The Untimely Passing of the American Buffet

A lot of people hated them — but you can’t deny what they meant to many of us

Photo: Ulysse Pointcheval via Unsplash

I used to think it was a character flaw not to eat at buffets.

I’d be with a group of people at a Sunday brunch buffet, and that one person — always one — would invariably ask, “can I get a menu?” It was a personal affront. You’re too good to literally break bread with us? It reeked of bougie-ness. But after 2020, I don’t think I’ll ever eat at a buffet again. I once saw those people as contrarians. Now I’m joining their ranks. And it’s breaking my heart.

Buffets came into fashion in America in the mid-20th century, starting in Vegas as a way to overfeed gamblers and keep them in one place longer with the hopes they’d hang around the casinos and spend all of their money. The buffet skyrocketed into mainstream American popularity during the ’80s when everything was about being bigger and better — or, rather, when being bigger meant better. We had Western Sizzler, Shoney’s, Ryan’s, Ponderosa, Luby’s, and any host of regional spots on every corner.

Buffets always walked a razor’s edge, though. Profit margins were slim, and while buffets survived a couple of dips in the U.S. economy, they were among the first sector-wide casualties when the Great Recession hit in 2008. The pressures weren’t just from Americans’ ability to spend; as people grew more health-conscious, “all you can eat” went from a four-word phrase to a four-letter one. Before long, only one profitable chain was left: Golden Corral, with its neverending chocolate fountain and its unseasoned approximations of food, became the Walmart of buffets. Buffets as a whole represented germs, old food, and American gluttony — not the most desirable trifecta.

I think of sitting among family. I think about hanging out with my cousins before we went home and threw a football or played Nintendo. I think about my mom walking me around, letting me pick food, and putting my plate together like Picasso with a giant metal spoon.

But buffets used to represent more. They were places families could gather after church, sit around the table, and enjoy each other, especially as the idea of huge weekly soul food feasts at home became more untenable. More than 10 people eating for $7.99 each — with kids often eating free — proved easier for extended-family gatherings than having massively time-consuming and expensive meals at home. When I think of places like Ryan’s or Shoney’s, or even cafeteria-style chains like Piccadilly, I think of sitting among family. I think about hanging out with my cousins before we went home and threw a football or played Nintendo. I think about my mom walking me around, letting me pick food, and putting my plate together like Picasso with a giant metal spoon.

As I got older and spent some time in New Orleans, I fell in love with Sunday buffets at Copeland’s, where Saints games played on the TVs and “who dat” chants rang out. When I would visit family in Mississippi, we’d congregate at the Country Fisherman and enjoy some of the best catfish and sides you’ll see anywhere. On the higher end, I’d dig into the salad bar at Fogo De Chao or the occasional Easter buffet at the Four Seasons or if there was one at a fancy hotel I’d stay at. They just conjured up a feeling of special occasions.

And conversely to what we think about buffets, in recent years a Tex-Mex buffet near my house actually helped my diet. I was trying to lose weight, and it was the most affordable way I could load up on a pound of grilled chicken, veggies, and rice. I’d sit and write, enjoying the free Wi-Fi and listening to the Southern Trump supporters in adjoining booths talking quietly about how much they loved him and his wall… while eating Mexican food.

At another Sunday buffet I found late last year — shout out to Mexico Lindo — Latinx families gathered to eat; there was karaoke, a stand to make your own street corn, and in the back, a whole-ass dude was grilling like it was a family cookout. It was incredible. I wanted to go every week.

Then Covid happened.

And this video came out.

I knew that buffets were generally full of germs but I never really thought about it. I just chalked it up to other germ-filled things I did. Yes, I knew the worst hepatitis outbreak in the country’s history is because of a buffet. Yes, I knew about the Great Sizzler E. Coli Outbreak in Wisconsin. I didn’t really care.

But now? Now all I can think about is the times I’d eat nachos with my hands, give those hands a quick wipe, and go grab some spatula that someone else who had just eaten nachos has just grabbed. It really makes my skin crawl to even think about. I honestly can’t see myself ever eating at a buffet again, no matter how nice it is. I’m not alone. I don’t know how buffets are going to survive; something the restaurant industry is also wondering as well.

I imagine buffets will evolve into something safer, which is probably for the best. I imagine they’ll mostly be turned into some sort of cafeteria-style setting where the servers make our plates for us to our heart’s content. But we won’t be able to make plates just how we like — making sure the yams touch the Mac and cheese ever so softly, the way the burrito on the plate acts as a barrier between the rice and beans and the taco, the way a regular Wednesday night all-you-can-eat fish plate could be a monument to memories of eating at cookouts and family gatherings. It just won’t be the same.

There’s a symbolic side to the waning of buffets too, especially in light of the way the world has exposed itself in the past year. The “all you can eat” establishments represented a last bastion of humanity observing any sort of social contract: Presented with a literal endless vat of food, people would avoid the urge to hoard. They used most of what they took, and there was always enough to go around.

Buffets managed to create a feeling that we’re all here for the same reason, and it only works if everyone gets a piece of the pie. Of course, they couldn’t last — they existed in a country that never made that feeling a priority.

Level Sr. Writer covering Race, Culture, Politics, TV, Music. Previously: The Undefeated, The Atlantic, Washington Post. Forthcoming book: The Movement Made Us

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