The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
At a time when seemingly every new restaurant touts shared plates, the chance to load up at an all-you-can-eat buffet can provide a welcome respite from carefully divvying elaborate assemblages of charred cauliflower and labneh between four people. For a certain subset of food-obsessed millennials, the very word “buffet” may conjure up nightmarish visions of hospital cafeteria-esque dining rooms crowded with groups of blue-hairs that arrive for dinner 4:30 p.m. sharp, or depressing hotel breakfasts laden with powdered eggs and cereal dispensers.
But when it comes to all-you-can-eat affairs, it’s not all grim: Consider Vegas buffets, those glorious culinary displays of excess showcasing a veritable orgy of high-end fare like caviar, wagyu beef, crab legs, poke bowls, and a mind-boggling array of frilly, individually plated desserts. Many cities are also home to popular Chinese or pan-Asian buffets serving everything from crab rangoon to sushi; Indian or Pakistani restaurants that do buffet service for lunch; or cafeteria-style Mediterranean buffets where diners can load up on falafel and tabbouleh.
Hitting your local Golden Corral or Old Country Buffet can clock in at less than ten bucks in most cities, but unless you have a voracious appetite for ranch dressing, bacon bits, and subpar spaghetti, such destinations may not be worth it even at that price. Buffets at high-end Vegas hotels can cost as much as $50 or $60 for dinner, but they can also offer the biggest bang for your buck. Regardless of the venue, getting your money’s worth at a buffet requires strategizing — and a certain amount of etiquette in order to avoid being a monster toward your fellow diners or the restaurant staff. (A note: The following is intended as a guide toward the typical American- or Western-style buffet.)
Well, duh. At the risk of stating the obvious, don’t bother shelling out the dough for a buffet unless you’ve worked up a sizable appetite first. An all-you-can-eat meal should not be an impulse decision — it requires advance planning. If a buffet is your dinner destination, perhaps have a salad for lunch instead of pizza or a burger. If you’re hitting a buffet for lunch, well, maybe make time for a nap afterward. (While some may try to argue the merits of prefacing a buffet with a big-ass meal to “stretch their stomach,” that’s a pro move that should be relegated strictly to competitive eaters. You are not Kobayashi.)
Go for the pricey proteins first
Prime rib? Yes. Jumbo shrimp cocktail? Sure. King crab legs? Definitely. Any properly ostentatious Vegas buffet will likely have all of the above, along with other delightfully high-end proteins like shucked-right-in-front-of-you oysters and lamb chops. Loading your plate up with these big-ticket items is the best way to get your money’s worth. This is particularly true at the famed Sterling brunch buffet at Bally’s, which clocks in at a hefty $100-plus but includes all-you-can-drink Perrier-Jouët Champagne and American sturgeon caviar, plus lobster, filet mignon, and plenty more high-end options.
Less-fancy buffets will still probably have prime rib, along with fried chicken and various smoked meats, all of which are a good place to start. When it comes to breakfast buffets — be they the sad mid-range hotel type or the fancy resort variety — obviously hit the bacon trough first.
Take advantage of carving and à la minute stations
Continuing the previous point, if there’s a carving station with prime rib, baked ham, or smoked meats such as brisket, get in line. (The ability to specify the doneness of prime rib you prefer is a major bonus.) Also, is there a staffer in a ridiculous tall white hat standing around ready to make you a custom omelet or waffle? Great, do it — it’s the perfect chance to take advantage of having something freshly cooked-to-order versus all the stuff that’s been hanging out in steam tables. Just be patient, and skip the wild requests if there’s a sizable line of people forming behind you.
Loading up on carbs is an amateur move
Mashed potatoes, rice, subpar dinner rolls, pasta, and various other carbs are always present on a buffet line. That’s because the restaurant is counting on you filling up on cheap carbohydrates so you’ll eat less of the much pricier proteins. Consider skipping these items altogether unless you want to feel like Violet Beauregarde being rolled out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
(A side note about pay-per-pound salad bars and delis, such as the ever-popular Whole Foods hot bar: Think about volume versus weight. Bone-in meats are expensive for what you get, since you have to pay for the bone; leafy greens are a good way to add bulk, since they weigh next to nothing. Take it easy on the dense sides — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes — and grilled vegetables like portobellos and squash, which tend to be cooked in oil and thus heavier than their raw counterparts.)
What about sushi?
There are plenty of items that can sit out on a buffet line for an extended period of time without suffering too much. Sushi is typically not one of them; the rice gets dry, and the fish gets too warm, creating an overall bad situation. If you really must, a protein-free variety is probably fine. The exception to this is one of those fancy Vegas buffets, where there’s a good chance there’s a sushi chef assembling raw fish and rice into rolls or nigiri right in front of you. In that case: Eat your heart out!
Respect the rules, the utensils, and don’t forget to tip
You’ve probably noticed that many buffets have a sign politely asking diners to get a new plate when they return for seconds (or thirds or fourths). There’s a reason for that, and it’s not because they love washing dishes: When you use the communal tongs to plop food onto a plate you’ve already eaten off and then stick them back onto the buffet line, you’re potentially cross-contaminating that food with your personal bacteria. For the respect of your fellow diners, just get a new plate. Also, tongs and serving spoons are there for a reason. This isn’t your grandma’s house — it’s not cute to grab a dinner roll with your bare hand when there are 17 strangers behind you.
Furthermore, don’t pull an Obama and try to circumnavigate the sneeze guard, if there’s one in place. POTUS got away with that at Chipotle, but you are not that slick.
Also, a note on service: You’re expected to clear your own table and return your tray to a designated area at some buffets, so observe your fellow diners for proper protocol. Other buffets (particularly the higher-end ones) have staff on hand to clear empty plates, refill beverages, etc., so if that’s the case, don’t forget to leave a tip on the table: 20 percent is appropriate for just about everything these days.
Don’t take more than you’re actually going to eat
It’s all-you-can-eat, not all-you-can-throw-in-the-trash. While you obviously want to get your money’s worth, leaving piles of uneaten food behind at a buffet isn’t the way to do it. Forty percent of the food produced in the U.S. each year goes uneaten, so don’t contribute to this shamefully embarrassing statistic by piling your plate with far too many crab legs and mini pastries. Remember, you can take as many trips through the buffet line as you can stomach — it’s part of their business model, so you (probably?) won’t put them out of business with your appetite for crab legs. Just do it thoughtfully each time.
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior associate editor.