A Gentleman’s Guide to the Buffet

Or: How to not be a complete animal when hitting up your favorite all-you-can-eat joint.

Buffet (1)

I don’t know about you, but when I head to a buffet, I think of it as if I’m going to war. I don’t eat for hours beforehand, and when I get there, I make sure that I get my full money’s worth. Screw the salad bar and screw any rice, that crap is just a distraction. I know that I have to head straight for the money items: Steak, seafood, plus anything else that I don’t normally dine on. Basically, I look at the buffet like a thing to be conquered.

Or at least, I used to.

Now that I’m in my 30s, I find that I can’t put away all the food that I used to, and that which I do eat definitely expands my waistline. I also tend to leave a buffet sick to my stomach, over-engorged and regretting the whole affair, wondering why the heck I put my body through such punishment for some mediocre-at-best crab rangoon.

To put it more simply, now that I’m a grown-up, I guess I have to start eating like one when it comes to buffet dining, so I called a bunch of experts and asked them to school me. Here’s what I got…

Should I starve myself beforehand?
One need not have the militaristic, off-to-war mentality when heading into a buffet, but Greg Thilmont, a Vegas-based travel and food writer, says that you do want to plan ahead. So if it’s a breakfast buffet, have a light dinner the night before. Or if it’s a dinner buffet, have a light lunch. But don’t starve yourself, as he says that throwing off your equilibrium too much won’t make for a good time. “Also, don’t show up wasted,” he warns, explaining that it could suppress your appetite. Plus, you’ll probably have to stand in line at some point and you’ll want to be able to, y’know, stand.

That said, he adds that “if you want to hit the mimosas hard while you’re there, go for it,” especially if it’s an all-you-can-drink place too.

Is there an ideal time of day to go to the buffet?
You might want to avoid it at the end of the night, as that stuff may have been sitting there for a little while, but strangely enough, Russell Hodgson, a former manager at a steakhouse buffet, says that winter is the worst time to hit up a buffet for one simple reason: “Long sleeves. When everyone is wearing long sleeves you end up with a lot more hair in the food because people are reaching and they have hair on them.” Gross.

Okay, I’m at the buffet, anything I need to know before filling up my first plate?
Wait for everyone to get situated at your table before you go up to load your plate. If there’s an option between the buffet or some other meal, you’ll want to let your server know that you’ll be having the buffet and put your drink order in before heading up. Basically: They’ll be plenty of time to eat, so just relax.

When you do go up, “Don’t swim upstream or go against the current of buffet traffic,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert from the Protocol School of Texas. “There are often two lines, one on each side of the serving table, and in that case, you may pick a side, but make sure to start at the right end.”

Round one: What do I need to know?
“The first plate is always a sample plate,” says Jeff, a manager at a major all-you-can-eat buffet chain. He suggests that when you’re at any buffet, that first round is all about picking one or two of an item and filling your plate with a bunch of different stuff to try, especially if it’s something you’ve never tried before. This way, you can see what you like. If you thought the fried shrimp looked awesome, but then you discover they’re grossly overbreaded, you now don’t have to waste the nine other pieces of shrimp you grabbed. So start small: Again, don’t worry, the food will be waiting for you the next time you go up.

This pretty much applies across the board, except for buffets where it may be for a corporate event and there’s a long line. Camille, who worked a buffet line for a catering service, says that for buffet events — as opposed to restaurants — it’s best to serve yourself one meal and not to overflow your plate. Be advised, though, that sometimes setups like this don’t allow for seconds, or perhaps they do but if you’re the only one going up for seconds, you may look like a disgusting glutton. Basically, try to read the room before heaping on half a plate of mashed potatoes for a second or even third round.

As for wedding buffets, author and etiquette writer Debby Mayne says that you’ll want to be on your best behavior, so don’t overfill your plate. Also, keep the serving size to a spoonful of any given item.

Can I use two plates? After all, I got a lot of ground to cover.
Absolutely not — Gottsman says that you can only get one plate at a time. Also, “No one really believes you when you say that one of those plates is for your wife or husband,” she says.

What about getting my kid a plate?
That’s fine, as Hodgson explains, “If you have small kids, please go up to the buffet with them. I remember one time a little girl was just eating from the cottage cheese. I asked her to stop and she just said, ‘But I like cottage cheese!’ She just kept eating right out of the cottage cheese, so of course that was all thrown away.”

How do I make sure that I get my money’s worth?
For the most part, you want to go for the proteins. At a Chinese buffet, video maker and food enthusiast Mike Chen says to go for crab legs. “One hundred percent hit that up,” he says. Thilmont says that at nearly any buffet, the go-to things are shrimp and beef, generally speaking, plus anything that you don’t normally get to eat.

Counter-intuitively though, Thilmont says that at a Brazilian steakhouse, you want to hit up that salad and cheese bar because it’s really high quality stuff. Of course leave room for the lamb shanks and other meats, but Thilmont says he wouldn’t pass all that good stuff up in favor of the endless meat.

Also, do your homework beforehand and figure out what that place’s signature item is. For example, at one chicken-heavy buffet, go for the pot-roast, as Jeff says, “It’s almost as good as my mom’s was.” Joseph, a cook at a major steakhouse buffet, says that the wings are the restaurant’s most famous item (which I can confirm — despite the fact that my local location closed when I was 12, I still recall those deliciously greasy wings).

Any foods I should avoid?
Starches, as they will fill you up way too fast. This means to take it easy on the bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and anything else that’s super starchy. Hodgson even admits, “We would try to push the bread on the customers because bread would expand in their stomachs and then they’d eat less. We would even offer bread at the tables.” See? Take it easy on those starches, otherwise you’re falling into the buffet’s evil plan.

For Chinese buffets, Chen says that you want to “avoid all forms of broccoli because it’s not a traditional Chinese ingredient and it doesn’t shrink in your stomach. You’re just taking up a lot of space with cheap vegetables.”

Yeah, but what about breakfast buffets? Aren’t they mostly starch?
True, there’s no avoiding it here. Just load up on waffles, pancakes, sausage and biscuits one at a time, though, otherwise you’ll probably overdo it.

Are there any foods I should avoid at a buffet because they’re going to make me throw up and poop at the same time?
“I’m not a fan of sushi in places where it’s laid out for you,” says Thilmont. Now, he says there are places that have endless sushi rolls, where you pay a flat fee and then each roll you eat is custom-made — those are fine. But avoid sushi in places where it’s not made-to-order because places that aren’t expressly sushi places generally aren’t really set up to handle raw fish like that. Thilmont also says that he’s never seen good pasta — or Italian dishes in general — at a buffet.

“Egg rolls at a Chinese buffet taste like a doorstop, so avoid those,” Chen says. Also, skip the chop suey, as Chen explains, “that dish was made utilizing cheap ingredients when the Chinese were working on the railroads here, so they used all the junk ingredients. That’s how chop suey came around, so I’d avoid that. That’s some nasty stuff, it’s just random slimy vegetables.”

Should I get a salad?
Tough call: Jeff at the chicken-heavy buffet says yes, explaining that it’s a nicer dining experience and that it allows you to pace yourself. As for Chen, he says salads fill you up too much and you’re wasting the stomach-space. This one’s going to be a judgment call, but if you do go for the salad, Thilmont says to try to take it easy as people often don’t realize how much lettuce and toppings they’re grabbing.

What if there’s one of an item left but there are other people behind me waiting for that same item? Can I grab the last one and screw everyone else? After all, isn’t that the restaurant’s problem?
Etiquette teacher and blogger Candace Smith says, “Others in line may notice that you are faced with a choice of the last piece, and it never hurts to make an offer like: ‘Would you like me to leave you half of this for you to share?’ No doubt the other person will respond kindly, regardless.” By doing so, Smith says you’re being much more courteous, and you’re telling people that you’re aware that you’re not the only one there.

Any other like, “proper” stuff I should know?
Here are a few more etiquette tips from Debby Mayne: “Never touch the food on the buffet table with your fingers, always use the serving utensils. If you put something on your plate and change your mind, never put it back on the buffet table. Finally, don’t eat while standing in line.”

I know, I know, I didn’t like that last one either, but hey, this is about personal growth (and not the belly-expanding kind that I’m accustomed to at a buffet).

Shoot, I forgot to get just one thing — can I cut the line to go get it?
This is a tricky move, but Camille says if you’re at a buffet with a line and you forgot a roll or something like that, it is okay to cut, but make sure that you have your full plate in your hand. That way it’s clear that you already have your plate and you’re not being a total jerkwad.

Okay, round two, what do I need to know?
Just take your time and wait a bit. Chat with the people at your table, and don’t rush back to eating. By doing this, you’ll have a better gauge of just how full you are and you run less of a risk of getting sick. When you finally do get back up there, follow Jeff’s advice and load up on what you really like, but even then, keep it on one plate and don’t pile it high.

As for weddings, Mayne says, “It’s a good idea to wait until everyone has had a chance to get their first serving before you go back. When you’re at a formal or semi-formal event, it’s also a good idea to wait for your spouse or date to return to the buffet, too, if they want more.” Fortunately though, she says that this wait-for-your-spouse thing isn’t required at casual buffet joints.

How do I not make myself so full that I consider barfing everything up immediately?
“Don’t be gross,” Thilmont says. “Go with friends, sip some beverages and have a nice conversation. Make it a social engagement. Don’t be one of those guys at his table with his head down.” Also, you can use your friends as a way to monitor your own eating. Try to pace yourself with everyone else and enjoy the experience instead of having your goal be an all-you-can-eat cram-a-thon.

Another tip that you can utilize at any place with crab legs is to get a bunch of those and begin cracking. Chen explains that with crab legs, they’re not super filling and it’s fairly time consuming, so it’s actually a good way to pace yourself.

Wasting food seems to be somewhat inevitable at a buffet, so how do I minimize how much food I waste?
All told, Joseph, the steakhouse buffet cook, says, “Anything more than a half a plate is probably excessive.” So try to pace yourself plate-by-plate so that you pretty much clean every plate that you take. Once you get to the last one, perhaps you were a bit too optimistic and thought you’d be able to eat more than you could, so a little more waste there is okay, but still try to keep that amount to under half a plate.

Additionally, Jeff says to look at buffet servings like you would an appetizer at a normal restaurant and share some with the table. Let people sample your stuff and resist your primal urge to guard that food like a momma bear guarding her cubs. After all, if someone eats up your last chicken wing and you’ve still got room, you can always go get more.

Are there any limits on the “all you can eat” thing? Like, legally speaking? Can anything get me kicked out?
Surprisingly, not really. Both Jeff and Joseph lamented people coming in 10 minutes before the prices switch from lunch to dinner time, but there isn’t much they can do about it. Oftentimes people stay super long, but even then the restaurant is pretty powerless. Sure, you might hear of news stories where “so-and-so big guy was asked to leave a buffet,” but that is very rare and sometimes even fake. If it does happen, it’s at the discretion of the owner or manager, not because of some expressly written rule. Also, when it does happen, it probably won’t be at a chain restaurant, as they don’t want the bad press.

The most I was able to uncover here was that Hodgson said he regularly had to talk to people when he saw them putting chicken wings in bags to take home.

If there’s not much in the way of limits, how do buffets even make money?
“You do have your people who are grazing at the trough for an extended period of time, but those people are the outliers,” explains Anthony Wedo, former CEO of a chain of buffet restaurants. Wedo adds that most people usually just get two plates: One heavy first round and then the second round on an item they really like. And as much as we may associate all-you-can-eat places with overindulgence, most people who go tend to be families seeking variety for all of the disparate tastes of the family members. Because of that, a buffet’s price point is more tied to what that family on a budget may be able to afford.

This also holds up with what Thilmont tells me about the wide array of buffets in Vegas. He explains that from the more family-friendly places, where you may pay less than $20 a head, to the Vegas casino buffets you find for $100, you usually get your money’s worth no matter what you paid, because that price generally reflects the quality of the ingredients and the kinds of foods you’re getting. The only time it’s usually not worth it is when someone who doesn’t eat fancy stuff hits up a high-end buffet. That person is then out of luck and would have been better off blowing their $100 bucks at the blackjack table.

At a manager’s level, Hodgson says he could manage his costs by cutting staff on a slow night, but on a larger level, Wedo says that buffets save money in a variety of ways. For one, buffets tend to utilize “kits” to make their food with pre-measured ingredients. That way, much of it is easily assembled once an item is running out. Also, they don’t cook stuff too far in advance because that means they’ll waste more. Instead, they tend to wait and see what’s running low so that they can quickly ready a new tray via the kits.

As for how these companies manage the inevitable waste that happens, Wedo explains that despite the fact that the buffet patron may appear wasteful, “Eighty percent of the waste occurs in the back of the house.” The reason for this is because of the holding time of most foods. Most buffets — or ones that you’d want to eat at, anyway — have holding times for each item, and if that holding time is exceeded, the food is chucked. Also, whatever is left at the end of the night is generally thrown out too. So, compared to what the restaurant wastes, what the consumer wastes isn’t all that much. While it’d be nice to have little to no waste, that’s pretty much impossible in a buffet setting.

How do I know if my buffet follows its holding times?
This just comes down to how busy the buffet is. As Wedo explains, “The busier the buffet, the fresher the food, and the more successful the business is in the eyes of the consumer.” In other words, while you may complain about waiting in line at a buffet, be grateful that you’re not at a place where the chicken francese is from the same batch they put out at lunchtime.

Okay, so back to me at the buffet. What about dessert?
Thankfully, unless you’re at a wedding, there’s no need to limit yourself on desserts. Jeff says that he advises patrons to take a dinner plate to the buffet table and have a sampling of each thing they want to try. Jeff also asks that you not make a mess at the chocolate fountains. “Just put a plate under your food,” he pleads.

How much do I tip at a buffet?
This is a matter of some dispute. Toni, a manager of a Brazilian buffet chain, says that 10 percent is pretty customary for a buffet, but for Hodgson, he explains that before he was a manager, he was a server and made just $2.13 per hour. In addition to getting drinks, servers also put out dessert, delivered steaks and set the tables, as well as a variety of other tasks. While they may not do quite as much as they would in a traditional restaurant, they are busy. Also, Hodgson says that it’s not like buffet servers help a ton more tables than a regular waiter, thus making up for low tips in volume — usually, they just end up kind of screwed.

Jeff agrees, saying servers at his buffet get just $2.35 an hour today. For larger parties though, there’s an automatic 15 percent tip, so, I’m going out on a limb here and saying you should tip at least 15 percent, and ideally in cash. They deserve it.

Last thing: Can I take home a doggie bag?
No! Jeez, have you learned nothing?