A confession: though I've reviewed them a couple times in my tenure as restaurant critic for the Deseret Morning News, I don't care much for buffets.
In general I find them uninteresting, with predictable but bland food, not much ambience and an emphasis on quantity over quality. (Note to buffet lovers: Of course I don't mean YOUR favorite place.)
In fact, in recent weeks I have been bemoaning the capacity crowds filling the parking lot of a new chain buffet that just opened near my home, while locally owned places with distinctive food go begging for customers.
I also often rant (my husband's word) about Chinese buffets. I can't understand why a person wouldn't just order from a good neighborhood place, such as Holladay's Mountain City or downtown's David's Kitchen, rather than put up with soggy sweet-and-sour, crunchy fried rice and lo mein that has been heat-lamped to the consistency of porridge regardless of the all-you-can-eat policy.
My husband says I shouldn't be surprised because, to many people, the very predictability and emphasis on volume that I dislike in buffets is a major attraction. "It's only weirdos like you who want an adventure every time you eat at a restaurant," he said. "The other 80 percent of the population find something they like and stick with it."
I still don't really get it. But I decided to visit some local places to try to find out what it is that I'm missing. And to ensure the most unbiased point of view possible, I took along my brother Zach, who was visiting from Sugar Land, Texas.
Zach's practically never seen a buffet he doesn't like. Chinese buffets, American buffets, buffets of indeterminate ethnicity he loves 'em all. "(Buffets are) all-you-can-eat, and some of them are good prices," he said. "You get to pick different foods that they cook. I've tried lots of them, and I liked almost all of them."But the one he loves most of all, declaring it the best buffet in the whole country, is Utah's own Chuck-A-Rama, so that's where we started my buffet quest on a recent Saturday evening.
CHUCK-A-RAMA: Boy, is this place crowded. Unbelievably crowded. My husband and I, along with our kids and Zach, came fairly late for dinner, at almost 8 p.m., but there was a line to the door. And when we left, an hour later, the line was still there. However, the staff moves people through the line and to a table with impressive efficiency. And then you're free to wander the serving area, loading up plate after plate with a huge variety of food.
I realized several good things about Chuck-A-Rama on that trip. First, the fact that it's so crowded ensures that the food turns over quickly and is usually appropriately hot (or cold) and fresh. Second, kids just love the place. Ours were beside themselves at being allowed to fill their plates with things like plain spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, several kinds of Jell-O and "grape-el-sauce," their own mixture of applesauce and grapes.
Also, I've got to hand it to Chuck-A-Rama for having such Utah favorites as frog-eye salad, pickled beets and apple beer on the buffet line.
But I also had my first epiphany about why buffets and I are not a "good fit:" Even if the food's decent, I never eat enough. I had a salad plate consisting of a small mound of greens with dressing, a dollop of frog-eye salad, a scoop of diced pickled beets and a few slices of marinated cucumbers, while Zach quickly heaped his plate with seafood salad, frog-eye, Jell-O and a variety of fruits and veggies.
Then, when it was entree time, I had similarly small portions of butternut squash cooked with butter and brown sugar, a vegetable medley of summer squashes and carrots, a single stuffed shell and a little bow-tie pasta with thick Alfredo sauce, while Zach enjoyed an overflowing plate of lasagna, macaroni-and-cheese and mashed potatoes. and my husband piled his plate with ham, turkey and more mashers. Similarly, Zach had a huge portion of bread pudding and apple crisp for dessert, while I had a small bowl of creamy, warm rice pudding.So maybe I wasn't entirely converted. I decided to scale the top of the buffet heap and visit something more upscale. Zach and I headed downtown for a weeknight dinner at The Roof.
THE ROOF: Chuck-A-Rama it ain't. One sure way to tell is the guy playing jazzy tunes on the grand piano at The Roof. Another is the elegant, clubby atmosphere and the wall of windows offering spectacular views of the LDS temple and the city. Another is that a meal costs $30 a person to Chuck-A-Rama's $9.
But I had another epiphany there that likely will make my husband smile smugly (he's said this before): Maybe I just have expensive taste. Because I liked The Roof a lot.
One reason was the small portions. The entrees are little more than a mouthful or two, and the desserts are either petite or left to the diner to cut their own portion. This allowed me to try a couple of bites of everything before I got full.
And nearly everything was creative, unusual or interesting, from the chilled melon and strawberry soup with chunks of pineapple, grapes and melon to the marinated beef tenderloin with savory-bitter black pepper-bleu cheese sauce. Zach, again, went for quantity, piling his plate with various cheeses, shrimp-and-seafood salad, and following it up with a triple portion of grilled chicken with tomato-saffron sauce, which he liked but I found a bit dry.
I, on the other hand, tried lots of things: robust and tangy creamy Manhattan seafood chowder, cool and peppery poached salmon, tender ham and prime rib.
Then there's the dessert. I had a tiny pot of cool creme brulee with a bitter burnt-sugar coating, a few bites of white cake with strawberries, a little triangle of dark, sweet brownie and a couple of spoonfuls of bittersweet, intense chocolate mousse. Zach had a good-size piece of yellow cake with strawberries and nuts.
Guess it's obvious which place I liked better. But my buffet expert begs to differ.
Zach said he liked the view and the "fanciness" of The Roof and the desserts. But Chuck-A-Rama is still his pick as best buffet ever. "I just like the food and how you can eat a lot," he said.
Can't argue with that. Guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.
Chuck-A-Rama: Lunch $7.99 adults, 55 cents per year kids 3-12; Dinner $8.99 adults, 65 cents per year kids 3-12The Roof: $29.95 adults, $14.95 kids 11 and under
Rating: ** 1/2
Where: Eight locations in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah County and St. GeorgeComment on this story
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Dinner: Monday-Saturday 4-9 p.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Payment: Checks, major credit cards acceptedWeb: www.chuck-a-rama.com
Rating: *** 1/2
Where: 15 E. South Temple, 10th floor
Hours: Monday-Thursday 5-9 p.m.
Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m.
Payment: Checks, major credit cards accepted
Phone: 539-1911Web: www.diningattemplesquare.com
Stacey Kratz is a freelance writer who reviews restaurants for the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org