The All-You-Can-Eat Buffet, A Meal Dipped In Irony

Forget Mitt versus Barack. Here's a debate worth having: where do you stand on the all-you-can-eat buffet?

In fact, what could be more American? First there's the freedom thing, that inalienable right we hold so dear. And then there's the whole consumption thing. We're so good at that. In malls, restaurants and pancake palaces from Secaucus to Las Vegas, there's something so deeply American about the all-you-can-eat buffet.

But, according to a recent news story, it's not just an American tradition. Good golly, they've got em' in England as well!

But they've got it all wrong, see. Two jowly jokers had been frequenting Brighton's Gobi Mongolian restaurant for two years, benefitting from a policy that $20 gets you an "all-you-can-eat meal." But after a recent binge of five bowls of what we can imagine is a mixture of meat and baby corns, the restaurant manager blacklisted them because they were just eating too much. Now, every American knows that's just not playing fair! If it's advertised as all-you-can-eat, it's gotta be just that.

But, seriously folks, where do we stand on the underlying concept of the all-you-can-eat buffet? Is being in a situation in which you can eat as much as you can a good thing?

Look, I've enjoyed my share, from an all-you-can eat pancake fiasco — who wants to eat more than a few pancakes? — in Providence, Rhode Island, to more enjoyable sushi feasts in Las Vegas. IchiUmi, a pan-Asian spot on 32nd street in Manhattan, is good fun. At $32, not including drinks, it's a good enough deal. I enjoy the feel of the place, the glistening rows of food, the cooked seafood dishes and the sushi rolls, as well as the fruit desserts. But it's been a while.

I've also been to the Big Daddy of them all, the Thanksgiving buffet at the Bellagio, which is supposed to be the best in Las Vegas. The food is indeed a cut above the rest — I loved the salt-and-pepper shrimp, but after too many tasteless frozen crab legs with tasteless butter, I felt ill.

The problem is inherent in the concept: more is not necessarily better in all things. There's a point of being full when you should just stop eating, but in the buffet context, that's a very difficult spot to find. All-you-can-eat is a mutual agreement between proprietor and consumer: we want a deal, and he'll give us something that feels like a deal. But no business is going to produce food at a loss, so they are going to find ways to feed patrons crap, or filler, like more rice on sushi, that won't be worth the money spent.

Of course, you could eat all the B-minus grade sashimi you want and feel smug about it. But you'll also feel queasy. And, if you're like me, and you like to drink beer or wine, which costs extra, with your food, then you won't be getting much of a deal anyway.

Ultimately, it's a meal dipped in irony. It's a game to see how much you can eat. But too much of a good thing, or, in most cases, a mediocre thing, has a diminishing return. To return to politics for a moment, it's a fun, interesting and sustaining process that might be worth going through once every four years.