16 June 2006

Old Country Buffet

Three words which strike wistfulness into my gastric area.

This post and - yes - rant (surprise, surprise!) was inspired by tonight's visit to a buffet restaurant in Savannah.

Old Country Buffet is a chain of "all you can eat" restaurants, based in Minnesota, which used to have a modest presence in the Southeast. Montgomery had a really good one, which I frequented when I lived in the area. Birmingham also had an OCB located just up the way from Eastwood Mall and Century Plaza. My brother lived in Birmingham back then, and we ate there a few times when I made visits.

The food was always fresh, never did one find dried-out dregs like some AYCE places have -- their cavalier and rather elitist assumption that everyone does lunch from 12-1 and if you don't, you should. Unless you come back at dinnertime, you'll have to eat that warmed-over piece of dark meat chicken. I'm serious - one such place actually told me, when I said my lunch hour was 1-2, "you need to change it to noon, then." I replied, "Not everyone can eat lunch at noon." "Well, everyone else in this town does." I'll name this place, too: Julia's Restaurant in Troy, Alabama. I think the woman was missing half her teeth, too, if memory serves.

But Old Country Buffet pulled out of Alabama ... or, to be precise, were bought out. By Pensacola-based buffet chain Barnhill's. Talk about an outfit that goes on the cheap. Remember how small the breast pieces were at Kentucky Fried Chicken years ago? Barnhill's are smaller. Everything's shoestring-run. Old Country Buffets in the state were rebadged as Barnhill's, and suddenly the chicken became smaller. The food became less fresh. The options more limited. (I think OCB's fried chicken just might be my favorite, come to think of it)

Take a look at Barnhill's website. Look at those flimsy, tiny-ass pieces of chicken on the main page. Those are, more accurately, breaded chicken bones with small slivers of dark meat attached.

Imagine my delight when I learned that the Virginia suburbs of Washington DC were teeming with Old Country Buffets. While up there in November '03, you bet we darkened the doors of one. Good as I always remember.

Charleston, S.C. had an Old Country Buffet until not too long ago. Seraphim -- who liked the size and options on their salad bar -- and I made more than one 120-mile pilgrimage to the one in North Charleston. We made just such a trip in December 2004. Then we returned in May of '05, only to find it .... closed!

So that leaves me only one option if I crave some OCB fried chicken: take a long drive northward on I-95 until I start feeling the hot air of Congress! So, is this a message from our Yankee culinary brethren? "Ha, ha, you Southern Bumpkin -- we DO have some good cookin' up here. And we're not letting you have it until you unbathed inbreds let go of that unpleasant little marital tiff back in eighteen sixty-odd."

But back to our visit to one of the all-you-can-eat places in Savannah. Seraphim and I tried out the new Fire Mountain Grill. It used to be Ryan's, but the FMG is just a new brand and concept ... in fact, the check card receipt still read "RYAN'S"

I've come to the sad realization that there's no such thing as a good all-you-can-eat "home cooking" style restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. Sure, we have Ryan's-cum-Fire Mountain and the ever-present Golden Corral. Golden Corral is special for us, 'cuz back in the dark days of our courtship ... dark in that we lived 93 miles apart (Seraphim in Columbus, Ga.; I in Troy, Ala.), and had to meet in out-of-the-way locations just to see one another during the week. Wednesday night was our night, where we'd meet in Eufaula, Ala. We always had supper at Golden Corral. And when I'd drive to Columbus for some weekends, GC was on our to-eat list. Ditto for Albany, which to this day has a super, well-operated Golden Corral. Fresh food and lots of it.

Would that Savannah's Golden Corral evoked the same reaction. It doesn't. I'd say it's closer to the Julia's concept. "If ya can't be here for supper at 6, the leftovers will be under the hot lights 'till 9. No fresh food, it costs us too much money." Phooey!!!

And Fire Mountain Grill? Better than Golden Corral here, but it still lacked. The veggies were lacking. The butter beans tasted as if they simmered in onions -- ecch! The fried chicken, though, was fresh ... I give 'em that. And I like their breading much better than GC's. But dammit all to hell, it still ain't Old Country Buffet!!!

Okay, it's here that I get to the heart of this post. The very reason I started this whole thing to begin with. These steak-house-turned-buffet chains and even current-day jokes like Barnhill's have one thing in common: YOU'RE AT THE MERCY OF A SERVER WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR DRINKS.

I don't patronize a buffet restaurant to have to be dependent on a server (and having to tip 'em afterward). I'm getting up to procure my own vittles .... WHY THE BLOODY @#$% CAN'T I ALSO GET MY OWN FRIGGIN' COKE??!!??!!

Seraphim, God bless her tortured soul, can vouch for how positively pissy I can get when I sit down, plate full of fried chicken and veggies, ready to dig in. But my Coke glass is empty and has been that way for at least five minutes.

Sometimes -- especially at our most recent trip to the Golden Corral in Albany -- a server is very attentive, even on Sunday afternoon rush (when we were dining), and never let my glass get more than halfway empty before she put another one in front of me.

Unfortunately, those times are outnumbered by waiting as my glass sprouts cobwebs. Most of the time I have to grovel for drink refills. Look, you people, I get my own food ... why not my own soda, too? Heck, this evening at Fire-Is-Cool Grill, I got up and -- like an old girlfriend did one time when we were eating at Red Lobster (she went into the kitchen when the server never came back with the pepper mill) -- went to the source and got it myself. Because of that, her name has become a verb in my slanguage, many years later. Therefore, I "DeAnn'ed" myself some Coke this evening.

OLD COUNTRY BY-GOD BUFFET doesn't operate that way!! Along with all the buffet islands, there's also a drink island, with plenty of glasses. You get your own drinks. When I'm there, I usually get two glasses of Coke, that way I can go for longer between trips (by now, I'm sure you can tell that I tend to inhale Coca-Cola at places like this).

What's more, at OCB you pay one price for the whole shootin' match, too. And that price is LESS (!!!!!!!!!!!) than what GC or Ryan's or Fire! Fire! Fire! (Beavis, that's so cool!) charge for just the buffet alone! The drink sets you back an additional $1.50-$2.00. Talk about highway robbery.
And at OCB you don't have to tip anyone. I don't mind tipping ... if it's an actual sit-down restaurant, when servers bring your meal to your table and are, for the most part, your mealtime concierge. But after paying several dollars over and above what I would've paid for the same meal at Old Country Buffet, I resent the hell out of having to leave some presidential flash cards on the table. I DO ... when the service is excellent. I mean, it's not the server's fault the restaurant has that format. But when my glass stays empty, so does my table afterward. Simple as that.

Old Country Buffet, please come back!! If anyone down here ticked you off, I apologize for 'em on their behalf.

Ciao for niao.

--Talmadge "More Coke, please!" Gleck


nettiemac said...

THANK YOU! I had wondered forever what "Ayce Crab Legs" were at the nearby seafood restaurant .... never once thinking "All You Can Eat."

Uncle Clyde (my former coworker's uncle by marriage, for whom they cared) ate at OCB every single day. I mean EVERY day. When they closed that one, he was pissed something fierce. You don't mess with an 87-year-old man's routine!

Talmadge G. said...

AYCE crab legs? Most "Chinese buffets" I've seen don't include the crab legs in the price.

Dunno what it was about the OCBs and cafeterias and their appeal to the recepients of our FICA tax dollars.

As for your 'Uncle' Clyde, Old Country Buffet had "baggage" -- the perception that it was an eating place for old people. Okay, more than once I was probably the youngest sprout in the dining room. Did it matter? @#$% NO!!

Besides, I'm not uncomfortable around our "mature" folk. I've come to realize that this 41 year old can more easily relate to a 71 year old than one who's 31.

We lost a big cafeteria on the Southside when S&S closed last year. To hear some of the regulars' comments, you'd think their spouses had passed away.

These people are living longer and healthier lives. They need more options open, not fewer.