THE FEATURE – Buffets

We cover the buffet and its many cousins — from salad station to the chocolate fountain, from the Bloody Mary to the carving station, from casinos to the all you can eats.

By Jim Duncan

The American buffet represents the democratization of gourmandism. The exercise of eating as much as one wants is at least as old as Ancient Rome. However, until the American dream materialized, its distinct provenance was that of royalty and the filthy rich. From sea to shining sea of the western hemisphere, the concept would develop into a banquet of sensuality that became affordable to nearly everyone.

Mongolian options allow diners to pick raw ingredients and watch chefs prepare them.

Mongolian options allow diners to pick raw ingredients and watch chefs prepare them.

Many facets of the modern buffet can be traced to feasts of ancient Rome. As a worldly empire, wealthy Romans entertained with imported foods served as badges of success. Pliny the Elder mentions a feast that included 40 kinds of pears, 30 kinds of olives, domestic as well as African figs, soft and aged cheeses, plus 54 cultivated and 43 wild vegetables. Julius Caesar celebrated his greatest triumph by treating 260,000 people to a feast that included seafood, poultry and game.

Roman banquets differed from today’s. The ancient empire’s feasts served hardly any butcher meats. In fact, two Roman historians mention eating crocodile, giraffe, eagle and hyena, but never beef. Romans relished fish sauces, giving them four grades of excellence, the most prized being Spanish mackerel sauce. The self-service aspect of today’s buffets was unthinkable to the status-conscious Romans. They were served by slaves, including some who cleaned the floors after guests vomited. That was something they did so they could eat and drink more.

There was no sympathy for such slaves. In “Trimalchio’s Banquet” by Petronius, Trimalchio is an ex-slave who has become rich enough to throw lavish parties. Petronius notes a sign in Trimalchio’s house saying that no vomit slave may leave without owner’s permission, under punishment of 100 lashes. In another story, Petronius notes that slaves who spilled on guests were thrown into an eel pond. It was believed that eels feasting on human flesh tasted better.

The Dark Ages threw buffet culture into 1,000 years of desperation. It was revived by the Baroque Age French, particularly Louis XIV, who built Versailles palace and moved the nobility there so he could control them. One of them, Madame de Sevigne, wrote a letter in 1671 that described a dinner prepared for Louis and several hundred others he had summoned to raise money for war. The feasts and galas of that weekend were supervised by François Vatel, the “Prince of Cooks.” Madame de Sevigne’s letter inspired Roland Joffe’s “Vatel,” perhaps the most seductive food movie ever made. Vatel killed himself after the final feast, feeling that he could have done better.

The Baroque French also gave us the word “buffet” which originally referred to the large wooden cabinets constructed to show off as much food as possible. In America, the buffet dinner became popular during the late 19th century as a lunchtime inducement to visit taverns. Many bars in Des Moines offered tables of free happy hour food through the 1980s, but today most charge for such snacks. Mickey’s still has a hot dog bar and free peanuts and popcorn. Pal Joey’s and Charlie’s Filling Station offer self-serve food during big games. Carl’s serves meatballs on Fridays. GT’s offers a huge, potluck spread for the Chicago Cubs Opening Day. Mostly though food buffets in bars have gone the way of multiple fish sauces.

Octopi at Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet.

Octopi at Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet.

The demise of happy hour buffets coincided with the rise of salad bars where guests serve themselves cold dishes. These also rose with the decline of Lazy Susans — revolving trays of cold delicacies that were popular in Iowa after World War II. Archie’s Waeside in LeMars might be the last Lazy Susan restaurant in the state — they brine their own corned beef for that service.

The Old Spaghetti House on Court Avenue revolutionized dining in Des Moines by introducing their extensive salad bar and coupling it with unlimited plates of pasta and sauce. Today one can still enjoy that combo for as little as $6.50. Chicago Speakeasy’s famous salad bar is still cooled with ice, a service that is mostly gone with the winds of modern convenience and governmental regulation. Their homemade salads include pickled herring, corn salad, black eyed pea salad, crab salad, carrot-apple salad, mostaccioli, pina colada salad, Oreo salad and a dozen more familiar types. The same family has a similar salad bar at sister café John and Nick’s. Montana Mike’s and Rube’s also have lavish salad bars. All these places feature steakhouse fare.

Between the steakhouse and spaghetti house, salad bars can be found at just about every level of dining. Many supermarkets offer them. So do most hotel chains, where breakfast buffets are practically mandatory. One loose definition of buffets includes any place where the diner can see everything he chooses to eat. That means cafeterias.

Cafeteria-style service was an American invention, often believed to have begun with the original Morrison’s in Mobile, Alabama. It’s always been associated with the southeast and southwest of America and today it’s pretty much limited in Iowa to supermarkets, delis, schools, hospitals, corporations and the memories of older Iowans. The Bishop’s cafeteria in Merle Hay Plaza was for many years the busiest restaurant in the state. Like Morrison’s, Bishop’s died with the new millennium.

The most complex cafeteria service in town is probably found at the newer Hy-Vee stores. One in Urbandale offers 25 sushi rolls, eight Chinese entrees, five kinds of pizza, two pasta dishes, a make-your-own sandwich station with nearly unlimited choices, 53 salads, 27 hot dishes, 23 “chef creations,” 24 cold kitchen items, a full deli, plus a hummus and olive bar. The latter had fewer offerings than the one Pliny the Elder wrote about.

Stand-alone cafeteria restaurants were undone by two things: fast food brands, which offered even greater convenience, and the AYCE, which is code for All You Can Eat. Some cafeterias, including Bishop’s, tried to convert their model to AYCE, but they were rarely successful. The AYCE restaurant is another American invention. Herbert Cobb McDonald, a Las Vegas publicity and entertainment manager, introduced the idea in 1956 with lavish artistry. Originally they called it “Midnight Madness” — a money-losing enticement to draw all-night gamblers to casinos.

An array of spices, like these at Hu Hot, entice diners to Asian buffets.

An array of spices, like these at Hu Hot, entice diners to Asian buffets.

Some of the most interesting AYCE restaurants in Iowa are in casinos. The Farmers’ Pick in Isle of Capri Casino works closely with a dozen local farmers to keep their buffets as fresh and local as any place in the state. Prairie Meadows’ Triple Crown offers homemade desserts and a carving station nightly. On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, they serve prime rib. On Fridays they also serve crab legs and other seafood specials. Meskwaki’s Jackpot offers T-bone steaks on Mondays, prime rib on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and seafood on Fridays, always less than $20, sometimes for as little as $5. No one would have believed it 30 years ago, but today the AYCE is a successful business model in its own rite, not just a loss leader to encourage gambling. Cheap food from decades of Farm Bill subsidies made that possible.

Some of Des Moines’ finest restaurants have buffets on occasion. Tally’s brunch buffet on weekends is a Beaverdale tradition. Legendary chef Thomas Keller ate at BOS’ buffet in the Renaissance Savery Hotel, which also works with several local farmers. Americana’s Bombshell Brunch buffet on weekends offers 30 items with the option of adding endless bloody Mary’s or mimosas. Patton’s lunch buffet features that southern café’s legendary fried chicken. Bambino’s weekday lunch buffet lets one try their superb pizza and pasta plus sides for the price of just one of those items off the menu. Malo’s Sunday buffet, the first ever for a George Formaro restaurant, features a chocolate fountain bar and made-to-order burritos.

Indian buffets, like Namaste, include tandoori chicken and marvelous vegetarian dishes.

Indian buffets, like Namaste, include tandoori chicken and marvelous vegetarian dishes.

Most local South Asian restaurants now offer an AYCE buffet at lunchtime and usually include the magnificence of tandoori chicken or kebabs. India Star pioneered this in town. Namaste, recently remodeled and expanded, added a few specialties from their South Indian menu — idlis, utthapams, etc. Paradise Biryani Pointe and Taj Mahal are the most recent such places, the former obviously specializing in biryani and the latter with a somewhat more Pakistani menu. All are favorites with vegetarians for their dhals, curries, pakoras, samosas, etc.

The biggest buffets are of two schools. The first type includes the Iowa company Pizza Ranch plus the Ovation Brands buffets — including both Ryan’s and Old Country locally. Both have six or more stations with at least eight items on each. Ryan’s is more southern in style, with grits, collard greens, red beans and rice, etc.

Chinese buffets, which often add seafood not seen elsewhere in town, are even bigger. Many, like Hu Hot, China One and Hibachi Grill and Supreme Buffet, have Mongolian options where diners pick frozen and raw foods and watch a chef prepare them, with flare. W China will prepare any dish any diner requests, even if it’s not on the line that day. All, including New China, Hong Kong, International, Ming Dynasty, and China Buffet, offer huge variety and so many attentive workers that one wonders how they can profit at such low prices. RELISH

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