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Last night my wife and I went to a lovely buffet at a well known German restaurant. It began on a quirky note when I asked the waitress to recommend a dry Riesling. Riesling is a highly regarded white wine grape and the premier wine of Germany where its vinification runs the gamut from dry to very sweet. The sweet style is most common. She responded with: “All Rieslings are sweet,” to which I demurred by explaining the range of styles. She counter-rebuffed by lecturing me about dry wines which curiously included some wines that are sweet. At this point I simply asked for the wine list and ordered a bottle of a nice dry Riesling. We’ll come back to Miss I-work-in-a-German-restaurant-but-don’t-know-my-German-wines later.
In the meantime, the food was superb. The buffet featured sauerbraten, oxtails, pheasant, venison, duck a l’orange, a pork-loin carving station, salmon, braised red cabbage and a decadent, buttery spaetzle. In the center of the smorgasbord stood the chef, graciously greeting patrons, readily answering questions, and eagerly serving his multi-splendid delights. His charm and accessibility augmented the experience even further.
Buffets are very popular but they present a panoply of pros and cons, both for the patron and the eatery. The dining public loves buffets for two reasons. First is the wide selection of foods which combats boredom by keeping the meal stimulating and diversified. Rather than being locked into a singular entrée with one or two sides and maybe a preceding soup or salad, the diner can now indulge in a cornucopia of options. In essence, they can design their own personal tasting menu. What you want, how much you want, and even how it’s orchestrated is all up to you. Unlimited freedom and choice is ineluctably fulfilling. Buffets also afford you the opportunity to sample certain menu items or types of foods without making the commitment of ordering them as your main entrée. Even when experimenting with novel cuisine, you’re bound to find something amenable to you.
The second thing that individuals prefer about buffets is that they are usually reasonably priced. And if you’re an unabashed glutton like me, it’s practically petty larceny. But this assumes of course, a modicum of quality. All the quantity in the world can’t offset the cost when the food is deplorable; and that brings us to the dangers of buffets.
Buffets are more costly to a restaurant than made to order food. This is because a large and diverse amount of food needs to be prepared and it is impossible to predict the exact amount required. Wasted food is unavoidable. Naturally, the restaurant strives to be as efficient as possible. So now they're in a dilemma. How long do you allow the aging remnants to languish in their tray before being excahnged with fresh replacements? Maybe someone will eat those last few dried up pieces of fish and another round will be unnecessary. Maybe it's near closing time and you can get by on what's left. Or on the other hand, maybe you're revolting certain guests with the deteriorating, unreplenished food and costing yourself future business. Deciphering that precise point where you've maximized efficiency without jeopardizing future revenue is like delineating the edge of a cloud.
I'll never forget the time we tried this dinky Jamaican restaurant's buffet. The small, shabby eatery sported a diminutive buffet, and worse yet, no other customers but us. The salad was wilted beyond salvation and the proprietor refused to provide new offerings. Needless to say that was the first and only time we visited that establishment.
The other concern with food lingering protractedly is food poisoning. It is generally recommended not to leave food out at room temperature beyond two hours otherwise it's all-you-can-eat for bacteria. The temperature range where bacteria multiple the fastest is 40 to 140 degrees. Maintaining the buffet food beyond 140 gives you more hygienic shelf life, shall we say, but at the cost of overcooking and drying out the food prematurely. There's always a catch. Anyway you slice it; the food should be replaced in a timely fashion.
Therefore, as the customer, you want to patronize popular buffets with high volume. Strong business creates rapid food turnover and generates higher profits which hopefully, discourages cutting food corners. Bustling demand is the lifeblood of any buffet, for the customer and the entrepreneur, or it will wither on the vine as readily as a forsaken buffet item.
A final issue with buffets is how much to tip the servers. There are plenty of diners out there who deem a perquisite below 15% justifiable, arguing that buffet servers are only fetching you drinks. Interestingly, shortly after Miss wine-challenged endeavored to impose her oenological misinformation on me, she treated us to a second, unsolicited diatribe about how servers at buffets actually work harder because they have more dirty dishes to clear. This is despite the fact the there were ample busboys and not one of our used plates was retrieved by a server. Nevertheless I am still of the opinion that the standard gratuity guidelines are still in order. Fifteen percent is adequate for the server at my favorite Chinese buffet who literally only brings me a glass of water and the check. But at many buffets servers tend to an array of needs: beverages, ice buckets, bread, condiments, utensils, napkins, and yes, sometimes removal of multiple rounds of dirty dishware. Fortunately, Miss wine-challenged turned out to not be our server. The pleasant and efficient woman who assumed that position was as attentive and cordial as she was devoid of benightedness and carping. I left her a solid 20%.