Whenever people talk about what their ‘last meals’ would be, they always conjure up these decadent images of hotdog pizzas, California burritos and three-course turducken roasts. In the year 1984, Karla Tucker asked for a garden salad, a banana and a peach. If I were ever on death row, I think I’d go for something light like that—a bag of trail mix, maybe, or a K-Time twist. It’s not that I don’t understand the idea of ‘going out with a bang’, or that I hope to saunter into Paradise in a pair of speedos rather than a rash vest. Call me insane, but I just don’t think I’d like to spend my final hours feeling like a greasy, bloated piece of shit.
I try to steer clear of all-you-can-eat restaurants and buffets for pretty much the same reason: namely, that they’re never a good idea in the long run.
Two years ago, for example, the very suggestion of an all-you-can eat sushi restaurant would have been enough to give me the sweats. “I just can’t get enough of those tightly-wrapped, Kikkoman-sodden rice parcels” is something I might have said, and genuinely believed. So naturally, when a bunch of friends and I stumbled upon an establishment of this very nature in the backstreets of Rome, our hearts collectively rejoiced. The dream was a reality: twenty euros for as much Japanese cuisine as four hungry young blokes could stomach.
Of course, we abused the system with shameless gluttony and reckless abandon: ordering an endless slew of dishes we liked, dishes we didn’t, and dishes we were completely ambivalent to, all in the interest of getting the loudest possible bang for our buck. As far as I can tell, this is the only way anyone approaches the all-you-can-eat dining experience: as some miraculous consumer loophole; a realm of infinite culinary delight offered up on a silver platter by naïve restaurateurs who don’t think the ravenous hordes can eat their weight in gold.
This particular restaurateur was right. Up to our tits in enough rice-wrapped sea life to have Cousteau rolling in the deep, we very quickly felt the tide beginning to turn. And a good five courses through the meal, we discovered a fine print clause that made our stomachs do the same: “Any unfinished meals will incur a thirty-euro surcharge”.
This is just one of the many sinkholes that the big-eyed, small-stomached diner can fall into at all-you-can-eat restaurants. These places are booby traps, make no mistake: establishments built on the doughy paunch of the typical, overly indulgent Westerner—an insatiable golem that always wants more, can’t digest the concept of ‘moderation’, and suspects that enough is never really enough.
The business model is simple: consumer pays upfront to inhale as much cheap, poor quality food as he thinks he can; consumer eats more than enough to make him feel horrendously sick, yet not quite enough to get his money’s worth; restaurateur laughs all the way to the bank.
And yet, there is a part of every one of us that fundamentally understands this, even before we shell out the shekels. Because there is never a time or place, in the Western world or otherwise, where a human being actually needs to eat as much as you always eat at these kind of restaurants.
A couple of months before visiting the Roman sushi palace, I went to a Chinese buffet in Brighton where all I ate was prawn toast. If you’ve ever eaten prawn toast, you’ll know that it’s just about the most excellent thing you could hope to have in your mouth. “Boy, there’s no limit to how much prawn toast I could stuff in my gob if I only had the means” you might say.
Wrong. I had the means. I exceeded the limit. And I ruined prawn toast for myself for a very long time. Shortly thereafter, I did the same for sushi.
Under the gaze of the sushi palace proprietor we shovelled disgraceful amounts of raw salmon, chilli crab and sautéed eel into our jaws, like Adam Richman with a Colt .45 to his temple. Palms were sweaty, knees were weak, arms were heavy; if I’d been wearing a sweater, there almost certainly would’ve been vomit on it already.
I imagine it’s how a possum feels when it lunges for the apple and knocks the box down over itself. I saw no way out of this diabolical trap into which we had so blindly stumbled, and felt certain that my small intestine was about to rupture.
We did, however, manage to slip the noose. By planting morsels of sticky rice on the underside of the table, like Russian spies planting explosives; by filling our pockets with sashimi and ferrying back and forth to the toilet, flushing caviar like contraband into the Roman sewage system. This is what the idea of ‘all-you-can-eat’ does to a person: it excites them; it overwhelms them; and ultimately it changes them.
Once upon a time I might’ve asked for prawn toast and a crab roll. Now I ask for a garden salad, a banana and a peach.
Written by Gavin Butler. Photo by Arianna.