I've always been a big fan of buffet restaurants. Having lived just three hours away from the world's most visited tourist destination—Orlando, Florida—I have come to expect good to excellent value for my money when entering an "all-you-can-eat" lunch or dinner buffet. In the approximately seven years that I have lived in mainland China, I can't say that I have ever been to even one buffet restaurant that I was eager to return to or felt offered good value for the money.
Take last night for example. My wife and I tried the buffet restaurant, Wok Too Cafe, at the 5-star Shangri-la Hotel (Guangzhou location) and although the food was "okay to good," at a total price of 331 yuan ($48.35) per person, we are certainly not eager to return anytime near soon. (See full review.)
Upon returning home, I made a list of everything I ate:
Two short skewers of lamb shish kebob (four cubes of lamb per skewer);
About 2 ounces of assorted cheeses (Edam and Brie);
Two small French baguettes with butter;
Four slices of Genoa salami;
Two slices of lox (smoked salmon) and two pieces of assorted sashimi;
Five coconut battered fried shrimp;
Two scoops vanilla ice cream (non-premium) with strawberry and mango sauces;
Two cups of coffee with milk
Total price: 288 yuan plus 15% service charge (331.2 yuan or $48.35, plus 35 yuan [$5.11] more for a can of Coke Zero).
Just prior to moving to China in August 2003, I spent some time in Orlando, Florida and made a point of eating at one of my all-time favorite buffet restaurants in the area: Boston Lobster Feast. This is an all-you-can-eat boiled lobster (served with clarified butter), fresh seafood, and prime rib of beef restaurant that serves better than average quality food for a moderate price of $33.00 per person. Boy, am I homesick. And although I've never been to Las Vegas, I am told by my friends that it is a "buffet lover's paradise."
I haven't quite figured out what the problem is in China. I have probably eaten at over 20 different buffet restaurants (mostly at 4- and 5-star hotels) over the years and have not encountered one where I thought the ratio of price to quality and variety even came close to what I had grown accustomed to in the States.
I strongly suspect that one explanation may lie in cross-cultural differences in the relative percentage of food that is wasted. Buffet restaurants in China probably discard as much uneaten food in a single evening as some Western buffets actually serve on a comparable night. In the end, the overhead required to cover the cost of all the uneaten food that is tossed in the garbage is passed onto the diners.
Buffet restaurants in China that bill themselves as specializing in Western food seem to offer the worst value by far. I've come to learn that "Western" in China means more expensive but not necessarily better. In many cases, such as at the Carousel Restaurant in Guangzhou, or the former BBQ Buffet Restaurant overlooking the Pearl River at the White Swan Hotel, you are clearly paying a hefty surcharge for novelty or scenery, respectively. Certainly, neither the quality nor quantity of the food offerings at the Carousel Restaurant justify the total price of 500 yuan ($73.00) per person, not when you compare them to the quality and variety of foods served at, for example, the Belagio's Gourmet Dinner Buffet for only $31.95 per person.
It seems that, in China, the business goal or challenge is to see how far managers can stretch the profit margin before patrons decide to abandon the place. In essence, we are all paying for the avarice and gluttony that characterizes China's nouveau riche, whether that be in the form of families who stockpile food from the buffet lines that they will never eat or managers who are trying to impress the corporate office with increased profits.
I won't be going to buffet restaurants in China anytime near soon. Instead, I will be planning a culinary respite to the States sometime in the foreseeable future. Related, how nice it will be to once again visit a grocery store where everything I need to prepare just one meal, no matter how simple or complex, can be found under the same roof.
It's truly remarkable to me how living in China for a few years has made me aware of all the simple, little things I used to take for granted back home. Who ever thought a day would come that I would find myself fondly reminiscing about Publix or Sam's Club?