Artillery Row

Democratic capitalism on holiday: the buffet

Is the sophisticated joy of the buffet coming to an end?

Everyone apart from germaphobes and other species of neurotic knows that few pleasures are more leisured than stuffing yourself to burst with repeated trips to a well-loaded buffet with a plate that keeps getting smaller and smaller, until finally, having proceeded through all the meals of the day in a single bout of selective gorging, you collapse onto a sun lounger with a three-day old copy of the Daily Mail.

The elementary but really quite sophisticated joy of the buffet is becoming a casualty of Covid-19

The elementary but really quite sophisticated joy of the buffet is becoming a casualty of Covid-19. The plague has turned us all into germaphobes and neurotics who share Twitter videos showing how a single person sneezing onto a serving fork can spread a virus to diners who weren’t even born when the dish in question was being assembled from leftovers in the back of your hotel’s fridge.

No one now goes to a hotel unless they have no choice. If they do, the restaurant is closed. Even when the restaurants reopen, we’ll all be wary of what the food microbiologists call a ‘high-touch area’. The Intercontinental group, which used to serve buffets at all 600 of its hotels, has gone fully à la carte, which is French for not being able to get a proper breakfast.

This is a trencherman’s tragedy. The buffet is democratic capitalism on holiday, a luxurious flashback to hunting and gathering. It makes us all into globalist gourmets and international noshers, ranging freely across cuisines and continents. Were there buffets in the Soviet Union? Of course not.

The word is French, denoting the ‘sideboard’ on which you lay out the food and those guests who succumb to apoplexy after visiting it. The English took it up: if the food was laid out in advance, you could argue without the servants hearing. But it was the Swedes who invented the buffet as we know it, giving us the smörgåsbord – the ‘open-sandwich table’ and much herring-related indigestion too.

The Swedes launched the smorgasbord at the World’s Fair of 1939 and, through all-day dining was interrupted for the next six years, the Americans didn’t forget.

A year after testing the atom bomb in Los Alamos, Nevada, the Americans dropped the big one just up the road in Las Vegas. It was Herbert Cobb McDonald, the catering manager of a Las Vegas hotel and a man so devoted to sophisticated dining that his middle name was that of a meat and cheese salad, who coined the crucial and inspiring challenge ‘All you can eat’.

In Las Vegas, they give you the keys to the coronary kingdom for free, to keep you gambling and drinking. Even when you pay, the buffet is the greatest bargain out there, providing you avoid the schoolboy error of loading up on starches. The buffet was at the heart of postwar mass tourism. Waddle into the family-friendly Trail’s End restaurant at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, and for only $27 ($15 for a child) at this ‘tasty Frontier mainstay’ you can sink your face into endless platters of Mickey Waffles ®, Pulled Pork Benedict, Bread Pudding, Biscuits, and Sausage Gravy, Fresh Fruit, Sausage, Bacon, Breakfast Pizza, Breakfast Hash, Cheese Grits, Oatmeal, Vegetable Frittata, Yogurt Parfait Station and – because no buffet is complete without them – Freshly Baked Pastries.

But now it looks like it’s the end of the trail for Trail’s End. Federal regulations are clearing the buffet faster than you can say ‘surf and turf’. As America’s restaurants reopen, ‘self-service operations’ are not operating and ‘common utensils and dispensers’ are neither useful nor dispensing. This is a plastic dagger to the already congested heart of the buffet experience.

Last year, according to Restaurant Business, traffic at the ‘typical limited service buffet concept’ declined by 10.3% and sales declined by 9.1%. Those figures mean that fewer people ate more food. The good news is that committed buffet diners are still honing their technique even as their fields of gastric operation narrow. The bad news is that buffets are less and less economical.

If the buffet is being cleared one last time, where might the discerning diner take his empty plate?

The parent company of Old Country Buffet (Salmonella, 2010) and HomeTown Buffet has, like a hungry buffet diner, returned again and again to bankruptcy court with an empty plate of earnings. There may be no return to the table from bankruptcy for the 97 outlets of Souplantation (E. Coli outbreak, 2007) and Sweet Tomatoes. Apart from the slice of the market pie that’s taken by pizza buffets (Pizza Ranch of Iowa’s sales increased 7.3% last year), the prospects for buffets were bad even before other people handling your cutlery and dipping their fingers in your guacamole became illegal.

Pizza Inn has adapted to the impossible demand that a buffet spread doesn’t spread germs by devising a ‘contactless buffet-to-go’ option, which offers ‘a combination of pizzas, appetizers and desserts at three price points. This is a sad impersonation of the real thing. More promisingly, the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, which cost $100m to design, so probably doesn’t have queues around the soup tureens, is spending another $2.4m on remodelling its service counters.

If the buffet is being cleared one last time, where might the discerning diner take his empty plate? The bottom end of the buffet market has been sagging like an elasticated waistband for years, but the top end might hold the future of gorging. The buffets of the future might places like the JW Café in the Marriot in Pacific Place, Hong Kong.
The JW Café has eleven different kitchens, which allows you to dine your way around the world like Jules Verne with an eating disorder. It never closes, so you can eat yourself into a coma at any hour, which is important if jetlag is preventing you from getting full buffet value. The difference to the classic buffet, and the reason you can eat there without worrying that you’ll spend the next 48 hours vomiting, is that the food is cooked from scratch in front of you. All of it, lots of it, more of it than you can shake a breadstick at.

The purist will protest that it’s not really a buffet: it doesn’t require the hard-earned skill of knowing what not to eat, when to dive in and when to hold out for a fresh serving plate. But the cumulative effect is the same. And the cumulative effect is what the buffet is, or was, and should be, all about.

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