#864 Mastering the art of the all-you-can-eat buffet

Keeps your pancakes foamy

Munch lunch at a Chinese restaurant, brunch at a Holiday Inn, or dinner at a wedding reception, and chances are good you will come face to face with the The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.

If you’re a Buffet Amateur like me, your pupils dilate and your mouth starts watering as soon as you spot the long table full of steam trays and criss-crossed table cloths. Soon it’s game on, and you grab a plate and pile it high with some bread, a few salads, and a couple rolled-up salamis or a bowl of Won Ton soup. For plate number two you tackle the entrees, scooping up sticky heaps of Kung Pao chicken, soggy French Toast, or paper-thin slices of roast beef soaking in dark mushroom gravy. Then you go back for a third plate, this one featuring a tipsy mountain of desserts — maybe some assorted squares, a thick, gummy slice of cheesecake, or some fluorescent pink, freezer-burned ice cream sliding around your plate.

It begins

Then as you lay bloated on your chair, your buttons bursting, your eyelids drooping, you face a final decision: Do you go back for The Fourth Plate?

The Fourth Plate is almost always a good idea before you do it and a bad idea afterwards. It’s the helping after the helping after. It’s the Greatest Hits Plate, a star-studded collection featuring the most popular items from Plate 1, 2, and 3, coming together for the reunion tour, the last hurrah, the final dance at the dinner table.

The Fourth Plate is also a famous mark of a Buffet Amateur, because it can be the sign of someone who realizes that Plate 2 was the best plate and they really just want more of Plate 2. For years, I scarfed down The Fourth Plate at the Indian buffet near my college. Buttery, pillowy-soft naans piled high, thick and creamy Butter Chicken, and spicy, simmering lamb in a hearty broth. It was just too much. I caved in every time and walked away with a curry-busting gut and a samosa hangover.

Since then I’ve been tutored on the art of mastering the all-you-can-eat buffet. Everybody’s got their own techniques, but here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

Be a Sherlock and do a walk through

1. The Walk-Through. Don’t do what I used to do and blindly take a spoonful of everything. No, you’ve got to do your Walk-Through First. You’re a detective, popping open steam tray after steam tray, looking for recent fill-ups, traffic around popular items, and sure winners like omelet stations or a guy in a chef’s hat slicing big slabs of meat. Now’s also time for some Belly Space Analysis, where every item’s Tasty Deliciousness is weighed against it’s Projected Stomach Volume. Bread, soup, and salad rarely pass the Belly Space Analysis test. Skipping those means you just gained an extra plate and are on your way.

2. Drink Later. Sugary drinks just fill you up with carbs and cost extra. If you can postpone your Pepsi, then you’ll save belly space for the hot goods.

The Sampler takes willpower and strength

3. The Sampler. My dad is famous for the sampler plate. Within minutes of arriving he’ll dot a big white plate with small portions of every entree and proceed to say “Hmmm,” a lot while scooping up tiny forkfuls of each to see what will make the cut. You have to have willpower to pull off The Sampler, but it can be very rewarding. You know you aced it when your next plate is just piles of your two favorites. Good on ya.

4. Staggered Trips. If you’re with friends, don’t wait until everybody is done their first plate before uniformly filing up for a second trip together. No, go separately and act as each others eyes and ears out there — whats new, what’s hot, what’s fresh, what’s not. Your friends are doing their job when you see them running back to table to scream “They just brought out more coconut shrimp!” Also, be sure to designate someone at your table to be The Lookout. They should be seated with a clear view of the buffet and raise alarm whenever they see someone coming from the back with a new steam tray.

the-lookout-doing-his-job5. Big Plates Always. Be watchful of the small salad and dessert plates lurking about. Find your secret stash of full-size dinner plates and use them, know them, love them lots. The big plates will let you spread your meal around, and avoid piling things high, which generally results in meat gravy getting all over your salad.

One more egg roll

6. One More Egg Roll. When the check arrives, take your time. Slow it right down now and see who still has room. Since you’ve been so busy scarfing your food and staggering trips, now really is the best chance to catch up with your friends. Then after ten or fifteen minutes, someone will likely cave in and say “Okay, one more egg roll.” This is buffet victory.

With these tips plus your personal experiences, you too can master the art of the all-you-can-eat buffet. After that, there’s really no stopping you. So eat all you can, my friend.

Eat all you can.

AWESOME!

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Photos from: here, here, here, here, here, and here

187 thoughts on “#864 Mastering the art of the all-you-can-eat buffet

  1. I usually make my 1st plate a sampler (albeit, a “crowded” sampler), then the 2nd plate is just 1-3 of my favorites, with a smaller 3rd plate for desserts. If there’s open bar involved (e.g., a wedding), you have to save room for drinking!

  2. awesome post. I particularly liked ‘The Sampler Plate.’ I avoid most of this problem by not partaking of the desert round, making round three my greatest hits.

    I mean really….are sweets all that good?

  3. i never followed the usual regiment of “appetizer -> entree -> dessert.” whatever caught my eye went on the giant plate, be it a combination of orange sorbet, chicken-fried steak, strange mass-produced pepperoni pizza and rice. eat it together, and love being alive.

  4. honestly, i didn’t realize how important having a strategy was when it came to the art of the buffet. I’m going to try out these tips!

  5. Ahahahahahahahahahhaha…I really laughed out loud at several parts especially the staggered trips part…”they just put out more coconut shrimp” LMFAO! Thanks for the tips love,

    xoxo,
    RLCG

  6. Hello there :)

    Thank you for your article :) I thoroughly enjoyed it! :) My 2 fave things in life are eating food and taking photos of food :)

    I’m new to wordpress; perhaps you could tell me how to link to your site?

    Thanks so much :)

    April Smith
    Vancouver, B.C. Canada ( Home of 2010 Winter Olympics )

  7. Buffet’s … ahhhh … the futility of man.
    I eat the “all you can eat steak” – the chicken etc. and I leave off the bread – potatoes – rice – corn etc. leave off all starches and go for the good stuff.
    Still need to lose a few pounds though.
    But think how muich more I would need to lose if I ate the other??????

  8. Excellent article. Casino buffets are always good…especially if you have a Buy one get one free coupon. (Ok, yes, I am cheap)

    My mom and dad went to one in Atlantic City. Seafood….she brought some peel and eat shrimp to their table and peeled it all nice…goes to eat some, and my dad scarfed it down on her!!! No way she was going back for more…..

  9. I usually go for the soup/appetizer plate, then the “entree” plate, then the “dessert” plate…usually I’m uncomfortably full by then. I think they add stuff to the food at buffets to prematurely fill up the customer. Fortunately/unfortunately for me, finances/health have dictated I avoid such places for the most part. The last time I went to a buffet, one of the stupid b*tches that worked there noticed the backpack I carry (public transportation) and said, “you know it’s 10 dollars don’t you”? Stupid ho ruined it for me…never have I been asked if I could *pay* before I ate at a buffet. If I ever chance on a buffet again, I’ll take your recommendations. One buffet I went to had crab legs…best to save room for them.

  10. The perfect Sunday…. head to Lon Sen Chinese buffet after church with family, eat entire left side of buffet, go home and turn on the Colts game, go into msg induced coma for first half, wake up and watch second half.

  11. I don’t go to buffets to stuff myself, I go for the variety and the chance to sample new things. That’s the real reason buffets came about. The “all you can eat” aspect is not a challenge – it’s really meant to assure you that you can try as much as you want without additional charges. After all, if you ate so much you made yourself sick, did you really “get your money’s worth”?

  12. Nice post, however for me personally….I hate buffets. If I’m going out, spending money, I want my royal ass waited on! (this could stem from many, many years in the food service industry.) But, really the absoulte worst part of a buffet? Buffet people…look around next time and ask yourself, “do I really look like that?” Some of those lovely buffet dwellers act as if they shall never see food again.

  13. What am amateur. Us pros know to covertly fill plastic cups full of your favorite meals, then slip the plastic cups in your pockets for later, after they shut down the all-you-can-eat buffets.

  14. ps: my previous tip also works well when you dine at a place like ‘Red Lobster’ or ‘Old Country Buffet’ which offer ‘all you can eat shrimp’ or ‘all you can eat seafood.’ Just fyi. They usually make a profit. Be the person they lose money on. Be that guy.

  15. Memories of the most amazing all you can eat buffet at the Naawab in Levenshulme Manchester, come swimming to mind.
    Delicious starters to pick from (Who wants salad? Not me!), fantastic main course currys of lamb and chicken, mouthwateringly perfect naan bread and amazing desserts.
    Their veggie currys are delicious and well worth trying too. I’m a huge fan of their very special naan bread – it’s really perfect and the very best I’ve ever had anywhere. Perfect for nibbling on and dipping into the saag curry.
    BlackJack Ice cream is well worth leaving room for.
    In fact I’m dying for a curry now I’ve thought about all those yummy flavours! So much for the diet!

  16. Nice article, but you missed *SO* much! Yes, there are a few more rules:

    1) Bring your own steak knife. If there is a carving station, bring your own knife, because they NEVER have good knives.

    2) The jello/fruit plate. This is the plate after the 4th plate. The plate where everyone gets a small plate of jello or fruit, which they barely eat from but still have on their table while they talk and chat and wait for the food they have already eaten to be digested so they can go back for more. The reason you have this is because you will be bugged to leave if you have no plate in front of you. Those coming in for a new shift will think you’re on appetizersd while those on the outgoing shift will think you’re headed toward dessert. (Yes, you should stay there THAT LONG!)

    3) Freshness counts. Don’t get the last bit of the slightly-air-dried gravy covered piece of meat, let someone else take it. On your next round look for the new tray. And if it looks THAT old, mention it to a waiter, how nasty it looks; usually, they WILL replace it. Do the rest of your crusiing around the buffet and watch for them to replace it before you sit down.

    4) Get a bone dish. Get an empty dish for people to put their bones, shrimp skins, any grizzled pieces they discover or anything else you don’t want to eat. Keep the plates tidy. Don’t let the waitress take it until it actually has some stuff on it, and then the next person to go back brings a new one to the table.

    5) Have dessert on your 2nd or 3rd trip. (I think someoen else mentioned this.) This goes double if they have a dessert you especially like! If you don’t, you may be too full for dessert later. Or, if it’s not temperature sensitive like ice cream or crepes, use it as your jello/fruit dish (see #2 above).

    And that’s just off the top of my head. My ex was a master of the all-you-can-eat-buffet, and this is just a sampling of his guiding thoughts. :-)

    Kim

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  18. Brilliant. You are a true Master of the Buffates, and your post will be laminated and carried with me on my next eatventure.

    Thank you for putting in the ground work. Much of this we all knew, but had never put into words so well. The two item plate? GENIUS!

  19. Having lived in Las Vegas for two years, I have the art down. First, as one commenter noted, there are only two kind of buffets. One, breakfast. Always the cheapest admission price. Fairly easy. Hit the deserts first and make a pass over to the lox and (only a little) cream cheese. Check out the eggs Benedict on this trip to see how full the steaming tray is so you can time your move back for the freshest cooked eggs. Next, bacon. Just get a big plate and fill ‘er up. Some of the nicer hotels have a variety of chorizo and other good stuff…just keep an eye out.

    Lunch: Amateurs only. Whatever you pay is too much for leftovers.

    Brunch/ Dinner: Expensive, so make it worth it. No breads. Sometimes, but not often, a really tasty fish finds its way in. Usually better to go straight for the prime rib. Deserts always best at this setting, too. The author make the great point of checking out the food first.

    Bon appetit!

  20. Never seen a post like this before. But I do love buffets, and am thrilled you spoke out about how to upgrade your smorgasmorgtastic proficiency. ^_^

  21. Here’s what I always do:

    1. On the first run, take tiny portions of many things, just to see what’s best and what’s not worth taking up valuable stomach space.

    2. Take many plates of small portions rather than big ones so you have to get up each time you want more food. At the very least, if you’re going to eat a ton, you might as well burn some calories doing it. It always amuses me to see people at buffets stacking their plates really high. Why bother looking like a glutton? You can hit the buffet as many times as you want.

    3. Skip the fillers– bread, rice, potatoes, and so forth.

  22. I love buffets but I’m interested relatively healthy eating and not putting on weight so here’s how I do it.
    I stick to an Atkins style concept of vegetables and lean protein but it’s still a pig fest. My first plate is pretty much all vegies pulled out of various sautes and some tofu. Those 5 a day they say you should have can be all on one plate. imo, a good buffet has a good vegie selection. Chunky salsa and guacamole count too and the saag in Indian buffets is a favorite.
    Plate #2 is all protein, non fried, steamed fish, roast duck and chicken, various, curry with cubed lamb and beef items, lentils, saute’d shrimp, ceviche, whatever. Keep tasting for salt and avoid the dishes with too much. If I eat a starch like soba or rice, it’s just a small amount.
    Plate#3, the same as plate #2 but with some variation, perhaps a few fried shrimp or short ribs. If there’s roast duck, be sure to hit it twice as it’s one of the most expensive buffet items.
    Plate#4, fruits, nuts, jello, ice cream, no empty carbs here, forget the cakes and cookies, they’re usually low quality any way.
    I usually just drink hot tea and water. If the hot tea is self serve, I take it over a glass of ice. There’s no sugar and I rarely drink a soda. Soda is an extra 200 plus calories that you could be getting in roast beef.
    I’m only 15 pounds over my trim highschool weight, I’m 50 yet I pig out majorly. If you’re hitting the popcorn shrimp, you’ll get fat, but the sauted shrimp, still a little fatty, but not so bad.
    I think these places are using a lot of soy bean oil and it’s not the best kind of fat. It would be way better if they used canola.
    One more thing, if you go in at 3:00ish, you’ll pay for lunch but by then, they’re starting to put out their dinner stuff so you might get some extra bang for your lunch dollar but always leave a tip, 10% is about right in a self serve restaurant where all they do is bus your table. I like teaching the imported help catchy American phrases like “another day, another dollar” and laughing at their inability to place such a phrase in proper context and inflection.

  23. I think you may have missed an important issue in buffet dining. This really gets down to an issue of economics. The buffet offers you “all you can eat” at a perceived reasonable price, thus the central issue is to get your money’s worth and perhaps eat more than you are paying for. The real task then is somewhat aggressive, to “beat the buffet” – to make them pay for letting you in the door. What is the most expensive food cost items on the buffet? Crab legs? Load ’em up. Skip the cheapo fillers and give me more prime rib!

  24. stellar advice :) stay away from the rice in addition to the bread, soup, and salad. i’m a big fan of the preliminary taste plate to avoid wasting food and bellyspace. thanks!

  25. WOW… just amazing how humans share tips on how to stuff themselves more efficiently… has it ever come to your mind that more and more people on this planet only have a few grains of rice to live off each day, if anything?

    AND:
    We might think we deserve this kind of abundance of food because we’re oh-so-civilized. Our ancestors knew better than to ravage the land or the seas.

    Anybody with COMMON SENSE will admit that it’s only a matter of time until we’ve managed to successfully deplete most of our natural resources. Don’t believe me? Wait 10 to 15 years but don’t whine about shortage in fresh fish or even clean water. (e.g. http://www.deadline-online.net/english/overfish.htm)

    The so-called civilized world is going to be f.u.c.k.e.d. (the hard way) if we’re not going to change our minds and behaviour NOW. And don’t get me wrong: I also like seafood and yummy food, but is it really necessary to “beat the buffet” and stuff yourselves with a plate full of shrimps just to “get your money’s worth” or “make the owner cry”??

    I cut down on fish consumption myself and urge others to do it, too. For starters maybe you’ll think about that 4th plate?

    Chris

    1. You must be kidding. Please, please, please say you’re kidding.

      Unless you’re serious.

      Then I don’t know how to help you.

      Maybe you’re just hungry.

      Try the 4th plate.

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