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Chinese Buffets: A Trend Worth Exploring

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 27 and 28

The first really good Chinese buffet restaurant we visited was in Canada, the year 1994. It was in Pickering, a suburb of Toronto and we reviewed it in Flavor and Fortune in Volume 2(4) on pages 14 and 18. That restaurant was called 'Mandarin' and several ISACC board members were fascinated, even delighted at how good it was. We were amazed that it was being franchised. The owner, Mr. Chiu, was opening the twelfth Mandarin restaurant, all close by and all watched closely to assure quality control.

At that time, its size overwhelmed. Not only was there huge seating capacity, one restaurant could seat six hundred, but the number of food offerings was huge, too. It approached two hundred. The place was spotless, not just at the time we were there, but probably always as it was 'voted the cleanest restaurant in town' by a local newspaper. What also impressed was that the hot food was hot and refreshed every few minutes.

At that time food offerings, except for at the salad and dessert bars, were almost all Chinese though there were a few Canadian and universal non-Chinese dessert items included. The Mandarin buffet honored Chinese cuisine. Why is it that good things can not last? On a recent visit there were more non-Chinese items being served and there was some slippage in quality.

Then and more recently, restaurants in this franchise showed appropriate Chinese respect for the elderly including seating them quickly. They offered a twenty percent discount for those over age sixty-five. They were also exceptionally nice to the small fry and to folks of all ages. Waitresses and waiters were in constant attendance clearing plates as each person left his or her seat to indulge in more food. Others kept the buffet stations in pristine condition. Foods were in logical order so wandering aimlessly looking for something was kept to a minimum.

Much has changed in the buffet restaurant scene and all is not for the better. Now there is a proliferation of buffets. Within a fifty mile radius of my suburban home, there are more than fifty; and they are not all equal. Some maintain food and ambiance standards, others are messy. Some are inexpensive while others cost the price of a meal in a good full-service restaurant. Some food served at them is more authentically Chinese than others. And, most recently these Chinese buffets are becoming a United Nations. One honestly put a sign outside that said 'international.'

Why this growing phenomenon? These restaurants speak to the shortage of trained staff and owners need for more income. Most importantly, they speak to the demise of the mom and pop Chinese restaurant. On the customer side, people want more variety at their meals, want a perceived bargain, and they love pigging out. Perhaps these buffets also shows that all too many people do not care about freshly made hot food and even that some do not know good food from mediocre.

Chinese buffets have greatly expanded in number and number of food offerings. No longer are non-Chinese items restricted to dessert selections. In our area, these buffet eateries first added Japanese food items, then one by one, foods from Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia. Most recently we have seen Italian and other European food selections, even South American and African foods. Common signs outside buffet restaurants read 'Chinese, Italian, and American items daily' or 'Chinese and Japanese food, here with a complete sushi bar.' We most particularly like the one that says 'Foods of twenty counties available on our buffet tables.'

Many buffet restaurants do catering on and off site and when they have a few parties to attend to, the restaurant customers fend for themselves. We have seen senior citizen discounts of ten to twenty percent, places with twenty to two hundred different food items, special prices for children, and costs listed with and without lobster. We also know of places that feature all the snow crab legs or all the lobster you can eat. Some have fruit bars with canned selections, other include a few fresh items and advise how healthy their buffet is. Many provide complimentary soda and tea, with or without free refills, most charge for coffee, and all tab the alcoholic beverages. A few have Mongolian barbecue selections or roasted meat prepared and sliced in full view. Still others provide hard and soft ice creams. And there is more. They are offering more and costing more, too.

In some ways these buffet restaurants speak to galloping changes in Chinese and all food, the increase in variety and preparation requirements, and other expectations folk have. As has the local supermarket that sells frozen dumplings, frozen Chinese TV dinners, and varieties of tofu, they are expanding their offerings. They are meeting the competition be it restaurant or the local supermarket's take-out selections.

As each city, state and country increase their ethnic populations, people learn foods from neighbors and friends and want to share meals with them. Everyone travels more wants to eat foods they tasted elsewhere. With more mixed-ethnic families, people want different foods to please everyone. The mixed buffet restaurant meets these particular needs. These are things small local Chinese restaurants can not do.

On a recent trip to Niagara Falls NY, when we asked our hotel desk clerk "where is a great and we mean great place to eat" he suggested a Chinese buffet restaurant. That was a surprise because the recommended Crown Chinese Buffet; 7325 Niagara Falls Boulevard; phone: (716) 283-7080. It required a ten dollar cab ride. He followed up his suggestion with, "it is the best place in town, you get all the free crab claws you can eat and the food costs a pittance." On his say so we grabbed a cab that cost twelve dollars with the tip and drove to a place across the street from a strip mall called Tops International. It was of good size and it had a huge Target store.

If you recall old comic characters, we entered this three-hudred-seat glass-enclosed buffet operated in a reverse Katzenjammer Kids format. Here, you paid on the way in, forced to the register by a glass enclosed walkway that started at the entrance door. The going rate, lunch or dinner was under ten dollars. After we payed, we selected a table then went to look at the seven buffet stations, six for food, one for beverages. We noted that between them, there were more than a hundred food items to chose from.

We wondered what local children think is Chinese food because the restaurant bills itself as Chinese and food choices run the gamut from Sushi, found on the dessert bar, to Buttered Potato, Corn on the Cob, French Fries, and Onion Rings. These were next to Vegetable Lo Mein, Boneless Spare Ribs, Mushrooms in Oyster Sauce, House Special Mei Fun, Happy Family, Chicken with Garlic Sauce, and Stewed Sweet Potatoes.

We were confused as the sushi was next to Canned Peaches, Carrot Cake, Chocolate Pudding, Fresh Cantaloupe, Pickled Carrot and Daikon Sticks, and a choice of vanilla or chocolate yogurt. Our confusion, and probably theirs, continued at the soup and dim sum bar. It offered Steamed Dumplings next to a tray of Jelly Donuts. The beverage area crosses cultures, too, mixing Orange Soda, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and other carbonated beverages with Chinese or American tea, and coffee your way, Cappuccino to regular.

If you live on Long Island in New York and are willing to wait an hour for a table or eat at non-mealtimes, we suggest a restaurant that is the closest thing to the Mandarin of some years back. It is East Buffet at 179 Walt Whitman Road--which is also known as Route 110; their phone: (516) 547-8838. When crowded, this staff has a hard time keeping things neat in the small space that seats well over a hundred. Their food is the best of buffets in the New York region and you may balk at the crowding of food, tables and offerings, and the sushi that lacks variety. Some of the foods, though are so good that we wish we'd indulge less.

We wonder where the buffet syndrome is going. Also wonder about its impact in small cities and towns. It has been spotted in one European city and may be in others. Clearly, we have to make a trip to Asia and see its impact there, if any. How is it doing in your neighborhood? If you spot an interesting development, do keep us posted.

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