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The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Keeps America Free

You might feel fat but you'll also feel human, something you can't say at more modern and rushed restaurants.
Neon at Night

Perhaps I should have studied or socialized more in graduate school, because some of my fondest and most vibrant memories are of evenings spent alone in all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets (which I’ve also written about here and here).

The appeal of the buffet, at a base level, is in its unlimited variety. It sets off the same childlike enthusiasm as a trade expo or a giveaway pile at a yard sale. At age 26, it still triggers memories of giddy excitement over being able to eat whatever I wanted without my parents controlling portions or demanding that veggies come before dessert. (In my experience, dessert at a buffet is most appropriate as an interlude before a final plate.)

Buffets are sometimes cast as symbols of American greed, excess, and materialism. Their uncertain but likely relationship to obesity and eating disorders is disconcerting. In some ways, buffets may be an expression of something dark in our national psyche.

But to psychoanalyze the meaning of the buffet might be just as silly as contemplating the texture of the lo mein noodles or the quality of the sushi rice in the California roll; it misses the point. In addition to whatever the buffet may symbolize, it is an American phenomenon in the best way. At the buffet, there are no class distinctions. All are welcome. It is a quotidian place for the everyman, it’s family friendly, and it even provides a small opportunity to exercise one’s liberty.

Buffets, like coffee shops or the fast food restaurants that photojournalist Chris Arnade famously reps, are “third places,” in between home and work, combining something commercial with something communitarian. Sitting for a couple of hours at a Chinese buffet is the closest experience I can think of to sitting in a European sidewalk café and people-watching. It is urban, in the sense of lively, chaotic, slightly but pleasantly disordered.

To this point, whenever I stand at a make-your-own-hibachi grill, I think of an elderly man I once observed joking and chatting with the grill cook, clapping as he did a diminutive set of Benihana-style knife and egg tricks. It was obvious that the man was a regular, who found something of a home in the bustling restaurant. How do you measure the real value of a place that, for 12 bucks and change, offers unlimited food, upbeat social surroundings, and a comfortable, climate-controlled place to sit as long as you want?

Or not sit. Because of the buffet’s self-serve and relatively downscale nature, it is possible to just stand around and mill about in a way that isn’t quite permissible in a higher end, full-service restaurant—or in many places at all. “Can I get you something?”—a hard-edged security guard inquiry masquerading as ingratiating customer service—is likely to greet anyone who peers too closely behind a counter or stands underneath a television for a better view. 

Most buffets are also extraordinarily family-friendly. This begins with their generous kids pricing, but it has even more to do with the atmosphere of the restaurants (simultaneously relaxed and chaotic) and their size (cavernous). Almost every time I eat at one, I am pulled out of a looming food coma by crying babies or young children running and playing between the tables. I remember doing so myself when I was a kid; this is generally tolerated or ignored by diners and staff alike. Now, I am not one of those performative traditionalists who claims to actually love the sound of crying babies. But it is both heartwarming and of real social importance that there are restaurants where families can go out to eat for a modest sum without having to worry about babysitters or social expectations. Some would view this as disrespect for order; others, more correctly in my opinion, view this expectation of order as disrespect for the inherent chaos of children.

At a broader level, the buffet allows for a certain exercise of liberty. True, there are plenty of anecdotes of big eaters eventually being kicked out, or poor college students being hassled for coming in at 11 a.m. with a backpack and staying for dinner. But aside from fast food outlets, there are few other places where such a thing is even possible. There are few places where a customer has so much power: to choose what and how much to eat, yes, but it’s not just the small power of consumer choice. It’s also being able to comfortably seat a family, to fix a problem with food (by leaving it on the plate) without needing to summon a waiter or stress about sending it back, to sit comfortably for a more or less unlimited time, eating, sketching, writing, studying, chatting, staring. The pace of the dining experience is up to you. It embodies the most basic liberty: the liberty to be left alone. 

There is a kind of managerial authoritarianism—you might also call it tight organization and ruthless efficiency—rising everywhere, from travel to dining to retail. Just-in-time inventory stocking and drop-shipping, airport check-in kiosks, hotels with no front desk, and rapid-service, cafeteria-style “fast casual” restaurants are all manifestations of increasing pace and decreasing margins. There is no room for mistakes, eccentricity, or relaxation.

The buffet, then, is not just an opportunity to engage in gluttony. It is a respite from the intensity of much of modern life. You may feel fat, but you feel human; less so being prodded through security lines or ordering lines or checkout lines. If the steam table can feel like a feeding trough, the line at the fast-casual industrial-chic joint can look a wee bit like a slaughterhouse queue. 

Nonetheless, buffets (of all cuisines) are falling out of fashion; as a sector of the restaurant industry, they are shrinking. Numbers demonstrate this; so do anecdotes. Manhattan’s only all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet closed down a few years ago; so did Washington, D.C.’s. While they were once innovative, these restaurants can indeed feel a bit dated these days. One irregularity—and expense—are those massive, byzantine dining rooms, seemingly half-empty even when the place is packed. Another, of course, is the menu, which is not only mediocre but also requires hundreds of items and tries to mash many concepts together—raw bar, carving station, pizza, hibachi, sushi bar, Chinese takeout. Not very local or “chef-driven.”

Among a medley of challenging business factors, there is also the impression, especially among Millennials, that buffets are not “cool” or Instagrammable. Food halls, farm-to-table menus, and, of course, delivery are all increasingly popular choices. In some ways, the decline of the buffet may even be a symptom of America’s cultural divide. The large Hispanic family with rowdy kids in Teppanyaki Supreme Buffet is in a similar position to the African-American Bible study group in a McDonalds, which is to say, they are ordinary people whose only fault is enjoying ordinary fare. Consuming food laden with trendy buzzwords—fresh, local, sustainable, minimally processed—has become a class marker, a point noted in the recent book Drive-Thru Dreams (which I reviewed here). For a lot of elites, the buffet, like the McDonalds, is little more than fodder for fat, rat, and cat jokes.

I’ve found that these days, unlike when I was a kid, the quality of a buffet seems to inversely correlate with what some people think of as the “quality” of the neighborhood—the stray buffet in an affluent suburb tends to be underwhelming and sparse, while more downscale neighborhoods tend to host tastier and more crowded smorgasbords. Though of course for different reasons, buffets, like cities, get better with crowds. It wouldn’t hurt the high-eating foodies to occasionally join the crowd.

The humble, dated Chinese buffet, with its Americanized takeout fare and faded wall-sized crane portraits, with its oversized interior and unpretentious manners, is endangered. Its appeal is not just to the stomach, but to the heart, and even to freedom. It’s a place to feel a little bit of empowerment as a customer, to be temporarily freed of both social convention and bean-counting managerialism. The buffet is diverse yet simple, populist, rough around the edges. It is indeed an American institution, and America would be poorer—and hungrier—without it.