffet tables were constantly and quickly being refilled. Anything that was empty was replaced without much delay. The people moving about the buffet tables were not over-crowding and there were no long waits to get to anyone one of the food trays or the carving station - despite the good number of people dining. All along the manager went around the dining room when not seating newly entering guests, and greeted people, asked how things were, and then went to check that all was well at the buffet tables. And he never looked harried.

The dessert area was as usual. There was no pumpkin pie that I could see - but OCB never has pies. Not a major loss though for some this could be missed. But pumpkin pie is easy enough to come by to add in when one gets back home.

The meal was good. One of the best that I have ever had at Old Country Buffet - and there was not really much that I have not had there before. While I write this I am still feeling over-stuffed from this very fine Thanksgiving dinner. (Oh yes, I try to avoid that over doing it, after meal feeling when I eat at buffets - but this is a holiday after all!)

When the meal was over - about two hours after we began - my wife agreed that the meal was good and we had a good time. That was what I was looking for. When it is just the two of you, married for a long time, meals alone together can be less than festive - despite trying to make them so. This was a great idea. We got to "share" the day with others - even though we knew no one in the restaurant - and we had a good meal that we both enjoyed. I am very glad that we made the decision to go to OCB for Thanksgiving. I am not certain that we would have felt this way following a meal at one of those other restaurants.

Thanksgiving meals have different things for different families. Not everyone has turkey. Here there was a good selection - and even the kids were happy with pizza and macaroni and cheese. Of course, this is not something for everyone. For those with big families, craving granny's special sweet potato casserole, this is not going to be the thing to do, but as I have said before. For those who find cooking a full Thanksgiving meal for one, two, or a few, this is a wonderful way to spend a very pleasant holiday and have a good meal. Just know your OCB before hand and be sure that it is one that usually does a good job on ordinary days, and you should not be disappointed on the holiday.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Had to Check Back on Shady Maple

Several weeks ago I wrote an article about some changes at Shady Maple and in that article I commented on two problems that we observed while we were there. As I said, then problems at Shady Maple are highly unusual.

It was my wife's birthday recently and we headed down to Lancaster County for the day as we do for both of our birthdays. Dinner was to be Shady Maple and my wife would get her free birthday dinner there.

This was a Monday night at the beginning of November. We were surprised when arrived at how crowded the parking lot was. We have been to Shady Maple many times and they have been very crowded at many times so this should not be a surprise - but on a weeknight in November? This was odd. We went in and the restaurant was just as crowded as the parking lot - should that be any surprise at all? We never did find out why but needless to say, Shady Maple is very popular no matter what night or time of the year.

Dinner was wonderful as usual. This time there were no surprises. Nothing whatsoever was wrong. I feel that this is important for my readers to see because one of my regular readers commented that based upon my concern over the last visit, perhaps he was not going to go there for the first time. Please do go. Every restaurant can have an off night and every business has a few employees that should no better. Generally they are dealt with by a concerned manager. And Shady Maple sure had its act all together again!

That afternoon we were in a shop some distance away from Shady Maple but still in Lancaster County. We overheard a couple asking the sales clerk for directions to Shady Maple. The clerk told them how to go and then took them aside and said - "Let me tell you all about Shady Maple...". She then went on to tell them how wonderful it is and that when they walk in they will think from the appearance that this must be some big chain establishment BUT don't be fooled by the elegant decor because this is a business run by a husband and wife who established the farm stand that grew into the snack bar that grew into this restaurant. She told them the whole history of Shady Maple (which I have told here once or twice in the past).

So the meal was as expected - excellent. They had wonderful smoked sausages out on the buffet. These were much nicer than any I have had at other restaurants - buffet or not. Monday is always steak night and they had three grills going with Delmonico, NY Strip, and chopped steaks. On the side there were sauteed onions and sauteed mushrooms to top the steaks. They were also grilling smoked pork chops. At Shady Maple your steak is cooked to your order so if you want rare and they don't have one ready, one goes on for you and you get rare. The same for every degree of cooking that you like. You can either wait right there at the grill as it cooks or go off to the buffet servers and get the rest of your plate and then come right back and pick up your steak - as you like it. Steaks are sliced thin but, of course, you get as many as you want - so they don't need to be any thicker.

I am not going to go into another full and detailed description of Shady Maple. If you want to see that just go back to any one of the articles that I have written about it on this site - or read the Best Buffet article that began 2010.

Go there. Do not hesitate. It is an experience that is worth the trip. I am not sure there is any larger restaurant anywhere - buffet or not buffet - that is in full time operation.

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, November 12, 2010

A Buffet for Thanksgiving

There are a lot of people without a large family 0r with no family at all who would like to dine on a holiday like Thanksgiving with people around. One way to do this is to go to a buffet. This is different from a menu restaurant because - buffet dining tends to be more social. Go to a menu restaurant and you sit at your table and have no interaction with the people at the tables around you. At buffets, however, you get up, you encounter people around the buffet servers, and, interestingly, people seem to interact from table to table - not always, but it is common. Some people just don't like to cook the whole holiday meal, so a buffet is also a way to have that meal and enjoy the day away from the kitchen.

We have been thinking about going to a buffet this Thanksgiving. The trick is in finding one - and one that is going to orient its menu to the typical holiday fare. In some locales there are many good possibilities. In others the possibilities are slim.

This is a big family oriented holiday and many buffets close on Thanksgiving to allow their employees to spend the day with their families. Some of the best buffets that I know of are closed on that day. But there are a number that are open and have special Thanksgiving buffets. In the area with probably more buffet restaurants than any other place -Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, two of the better buffets will be serving Thanksgiving dinner buffets - Family Cupboard and Bird-In-Hand Family Restaurant. Both require reservations in advance because they sell out quickly before the holiday.

Old Country Buffet is open on Thanksgiving until 7:00 pm and though they have not stated that there will be any special menu, I would hope that they will be featuring turkey in addition to their usual Thursday dinner menu. On a personal note, to me this would be a last choice - only because the meal is going to be pretty much like all other days at OCB - nothing against them - just that processed turkey is not my idea of Thanksgiving. OCB has no mention of Thanksgiving on their website, but there is notices about it at the restaurants. (Old Country Buffet is closed on Christmas.)

I cannot find anything about Golden Corral and do not have one near to visit to find out. It is likely that they too will be open for Thanksgiving. Actually, the Golden Corral website is a bit disappointing with no details about individual restaurants at all other than location - and nothing about hours or days closed.

Casino buffets do tend to have holiday oriented meals on holidays. Most casino buffets have chefs that will go a little beyond the usual for a holiday meal. Of course, going to a casino is not everyone's idea of a family holiday, but the meal (depending on the buffet) should be lavish.

I have found that local to me a number of menu restaurants are having a buffet meal on Thanksgiving. If we do decide to go buffet for Thanksgiving, this would likely be what we would do - go to one of these restaurants (the four plus hours each way to PA is not a good idea on any holiday, nor is a trip up to Connecticut or Atlantic City to a casino). How good these meals are will depend upon the restaurant, their employees, and the value of what is being provided. These meals are priced high and there is little advertised before hand as to what will be included on the buffet. There are several drawbacks when a menu restaurant offers buffet. They may or not may know how to do this properly - keep up with the demand, refill serving stations, and anticipate what they will need for the meals to be sold. There can also be a problem with employees who are not used to the idea of making sure that tables are kept cleared of used plates, drinks are refilled, and that tables cannot be ignored. We have encountered problems with employees who just don't want to be working on the holiday (we used to buffet on Christmas Eve and a few times on Easter) and have the attitude that you need to hurry and leave so that they can go home. These are chances that you take. Those coming to these restaurants for the buffet will also tend to be more formal and less casual than people you will find in one of your usual buffet favorites - so the social aspect also may be missing (which is the reason you may have chosen to go to a buffet for the holiday in the first place).

Do a web search for Thanksgiving buffet and pages and pages come up. Many places that you might not even think of are having Thanksgiving buffets including museums, attractions, conference centers, catering halls, and restaurants. Take a look and you may find something that will be very special for Thanksgiving.

There are still two weeks to Thanksgiving and I have published this article with this timing so that you may respond. If you know of a Thanksgiving buffet that you may recommend please leave a comment here. Let us all know - no matter the location. There may be someone near there who will thank you for the suggestion!

Friday, November 05, 2010

Where's the Beef!?!

I recently received coupons from Old Country Buffet by email. They were to introduce me to their new feature - seasoned steaks and steak classics. The email title very specifically stated "Come enjoy our new steak classics tonight" and the coupon was good to November fourth. I said to myself, hmm - OCB has not had steak on most nights in a long time. This new steak feature is something to try out.

We went to the "good" OCB a few days after receiving the coupon. It was a Sunday night. I purposely made the drive all the way out to make sure that if there was steak to be found, I actually would find it. Needless to say - no steak. To borrow from that old commercial that probably few will remember but created quite a media stir a long time ago - I said - WHERE'S THE BEEF?

It was the usual Sunday night buffet offerings - nothing to complain about (at least there at the "good" OCB) but no steaks. Perhaps I did not remember the coupon correctly - maybe it said steaks only on some nights? The did accept the coupon when we paid at the cashier- it was nice to get the $3 off per meal - with the purchase of the beverage bar with each meal - so all in all we got the drinks and saved one dollar each. But it was the steak that I was after. And never having had steak at the "good" OCB I wanted to see how they cooked it and if it was left out to turn from medium rare to well, well done in a warming tray at the carving station - as happens at the "not good" OCB. When I got home I pulled the coupon email up on my computer screen - I remembered it exactly right - "come tonight... steak!"

I then checked the OCB website to see what was said about the feature. There I found no feature. They were pushing some television commercial that I have never seen on television. So was this the feature that does not exist. Send a coupon to lure you in for the same old, same old? Apparently so.

While we were there my wife, who could not care less for steak, was looking at the advertising card that is placed on every table. There was a photo of a plate with two very appetizing chicken breasts that were covered in some type of marinade. She asked me, "How come they never have that chicken?" Good question. Another photo ad on the same card showed an appealing dish of macaroni and whole pieces of tomatoes - not a sauce but more like a salad. This ad beckoned one to come for lunch. I have never seen that dish served as well.

Since this meal, we went back during the week - just to see if we would find this steak feature. It was on a Wednesday night this time - and still no steak. It was no surprise - I really did not expect to find steak.

So what is the story Old Country Buffet- and Buffets, Inc.? Where are the steaks you lured me in for? "Steak classics" -" seasoned steak in a variety of flavors" - all stated on the ad that accompanied the coupon... So WHERE'S THE BEEF?