In hotels and on cruise ships, breakfast is frequently served as a buffet, not least because not all holidaymakers choose to eat their first meal of the day at the same time. Lunchtime can also be quite flexible, hence maybe another buffet. There could be one at dinner too, at least for starters and desserts. Cafes and restaurants often have buffets, too.
Knowing how to benefit from a buffet is the key to making a meal of the experience.
What's so good about buffets?
Simple: what you see is what you get: it’s like looking at a 3D menu – and if it’s a good display, it’s more appetising than words printed on paper or card, and a lot more appetising than garish colour photos of food hanging outside a café. As well, not only can you see the food, you can also smell it – and that’s appetising, too.
Another good thing is that the dishes on display are ready to take to your table. No trying to flag down a waiter, then waiting whilst your order is cooked. Plus you decide portion size, by taking as much or as little as you like.
So far, so good.
Some of the food may have been on display for a while – albeit kept warm – so, although freshly cooked for the meal, it won’t be just cooked, and that can reduce its appeal. And some items, such as a grilled steak, for which precise timing is of the essence, don’t (or certainly shouldn’t) feature on a buffet at all.
Other users helping themselves may not replace lids, which serve to keep food hot; and may muddle up serving implements – although watchful staff can correct this.
If what you want is a popular choice, you might have to wait for a refill to appear.
What's the best way to start?
As obvious as it sounds, by looking at what’s there, which also means taking notice of items that might be on a small table or counter separate from the main display.
The best approach is to make a slow circuit before you take a plate and start to fill it. After all, if this were a printed menu, you wouldn’t order the first item before even reading what else was on offer. Don’t get caught out because you jumped the gun. Once you know what’s there, and where to find it, you can start putting your meal together.
And if it’s a walk-around display, rather than a single counter, don’t assume that one side mirrors the other, because you could miss out; and seeing someone at the next table tuck into your all-time favourite when you’re halfway through a plate of something you like less, but settled for, won’t make you happy.
What should you look out for?
A printed menu, which may be on display at the entrance to the restaurant or dining room, to help you decide what you want. A menu should also tell you what’s in each dish. On-the-buffet labels such as ‘chicken casserole’ or ‘veal ragout’ don’t give much guidance to those who don’t like, or can’t eat, certain ingredients. If in doubt, or a need-to-know case, always as a member of staff for clarification.
- An omelette station at breakfast time, because this is a dish that must be cooked to order, and you get to choose what’s in it. Often the chef here will also fry eggs just the way you like them.
- By the same token, there may well be a pasta or stir-fry station at lunch time. These options ensure a hot, freshly cooked dish exactly when you want it.
- A carving station if a roast is on the menu. This may well mean a tastier option is on offer, as meat dishes on a buffet will often come in a sauce because that will help to keep them moist.
- Refills. If a dish you fancy is running low, stand back and wait for someone to bring more, fresh from the kitchen. If you’re sharp-eyed, you can take a seat at your table and keep watch, whilst you enjoy your first course.
- Your vegetable preferences. Often, the chef will decide which vegetables go with, say, a fish dish, and which best compliment braised beef, for example – but if you don’t agree, there’s no reason not to mix and match or swap accordingly. It’s all there for you to choose from.
How often can you go back?
Well, no-one’s counting, so this is really up to you; just remember, waiter-free or waitress-free meals are not calorie-free!
And if you’re planning on having, say, three courses from the buffet, that would mean going back twice. Piling the first two courses onto one plate isn’t a good look. Neither is bringing your dessert back to the table when you’ve also got the soup that you’re having as a starter, and your main course, on the tray.
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Finally, a word about good buffet behaviour!
Maybe it’s just me, or perhaps you’ll agree: buffets bring out the worst in some diners. Let’s face it, apart from Billy Bunter, who would read through a restaurant menu featuring three different starters, a choice of four mains, and six assorted desserts then tell the waiter, “I’ll have everything please, and plenty of it!” ? And worse still, who would also tell him, “Bring it all at once!” ?
A buffet is a menu. It’s not a feeding frenzy free-for-all, or a competition to see who can pile the most food on a plate, and the most plates on a tray. If someone normally has one course at breakfast, two at lunch and three at dinner, selecting their meals from a buffet shouldn’t be seen as a green light for eating twice as much. After all, tomorrow is another day.
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