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Opinion | Why people love buffets and my secret dining strategy to avoid awkward conversations

People tend to either love or hate buffets. I belong firmly to the former camp, and always have.

While I did draw the line at trays of lurid-orange sweet-and-sour pork glowing from London Chinatown buffets of the early noughties, my adoration for the humble buffet was cultivated from a young age.

Growing up in Calgary, Canada, in the 1990s, dining out was normally a large family occasion and we rotated between our favourite Chinese and Japanese restaurants, the occasional splurge at seafood chain Red Lobster and, my favourite, the buffet chain Foody Goody.

Even as a child I understood a buffet’s rules of engagement: scout first, try a little then load up on your favourites – even if that tended to be cubes of technicolour jello dusted in waxy-tasting desiccated coconut.

A buffet at a Foody Goody restaurant in Canada. Photo: Yelp / Gary N

Foody Goody in Calgary was a popular destination for many Asian families, drawn to its promising displays of excess and relative value. Never mind that it was shut down in the early noughties due to health-code violations, according to Reddit users.

It was a descendant of the Chinese-style buffets that first emerged in the West in the mid-20th century, starting with the famed Chang’s Restaurant in California. This pioneering venue launched in 1949, with its advertisement in the Los Angeles Evening Citizen News boasting of “over 20 delicious selections” of “choice Chinese foods exactly as prepared in Soochow, Shanghai, Peking and other large cities in China”.

Americans came to know it as a “Chinese smorgasbord”, with the Swedish tradition of laying out a table full of food from which to snack upon having become popularised in the US in the late 19th century.

Buffet restaurants have stayed popular ever since, for both diners and proprietors – the former enjoy a vast array of choice for a relative pittance, while the latter get to operate ventures with low labour costs.

While that style of buffet may have fallen out of fashion in favour of upscale hotel buffets in a different value bracket – in Hong Kong, at least – I still nurse a fondness for them today.

As more people seem to consider punctuality optional, the buffet suits diners who actually arrive on time

Why do I love buffets so? At their core, I think they are immensely freeing as a dining experience, a place where the usual rules of decorum and ritual are tossed aside. There are no menus or hard decisions made based on appetite or financial standing. And when going out with a crowd who cannot agree on what cuisine to eat, the buffet always wins.

Neither does one have to get tied down to long or embarrassing dinner conversations – my trick is to use smaller appetiser plates that allow me to make multiple trips back to the buffet at opportune moments.

Someone fires an awkward question regarding your reproduction plans? Excuse yourself to fetch more crab claws. A passive-aggressive fight between a couple reaches boiling point? Zip off to see what has just been added to the dessert table. Never is it easier to just leave the table when it suits you.

Another thing I love: as more people seem to consider punctuality optional, the buffet suits diners who actually arrive on time as no one has to wait for anyone.

Also, the early bird gets the worm – or, at least, choice pick of unsullied displays of fresh shellfish and dishes not yet congealing under the heat lamps.

Chinatown on Second Avenue in the heart of Calgary’s downtown district. Photo: Shutterstock

Everyone has their strategy when it comes to a buffet. Some delight in upending the traditional dining order by going straight for desserts, while others refuse “low value carbs” in favour of more expensive proteins.

Some enjoy taking a single spoonful of every single item on the buffet line, creating their own miniature tasting menu – before going back for seconds. (I can see why “girl dinner” was trending so much in 2023 – there is great joy in compiling a plate of favourite small bites.)

Because Hong Kong is the land of the expensive salad bowl, I often hover around this station and fill at least half my plate every round with fresh rocket, baby leaves, perky cherry tomatoes and – because a buffet is at its heart so delightfully retro – a tangle of nutty alfalfa sprouts whenever I see them.

I just wish there was not the inevitable food waste.

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