Monday, October 08, 2012

All you can eat

Anytime I go to a restaurant that offers all you can eat or bottomless anything, I am wrought with anxiety. Perhaps it stems from childhood. Eating out was an event in our house because we could rarely afford to do so. When we did, we would go to places like Bower's 99'R, a place that offered a full meal for 99-cents and all you could eat. Later, after Bower's 99'R went out of business (eaten out of business I imagine), we went to places like the Chuck Wagon Buffet and later, the Royal Fork.

My anxiety at being faced with the promise of all you can eat is that, as a child, I really wanted to test the limits of all I could eat and I would fill my plate with a bit of everything. And part of the way into it I was unable to finish any of it. The sign at the Chuck Wagon admonished people to "Take all you want, but eat all you take." So I dined in fear that I would be judged by the servers who cleared plates for taking more than I could eat.

All you can eat was not a problem for my father. He was in his element when in a buffet. He could balance and fill three plates at a time and go back for seconds and thirds. He had an amazing appetite and always wanted to make sure he got his money's worth. Remarkably, my father was not a large man nor was he ever overweight.

The aspect of a buffet that inspires panic in me is the variety. I am always afraid that I am missing out on some item and I always feel obligated to try and cover as much ground as possible. So rather than enjoying the dining experience, I am anxious to empty one plate and head out again.

Ironically most places that offer all you can eat counter the urge to eat all you want by making it as unappetizing and tasteless as possible. This, however, doesn't deter your average buffet dweller. I learned at a young age that people went to these types of restaurants because a) they have large families, b) they are large people, and c) they don't have lots of money.

I stopped going to buffets after growing up and leaving Boise. Though when I lived in a college dorm I was faced with buffet style dining. Later in life I would try a buffet or two at casinos in Reno or Las Vegas. I remember being appalled that, while staying at Circus, Circus in Reno, they promoted their buffet on there in room televisions and boasted that they had the certified largest plates in Reno (presumably to attract some of the certified largest people in Reno who longed for big plates and helpings). I was equally appalled at the quality of the food at the Circus Circus buffet and the people who sought it out. It was like a scene from "Night of the Living Buffet." I wanted to scream running from the room.

Cruise ship buffets are just about as bad as Circus Circus. They epitomize all that is so very wrong about a buffet and attract lowest common denominator on a cruise ship. You have to endure people actually sampling food while in the buffet line and bitching loudly about the food as they pile their plates high with it. But they are there because they want to get their money's worth while on the cruise and the dining room experience doesn't give you the portion size you can score in the buffet (plus you don't have to wear a tux).

I hadn't been to a buffet in quite some time until this last Saturday. We were driving back home from an event in Tacoma. It was nearing dinner time and I had two tired and hungry toddlers in the car. So we decided to stop at an all you can eat place called Zoopa's. Zoopa's tries to disguise that fact that it is a buffet by saying it offers an extensive salad bar that they make you go through before you get access to the all you can eat past, soup and pizza bars. But the salad bar is just their ploy to fill you up on cheap and fattening salad items so you won't be able to eat all you want.

Zoopa's also tries to taper what people eat by providing one of the certified smallest plates I've seen in a buffet once you pass the salad bar. It is physically impossible to overfill one of their plates. But the chronic buffet goers that I saw at Zoopa's compensated by the simply filling their food trays instead of using the small plates. Large people who need all they can eat are resourceful people as well.

Anyway, I had buffet flashbacks while having my Zoopa's experience. And the atmosphere, poor food quality and the clientele definitely kept me from overeating.

It's definitely no Sizzler.

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