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The Late, Great Chinese Buffet

A story about immigration, innovation, and millennial nostalgia comes to a quiet end.
June 30, 2022
The Late, Great Chinese Buffet

I had seen a ghost. Not of a deceased relative, but the ghost of once-fresh lo mein and sesame chicken. I should have turned around and walked the other way, but I piled my plate high instead.

This encounter took place during a visit to one of my erstwhile favorite all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets in the Washington, D.C. metro area; I had stopped by more than a year after it reopened following a long COVID shutdown. Being a stickler for detail might make more sense in a fine dining context than that of all-you-can-eat Americanized Chinese food, but the devil really is in the details.

We might survey the essential features starting in the entryway: The front counter is a little messy. There’s no salmon on the sushi tray, leaving just tilapia and alarmingly pink tuna. (Broiled eel? Forget about it.) You feel guilty making a plate at the hibachi bar, since it no longer has a dedicated grill cook. The dishes are mostly the same, but the flavors are all a bit muted, mixed up, and heading in the direction of off. The oysters are gone too, which—given the state of the rest of the food—is a blessing in disguise.

And the price. It used to be $13 or $14; now it’s $18 or $19. Between the decline in quality and the increase in price, it feels like you’re paying double. There are a lot of meals that can be had for $20, and the buffet, once a deal that inspired childlike excitement, is now at the lower end of that list—hardly exciting at all.

As a fan of buffets both in theory and practice, I say all this with a heavy heart. Much about them inspires loyalty: I love their variety, and the excitement of being freed from anybody else’s opinion about what your meal looks like, or how you’re going to eat it. I also love the democratic vision of the buffet. Growing up, the lunch crowd was always a cross-section of America: office workers, Chinese and Chinese-American families, whites, blacks, and Latinos: everybody.

The Chinese buffet, which first emerged in the 1950s before exploding in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is no longer a new or exciting concept, and those which have not shuttered in recent years are often operating below their prime. It’s hard to see a place you once loved—with the same front counter, steam tables, sushi bar, and tables—in a state of decay and neglect, and to remember its former glory. The feelings evoked are similar, in a way, to those brought on by seeing a person age: the same sense of nostalgia, wistfulness, even mourning. It’s true, of course, that businesses can execute turnarounds and reinventions. But most restaurants do not turn around. They enter a period of progressive, reinforcing decline that eerily resembles the biological process of aging and dying.

A restaurant, menu, or cuisine isn’t exactly a widget, a thing that can be manufactured at scale. Restaurants are contingent, almost fleeting things: contingent not only on economics and consumer preferences, but also on the culture in which particular food practices are rooted—and a whole lot of tacit knowledge to boot. There’s a reason why most restaurants are staffed and owned by people from the country or culture that the restaurant represents. Chinese buffets are an even narrower subset: Most are staffed by Fujianese immigrants, who come from a region in southeastern China. The concept of the Chinese buffet—referred to as the “Chinese smörgåsbord” in early newspaper reporting on the trend—spread between owners from that community, replicating and taking on local adaptations in a way that seems downright evolutionary. (For example, a couple of buffets near me serve a predominantly Hispanic clientele, and they include fried plantains in their spread.) Interviewed for a Bon Appetit essay, author Jennifer 8. Lee notes that “in the Midwest, ‘No. 1 Chinese Buffet’ became the standard thing in small towns.” The names often bleed together, featuring words like “star,” “king,” “super,” “east,” “dragon,” and, of course, “China.”

If the 1990s were the golden age of the buffet (“golden” is another word you might find in a classic buffet name), the 2020s may be the decade of their decline. Based on both a raft of recent reporting and my own experience, it seems likely that the Chinese buffet as a concept in the restaurant world is edging towards extinction.

Its cousin, the American/country/steakhouse buffet, is already nearly extinct (with the notable exception of Golden Corral). Old Country Buffet is about as alive as K-Mart, which is to say it isn’t, and Souplantation, a regional chain based in California, threw in the towel at the beginning of the pandemic rather than trying to eke it out. The Chinese buffet’s nearer relative, the upscale sushi or Japanese buffet—also frequently staffed and owned by Chinese immigrants—has been on its way out for years, outcompeted or replaced by fresher and trendier made-to-order all-you-can-eat joints.

During the pandemic, many buffets embraced the “seafood boil” concept, an adaptation of American southeastern crawfish boils with an East Asian touch. In 2018, Anna Chen, a Chinese restaurant owner in Winchester, Virginia was asked if she would ever consider adding a buffet option to her own seafood boil restaurant. Buffets are “not the kind of businesses she wants to go into. The high cost of food, the wasted leftovers, and the unhealthy nature of buffets that make people ‘eat more and more’ turns Chen off from the idea completely.”

Owners and customers alike are growing tired of the buffet and are looking for trendier, more efficient, and healthier options. The pandemic accelerated this decline: Buffets adapt poorly to the sorts of public health strictures introduced to combat the virus, including limits on crowds. (In April 2020, the FDA recommended that buffets and salad bars be shut down entirely in favor of other food-service options.) They also feel risky, despite the fact that surface transmission of COVID-19 is minimal. In any case, shared tongs, bristling profusions of crab leg, and fifty trays of mediocre food under heat lamps are decidedly no longer of the zeitgeist.

Will the Chinese buffet as we’ve known it for the last thirty years still exist in another thirty years? Or will it be a curious period relic, like a 1950s drive-in, or an evolutionary dead end in culinary history like Howard Johnson’s—chided in its later years as “fast food served slow”? Perhaps a handful of establishments now in business will hang on long enough to achieve iconic status or gain retro appeal. Or perhaps a Chinese-American chef with an appreciation for her community’s story will reinvent the buffet in a way that updates it while also paying tribute to its past.

But very few new buffets are being built, and many are closing. While in some cases the steam tables sit there empty, in others they’re being ripped out—all but ensuring a buffet will never again occupy that space. The pandemic may turn out to be the event that made the buffet’s long decline its destiny, much as the 1970s oil crisis turned out to be the point of no return for Howard Johnson’s. The “host of the highways,” as HoJo’s was once known, only just lost its final restaurant this May, but it hasn’t been a household name for over a quarter-century.

To call my feelings mourning might be an overstatement. Nevertheless, it can be sad and unsettling to watch something that was only recently banal and ordinary inexorably slip away into history. There is a real sense of loss. The least we can do is realize that the all-you-can-eat buffet was an American innovation, a space for unselfconscious diversity, and a meaningful part of childhood for at least a generation.

It is difficult to predict what will be considered culturally or historically important at some point in the future; Julia Child’s kitchen is (rightly) in the Smithsonian while nobody bothered to preserve a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. But it’s not too late to honor the buffet. Somewhere, someone should mock one up—making it look just as it would have brand new in 1995—and put it on display. Make a sign, too: Super Star East, China Dragon—any name on the old template will work. I get that it would be the equivalent of a stuffed dodo, there but dead, but at least it wouldn’t be forgotten.

I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Must be time for another plate of mediocre chicken and broccoli.

Addison Del Mastro

Addison Del Mastro writes on urbanism and cultural history. Find him on Substack (The Deleted Scenes) and Twitter (@ad_mastro).