Sunday, November 15, 2015

goin' up the country

My father-in-law needed a new computer, so my wife graciously offered to drive down to Delaware (just an hour south and the well-publicized "Home of Tax-Free Shopping") to pick one up. She swung by my office after work one weekday evening and we braved the I-95 rush hour traffic to get to a Best Buy in Newark, right near the sprawling Christiana Mall.

Within minutes, and with absolutely no help nor acknowledgment from a single member of the blue-shirted-and-khaki-pantsed sales team, we selected a spanking-new laptop and made our way up to the front of the store to check out. We actually passed several more salespeople who saw me carrying a large box and didn't offer assistance or a second glance. Remember ol' Circuit City when it comes time to permanently shutter the doors of another alliteratively-named electronics retailer.

At this time, in the post-Daylight Saving Time portion of the year, the sky had already darkened and the subject of "dinner" became the topic of discussion. Mrs. P and I went through the usual "well, where do you want to eat" conversational volley. We both scanned our smart phones for a nearby dinner option until we spotted the glowing red channel lettering of an Old Country Buffet just at the edge of the parking lot. 

"How about there?," Mrs. Pincus suggested.

Many years ago, Mrs P and I, with our young son in tow, would frequent an Old Country Buffet that opened a few miles from our home. It was far from fancy and exactly what one would expect from a family-oriented, serve-yourself restaurant that costs under ten bucks a person. They had a pretty good selection of entrees, side dishes and salads to satisfy our vegetarian appetites. It was definitely "no frills" and it didn't pretend to be otherwise. However, on one visit in particular (one that turned out to be our last), my wife observed an employee filling up the ice dispenser with the discarded ice from the self-serve soda fountain. That's right! The slightly melting, used cubes from the fill-my-cup-up-halfway-and-dump-it trough that serves as the drain for the dripping soda nozzles. A complaint to a manager accomplished nothing, so we placed ourselves on a self-imposed exile from Old Country Buffet.

I considered Mrs. P's suggestion. This year, it seems, has become the year of second chances for restaurants, so I agreed to give Old Country Buffet another shot.

The front door to the restaurant was opened for us by a manger outside on a smoke break and she smiled as we passed through her nicotine cloud. The long approach to the "pay-as-you-enter" cash register was being patrolled by a couple of flies, lazily circling just below the overhead lights. Flies in a restaurant is a turn-off for me. Flies in a restaurant in the second week of November - well, this wasn't a good second impression.

A disinterested young lady welcomed us with no shred of welcome. The total for the two of us was just shy of thirty bucks. Now, thirty dollars for dinner for two is not at all unreasonable. But, given that this was the Old Country Buffet, I was a little — oh, I don't know — shocked? surprised? annoyed? or a combination of the three. We selected a table in the cluttered dining area and converged on our dining options.

As a veteran of many buffets, I know a few things. By opting to be a vegetarian, I know that most buffet offerings are not for me. The inclusion of hand-carved roast beef, homemade fried chicken and slow-cooked barbecued ribs are deal-sealers for most people. For me, at least one fish entree (prepared any style), several vegetables and a salad is just fine as far as I'm concerned. I also know that a dinner plate becomes a mish-mash of food that would never be served together in any other restaurant on the face of the earth. Pizza rubs its golden crust against a lumpy dollop of mashed potatoes. Steamed broccoli and macaroni and cheese mingle freely with tacos and dinner rolls. And Jello fits awkwardly in there somewhere.
I started off with salad, a pretty safe bet. The salad bar was stocked with standard fare — shredded carrots, red cabbage, three kinds of mixed greens. I piled my glass plate high, anticipating meager choices in the main course section. I spotted a few unusual items among the staples, like something labeled "Strawberry Banana Salad." I could surmise what it was based on its two listed ingredients, but I was confused by its position next to the sliced beets and its inclusion in the salad area, not the dessert bar.

I sat down to eat. The salad was pretty average. It's tough to screw up salad. The jalapeño corn muffin I nabbed from the "Mexican Fiesta" section was seriously lacking in the jalapeño department.

I grabbed a plate and headed to the entree section. The place was teeming with one meat dish after another. There were plenty of vegetables — corn, broccoli, carrots, green beans — all floating in a cloudy-looking liquid, pale and limp from having the nutrients (and life) overcooked out of them. A fellow, standing guard over several unidentifiable cuts of meat, his hands clad in disposable sanitary gloves and his hair sequestered under a paper hat, asked if I'd like some ribs. I smiled and told him I was after the few thin fillets of bland-looking fish to fill out my plate. The looks of the fish were not at all deceiving. 

As my wife and I sat and ate, we tried to focus on each other, not allowing our eyes to stray from one side or the other, but we couldn't help ourselves. The clientele were a sad collection of families and single diners, all hunched over plates overflowing with beige food. It seems I was the only one partaking of any of the vegetables. Over here, one guy stared directly at me, as he slowly shoveled neon macaroni into his mouth. Behind me, two weather-beaten gentlemen in filthy coveralls munched on grilled cheese sandwiches (from the children's buffet) and picked wax from their grimy ears. And, since we chose "Family Night" for our first return visit in 25 years, the place was rampant with face-painted kiddies weaving in and out of the tables, screeching wildly with helium balloons bouncing in their wake.

After dinner, my wife reluctantly, but obligingly, walked up to take a glance at the dessert selections. Small plates of commercially-prepared cake slices and brownies surrounded a display of freshly-spun cotton candy.
The only other buffet I have seen offer cotton candy is the mile-long, sumptuous Spice Market at the Planet Hollywood Resort on The Strip in Las Vegas. There was no mistaking this buffet for that one. 

Old Country Buffet is the restaurant equivalent of Walmart. They know their audience, they know what they want and they accommodate them well — with no pretense or lofty expectations. 

But, you only get two chances to make a first impression.

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