One of those that has risen to the top for me has been somewhat surprisingly The OLD COUNTRY BUFFET.
Surprising, because it is in many regards a paean to American excess. The majority of the meal is oiled white bread, fried food and meat, with sides of grilled cheese, mac and cheese, pizza and cheese, cheese and cheese, and maybe some sour cream. Then of course there is the dessert wing. And it is a separate wing. Lest we forget, we also have fifteen choices of soda and a slurpee machine in the beverage bar.
Going to the OCB,one will encounter about three categories of people that occasionally intersect: old people, extremely obese people, and Asian people who immigrated to British Columbia but come to the mall for shopping. They are rarely either old or obese. Oh and parents of young children for obvious reasons. I never imagined it as a place I would consider eating, but appearances can be deceiving.
|This person, for instance is actually a professional|
ballerina with the PNB!
The first time I went there, it was sort of a funny jokey thing to do with an old boyfriend. I guess he had a coupon and I wanted to go to the carnival, which was in the mall parking lot that year. So we thought "ha ha, old people and fat people gumming food... how sociologically interesting." I refuse to call the endeavor ironic in that horrible hipster way, but there were some of those intentions going into it. We were early twenties and our first date had been at a bowling alley, so there was a lot of pressure to top that in terms of the novelty factor.
Color me surprised to discover that they had a salad bar. And not your typical bag-of-iceberg-and-specks-of-cabbage salad bar. A real salad bar. Pretty much any restaurant with a halfway decent salad bar wins my thumbs up and this one is competitively good. When it comes to my rabbit-food dietary preferences, I actually eat a lot of food, but not the kind of food you can usually find at restaurants in any quantity. At an ordinary restaurant you usually have the option of a heaping amount of food with degree of transformative processing that makes the food disagree with me (very few cooking methods add much for my personal tastes - steaming is nice, but even then there can be excessive salting) or a very very small quantity of something edible. This is why I often come home from eating out and immediately make myself something to eat. Honestly, I usually eat out for the experience of being with people far more than for the eating, which is far more easily satisfied when I prep food for myself. But here, it's all I can eat! I can stuff myself with two or three community gardens' worth of food!!! The list goes on. Here's a sampling of my last meal at the OBC:
You'll have to forgive the poor photography, since my camera phone is not exactly genius and I start to get weird looks when I try to frame up better photos. But as you can see: beets, diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro, spinach, romaine, field greens, corn, peas, cucumbers, chopped egg whites, broccoli, and cauliflower all made plate number one. And I don't have to ask for salad dressing "on the side" or for the fancy cheeses and weird meat products to be left off and anticipate the lecture from a particularly self-righteous waitperson about how I could have requested a smaller jar of salad dressing if I didn't really want to have it (this has happened to me twice in the last few years), or the awkward interaction of sending something back when my request has been ignored. In fact, aside from saying "hello" to the bus person and occasionally letting him or her (ok, it's always been a her for whatever reason) take my empty plate, I don't have to interact with anybody in order to get my food... exactly the way I want it.
And of course, for dessert, buffets actually work quite well for me since my eye is far more ambitious than my tongue which is far more ambitious than my stomach. As I may have mentioned I tend to have a tendency to want just a nibble of ... well... everything. But after a nibble, my tongue is done and oversaturated with the sweet or the fatty, and then my stomach kicks in and I am unable to continue. Ordinarily, I get into a mite of trouble reaching across the table to sample each and every dessert on every person's plate. But at buffets, it's actually ok in a way that would otherwise be considered rude, to take just a teeny tiny sample of everything. I cut off bite sized portions of about a third of the fifty billion desserts, taking sips of decaf coffee in between each to cleanse my palate. Completely sidesteps the diminishing marginal returns of an ordinary dessert experience for me. They also shockingly offer sugar free yogurt, sugar free cookies (I guess with old and obese customers being your mainstay, you've got to accommodate for diabetics somewhere along the lines) and reduced sugar pies and puddings. So even if I sample everything, my stomach doesn't start to do the sugary flip flops.
Vanilla pudding, bread pudding, chocolate pudding, banana pudding, apple crisp, reduced sugar apple pie, key lime pie, sugar/fat free vanilla frozen yogurt, ranger cookie, oatmeal cookie, and ... ok I totally forget what's on the upper right hand but I think it was good. I'll admit to not finishing the larger bites on my plate, but at least I didn't feel guilty the way I do when I return a plate to the ktichen ("no box, thanks") that still looks completely full except for one or two bites. Here, my plate comes back to the table looking mostly eaten so there is no judgment. Also, I get to take multiple micro-walks between courses.
The atmosphere is admittedly a little odd at times. There are not necessarily clearly delineated lanes of traffic for circling the various buffet aisles or tables and so inevitably there are many near-misses and people there are often perfectly satisfied being surly and unwilling to recognize that you exist as a person beyond a mere annoyance. We have a few regular bussers who are not the high school kids who are extremely nice and the staff are surprisingly efficient about refilling food between disgruntled diners. If you go on off-hours, the capacity is expansive enough that you can find a good seat far flung from the feeding frenzy in the center. You will likely encounter a screaming toddler at some point, but again, you can usually find a way to avoid them. But for me, what it lacks in ambience is more than made up for in the heaping amount of control I have over what goes onto my plate and the visual satisfaction of infinite dietary possibilities without the commitment of having any of these portioned onto my plate.