To many people from the UK, their experience of going to a buffet restaurant is limited to visits to a Pub Carvery (see HERE for an explanation) or to their local Indian or Chinese restaurant for a buffet meal. There are also a few Pizza Hut restaurants in the UK that offer buffet dining at lunchtime, but unless you have paid a visit to the USA, you have yet to experience the full potential of the buffet restaurant.
For some families in the USA eating out at buffet restaurants has become a way of life, with the unfortunate side effect of people getting larger as a result of eating too much, but having said that, there are some buffet restaurants that do offer plenty of healthy choices, it’s up to the customer to have the will power to choose them, and to not eat until they are ready to burst.
All over the USA you can find restaurants that are called “Family Restaurants”. This term means not only that families are catered to, with everyone welcome, from Great Grandma down to the latest family addition, it means implicitly that the restaurant serves typical American home-style food, amongst other things.
Family restaurants come in two types, firstly the ones where you order your meal from a menu, and secondly the buffet restaurants.
In the first category you have many “Mom and Pop” run restaurants, but also the big chains like Denny’s, Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel, but it’s the second category that this article will be focusing on, the buffet restaurant.
Buffet Restaurants That Serve American Food
There are a number of buffet restaurant chains serving different parts of the USA that specialize in serving predominantly American food.
The area that each of these covers is different, and you might not find some of these in the area of the USA where you live of visit, but in many ways they are very similar.
The first chain that many people will recognize is Ponderosa Steakhouse, which has a salad bar, and various hot food bars to choose from. Customers can select just the “all you can eat” buffet, or they can add to this Steaks, Chicken, Fish, and side orders such as Shrimp, Sauteed Onions or Buttered Mushrooms.
The buffet dishes usually include mashed potatoes and gravy, various hot vegetables, fried chicken, chicken wings, sausages, meatloaf, pot roast, plus Mexican tacos and at least one Italian dish as well as pizza. To end your meal, there are a few dessert options (which are included in the buffet price), plus soft serve ice cream.
Ponderosa, like most of the chains, is the same throughout the USA, but in addition to the core menu, you are likely to find some local or seasonal items. I highly recommend their chili, which is very good.
The second chain, that may not be so familiar to everyone, is Old Country Buffet (also known as Country Buffet or Hometown Buffet). Recently Ryan’s Steakhouse joined the group, making it the largest chain of buffet restaurants in the USA, adding another 200 locations in 23 states.
Like Ponderosa the buffet options are predominantly American food, but Old Country Buffet has a larger soup and salad bar, as well as more hot food items, and a wider selection of puddings, pies and pastries for dessert.
A fun feature for the children when visiting an Old Country Buffet restaurant is the milk dispensers, where to get the milk to come out, you have to lift a lever that looks rather like a cow’s tail. It’s nice to see that milk is freely available there, and as with everything else, it’s eat and drink as much as you like.
Unlike Ponderosa, everything is included on the buffet, but there are no options for steaks etc. In the Ryan’s Steakhouse restaurants however, you can get steaks and chicken cooked to order, all included in the buffet price, and some of the food on the buffet has a definite southern style, like okra, which they cook to perfection.
Old Country Buffet also has theme nights, when you will find more dishes available that are related to that theme. Typical themes are Italian, Asian or BBQ, the latter including lots of ribs, steaks and burgers.
Some locations also serve breakfast at the weekends, and it’s good, with all the typical dishes, from sausage, bacon, eggs, corned beef hash, grits, pancakes etc, plus fresh fruit and fried chicken. The corned beef hash is really good, and I recommend it with a splash of hot sauce and some of their home made salsa, which is loaded with cilantro.
The last of the big chains I am going to mention is Golden Corral, which is a particular favorite of mine and which is well known, especially in the southern states of the USA.
Golden Corral restaurants are often bigger and offer more choice than the other chains that I have mentioned, but what I like best is that everything is prepared from scratch. Behind the buffet counters if looks like a grocery store, with racks of fresh fruit and vegetables. When more food needs to be prepared, the cooks can be seen taking from these shelves and preparing the food in front of you.
The quality of the food is excellent at Golden Corral, and they offer a wide range of vegetables, plus they cook steaks, chops, sausage etc to order for you as well. Their pot roast is to die for, and loaded with meat as well. The salad bar is well stocked, and they also have a good selection of Asian, Italian and Mexican dishes.
Two things in addition to this make Golden Corral the #1 buffet restaurant for me.
Firstly the desserts, since they have their own bakery in the restaurant, where they bake lots of pies, puddings, cakes, muffins, cookies etc, and it;s impossible to leave without having at least several different types of desert, and maybe ice cream as well. Their banana cream pie is heavenly.
Secondly, Golden Corral serves breakfast at the weekend, and it’s really really good. There are plenty of choices of food, all really tasty, and they will also make omelette’s and waffles to order, all included in the price. Don’t forget to top off your breakfast with dessert of course…
Buffet Restaurants That Serve Healthy Food
There is one chain of restaurants that is fast growing and that goes to the other end of the spectrum, serving good nutritious home cooked food, and it’s GOOD! The chain is Sweet Tomatoes and apart from Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, most of the locations are in the western USA, although they do stretch as far east as Illinois (including Chicago) in the north.
Sweet Tomatoes is heaven on earth for anyone who loves salads and soups, but if you are a meat-a-holic, you might leave sadly disappointed.
The first thing that you notice when you enter any Sweet Tomatoes restaurant is the salad bar. Everything is included on the buffet, except for drinks, and so prior to paying you pass along both sides of what must be virtually the longest salad bar in the world, with so many choices of vegetables and salads, it’s almost impossible to put a little of everything on your plate.
The salad bar has a large choice of dressings too, and then having paid, you come to the bakery. Here they bake their own bread, which is always served hot and fresh, as well as cookies, muffins, focaccia, and in the evenings desserts like chocolate lava cake.
Sweet Tomatoes also serves soups, with between 8-10 different thick and tasty home made soups to choose from daily. These soups are really good, and you can ladle your soup onto a bed of baked potato or rice too if you want.
They also prepare a variety of pasta dishes from scratch, including macaroni cheese for the kids.
Dessert options at Sweet Tomatoes includes their muffins (really good), brownies, ice cream, jello, and fresh fruit.
Since I personally love freshly prepared food and both soups and salads, I can’t recommend Sweet Tomatoes enough. When I go back to Florida, it’s the single restaurant that I will not miss, as nothing else quite compares.
If you are unfamiliar with the American buffet style of dining, you should be aware that not all of the restaurant locations are in the best of areas. Because the price of the food is relatively cheap, you might find some “scary” looking people, and not all locations are as good as others either. One Golden Corral that we enjoy eating at in South Florida has a local church group that takes over part of the restaurant on a Sunday morning for breakfast, and that makes it very colorful.
I can definitely recommend all of the above restaurant chains, and buffets are a great choice if you like to pick your own food, or have different people in your party who are picky as to what they will eat. Everyone can choose what they want.
Don’t Forget before you dine to register on the web site for that restaurant chain, because many of the restaurants give regular dining coupons, which can help to save you money. You can also often find coupons for these restaurants in the weekly newspapers. Sweet Tomatoes is very good at giving coupons for cheap lunches, or “buy one get one free” dinners.
If you plan to eat at a buffet restaurant soon, I wish you “bon appetit” and hope that you enjoy your Great American Buffet experience.
Personal experience and opinion.
Cultural Differences Between the UK and the USA
About The Author:
Tony Payne is a self confessed foodaholic, and returned to his native England in the summer of 2009, having spent the previous 15 years living in the USA. He considers himself well qualified to write about many of the cultural differences that exist between the UK and the USA, particularly in the area of food and dining out.