The joy (and origin) of ‘all you can eat’

You better believe we're getting seconds.
The joy (and origin) of ‘all you can eat’
Photo by Nicole Peaslee
OM Indian Fusion Cuisine

I have vivid memories from when I was a young boy and my mother took me to cafeterias. How I enjoyed eating at these places! I especially remember one called the Goodie Shop in Indiana, and that it was. There were mountains of crispy fried chicken, a zillion kinds of jewel-like Jell-O cubed and molded, and just as many varieties of pie, many piled high with meringue or whipped cream. Seeing all that glorious food was akin to the wonder experienced on Christmas morning. Best of all, it was mine for the asking, limited only by what would fit on my tray. We also frequented a place in Rockford, Illinois, called the Sweden House for its then exotic-sounding smorgasbord. Unlike at the cafeteria, there was no glass partition between me and my heart’s desire, or a server to determine my portion size–and it was “all you can eat”! Could life get better than this?

Actually, as I grew older I began to share my father’s view that more was not necessarily better. He had a phobia about seeing food spread out on a table, whether at a potluck, salad bar or restaurant buffet. Regardless, I have learned that some items taste better after a long sojourn on ice or placed in a steam table.

Buffets in one form or another have been around forever since they are an expedient way to feed large numbers of people. The restaurant buffet concept, however, is rooted in cafeterias that boomed in urban areas during the first part of the 20th century. A new white-collar workforce had emerged that included women. The cafeteria provided a clean, bright setting for a quick, cheap lunch. The offerings could be seen before ordering, and best of all, no tipping! The growth of the likes of first Howard Johnson’s and then McDonald’s were their demise.

Not all buffets are created equal. Indian restaurants that have become synonymous with lunchtime spreads stand out since the cuisine rarely suffers from overcooking or being kept warm too long. Madison’s Om Indian Fusion Cuisine offers one of the most eclectic and interesting buffets you’ll find anywhere. On the other hand, Asian specialties that need to be fresh and crisp can be a disaster, especially deep-fried dishes that become limp and greasy. The worst has to be the shall-not-be-named chain buffets that rarely live up to their hype but instead serve overly tenderized steak and “home style” (if your home subsists on frozen microwavable dinner) entrees.

That’s not to say a buffet cannot be downright captivating. Two of the most noteworthy in our area are, of all things, German–the Dorf Haus in Roxbury and Feil’s Supper Club in Randolph. Unfortunately, you’ll have to make plans to attend either. The Dorf Haus Bavarian smorgasbord happens only on the first Monday of every month and the first and third Mondays from June to October. Feil’s Octoberfest Bavarian buffet is offered Saturday nights in October, and Feil’s Germanfest buffet is offered the last Sunday of every month. All are well worth the wait.

Lacking for nothing–least of all food–has always been part of the American Dream and, for better or worse, what epitomizes it more than “all you can eat”?