The Rise and Fall of Chinese Buffets?
- Ed Dibble Dec 26, 2008 01:41 PM
Where I live, a number of large "Chinese" buffets opened, beginning around 2001. Before that time, there had been two or three small family run buffets, but most Chinese food in the area was menu service. Then, within a brief span of time, four buffets opened, each one seemingly more gigantic than its predecessors. Even the mainline establishment Chinese restaurant in the area went to buffets for lunch and dinner.
Of course, a number of smaller Chinese restaurants went out of business over the same time period.
Now, however, every one of those four large buffets has closed, the first one maybe two years ago and the last two within the past nine months. Even the establishment Chinese restaurant has returned to menu service at dinnertime.
I was wondering if this is some sort of a nationwide trend, or is this simply a fluke in my local area? Have you seen a rise and fall of Chinese buffets recently?
Dismally, the local "Chinatown" in our nearby city continues to see buffets open and, seemingly, thrive. It is forcing the ordinary restaurants to cut costs/corners in an effort to compete, particularly at lunchtimes. Price for price, I'd still rather not eat at the buffet.
That said, in the small industrial town where I live, a Chinese buffet is about the only place in the town centre to get anything to eat (other than the usual fast food crap).
Ed, I live just north of Toronto in Canada. Toronto, you may not know, has a very large Asian population, and there are a number of "AYCE" Chinese buffets, or (glacially slow) Japanese table service spots. Despite these, there are literally hundreds of Asian restos that offer all varieties of national cuisines, from cheap and cheerful through to deluxe.
The Chinese buffets are generally well attended. Depending on which one, you will actually find a fairly high proportion of Asians eating there (some cater more to Western tastes and have clientele accordingly). Is the food ever great? No. Can it be surprisingly good? Yes - the one near my home has quite good Peking duck, pot stickers, and roast beef(!) on weekends, and waffles made to order with fresh fruit for dessert. There's the usual steam table confusion of rice, noodle, and stir-fried dishes, along with the popular and ubiquitous breaded and deep-fried chicken/pork/shrimp with your choice of Day-Glo(tm) sauces. Desserts and salad selections vary widely by location. One offers "sushi" with the encouraging sign "Contains No Fish".
I'm white but my wife is Chinese. We go with her family and friends one or two times a year. It ain't great food but it can be tasty in small and infrequent doses.
KevinB---When the question of Chinese buffets comes up in the United States, know that the negative language spoken would not be intelligible in Ontario, Home of Great Chinese Buffets. My husband once asked me where I wanted to go to dinner on my birthday and I said "the Mandarin" so we went to Toronto---and we lived in Chicago. For non-Canadians: the Mandarin (at my last count) had 48 hot Asian dishes plus a Canadian buffet of prime rib and Yorkshire pudding plus a grill with salmon steak, chicken, and lamb chops, plus a huge salad bar with ad lib shrimp, plus six soups, ten kinds of ice cream, a waffle station, and a dessert bar with French pastry et al. And yes, it's a buffet and no, it's not sophisiticated and foodies, eat your hearts out. The Mandarin is wonderful. I have not seen a Chinese buffet of that quality in the States. I think you can google it for pictures of the buffet.
The Mandarin chain is OK, but it is definitely more "Westernized" than the other buffets. Still, my wife's family will camp out around the crab station, and bring back huge plates of crab legs; the crab rarely lasts long. As you pointed out, there are grilled foods as well, which are hard to mess up. We do prefer China Buffet King, though - more Asian specialties.
In my opinion the average Joe non-foodie still prefers the buffet. I have never liked buffet in particular, but about twice a year get a craving for it. For whatever reason, the two most popular super buffets in my hometown are owned by Koreans and keep Korean items among the huge American Chinese spread, which is usually where I indulge my need for American Chinese but have some good Korean pancakes, seafood soup, and so forth on the side. There is also a Chinese-Vietnamese superbuffet, a mimic of a couple of very very popular VN superbuffets in a nearby big city. In that big city, the Chinese Vietnamese super buffets are packed with people because of the all you can eat freshly prepared seafood, and other freshly done items...so this is a huge step above the gloppy American Chinese offerings steamed to death for hours on a buffet table.
I have also noticed a trend even in smaller scale buffets to keep more seemingly authentic Chinese items like bean paste/black sesame balls, or authentic dim sum items (usually bought in bulk frozen, not prepared onsight by a dim sum chef). Also mixing international East Asian items all on one buffet hasn't died out either. It is a sign that somehow average Joe non-foodie has become more savvy and wants the exotic "authentic" or multi-national offerings, but still needs a safety net of the traditional buffet setting. I don't see the buffet dying anytime soon.
I have a thing about buffets, can't stand the thought of people breathing germs over the steam table and kids snotty little fingers in the food. I'll pass.
Have you seen this scam they have going? Big display in the front of the house "One of the top 100 oriental buffets in America" I saw one in WY, One where I live in MT, 4 in AZ in the last couple years and I read a blog where some guy counted 40 of them in the bay area. Hilarious. I like them OK, we have one close to the house, olny about 15 items but very well prepared. The largest one in town is terrible, they put the night befores leftovers back out on the line when opening, in the same hotel pans, mmm mmm. I think they will be the next to go.