Remembering how voraciously I ate as a growing pubescent boy, it almost makes my stomach hurt. After half-days in middle school, the boys and I would walk to town and storm either Family Buffet or a pizzeria called Bunny’s. Both had an all-you-could eat lunch deal, and the one at Bunny’s was especially insane — $4.25 for unlimited pizza, with each pie evaporating the moment it hit the table. I found it hard to believe they were making a cent off us, the way we put those slices away; then again, maybe all the profit was at the front of the house, where the sad-sack dive bar was. Yeah, this was a place simultaneously catering to kids and daytime drunks. New Jersey is a special place.
Part of me wondered, still — probably because of a classic Simpsons episode in which Homer gets kicked out of an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant — if we’d ever be cut off after reaching some theoretical, unspoken limit on the allegedly endless pizza. At a certain point, I reasoned, they’d have to run out of ingredients. But the real-life legends of buffet-busters rarely seem to involve an actual food shortage. More often, the restaurateurs simply have to say, “That’s enough.”
Such was the case in Germany this week, where Ironman triathlete Jaroslav Bobrowski was banned from a sushi joint after reportedly eating dozens of plates of raw fish. Bobrowski chalks his prodigious appetite up to a fasting regimen: 20 hours without food, then he goes beast mode, which the restaurant management described as eating “for five people” and “not normal.” (To their credit, they did allow him to eat until he was full for just €15.90, only informing him he was no longer welcome after he’d settled the modest bill. Truth in advertising, y’all.)
Born in midcentury Las Vegas, the American all-you-can-eat (or AYCE) buffet was all about excess from the start. The phrase itself can be an issue for proprietors, insofar as it sounds like a challenge. Someone might level the place just to prove a point, not because they’re actually that hungry. To that end, owners might include “within reason” in the fine print or style the offer as “all you care to eat” to instill a sense of moderation — that’s on top of various other tricks for getting you to leave before you do too much damage, like uncomfortable seating, not clearing your dirty plates right away and enticing you to fill up on bread and beverages instead of more expensive items.
Gorging yourself on the priciest delicacy available, and wiping out entire trays before anyone else has a turn with the tongs, is clearly the easiest way to run afoul of AYCE etiquette. Seafood in particular seems to be risky fare, with many tales of expulsion involving pile after pile of crab legs. One redditor recalled feasting on so much Dungeness crab as a kid that the place had to charge his dad for a second adult meal, not the children’s price. A family of seven in Sarasota, Florida, apparently went too far when their 11-year-old fetched a mess of crab legs for the table to share. Meanwhile, nobody’s ever been tossed for having a fifteenth helping of mashed potatoes, right?
By and large, though, the curious economics of AYCE deals (did you know that if the buffet costs more, you’ll find it tastier? It’s true!) allow restaurants to take champion eaters in stride. “For every big, hungry guy or gal who can really eat his or her weight in crab legs, buffets count on a few who won’t,” wrote Bourree Lam for a column on the smorgasbord business in The Atlantic. It’s this law of averages that makes it difficult for any random customer to get the boot over a massive meal — even if that’s what they’ve set out to accomplish.
Repeatedly abuse the system or behave rudely, however, and you’re headed for trouble. An insatiable Wisconsinite named Bill Wisth was said to have caused many headaches for a fish-fry spot before servers tried to reason with him, only to have him call the cops and launch a protest. And two large lads were supposedly so regularly gluttonous at a Brighton, U.K., establishment serving Mongolian barbecue that the manager finally snapped. “They are in such a hurry to beat everyone to the food, they spoil everything,” he complained to the Telegraph.
Elsewhere, you run across plenty of disclaimers that could nip these disputes in the bud. Time limits are common, but the really fascinating protections invoke the charge of “wasting food.” This was the crux of the single AYCE-related legal action I came across, which brings us back to sushi again. (I’m telling you, it’s the seafood buffets that really suffer.) In 2011, a customer who had paid $28 for all-you-can-eat sushi at the L.A. eatery A Ca-Shi proceeded to eat only the fish, discarding the rice it came with. The chef and owner pointed out that he couldn’t maintain an AYCE deal if people discarded the more filling rice to go to town on salmon and tuna, to which the guy objected that he couldn’t eat the rice because he was diabetic. The chef countered that he could just order sashimi or pay á la carte prices for the partially-eaten sushi.
Boom: discrimination lawsuit. Since the case dropped out of the news after it first made headlines, we’re left to wonder if it was dismissed — or settled for the $6,000 the plaintiff was seeking. A Ca-Shi appears to have since rebranded or changed hands: It’s now Sushi J’s.
Anyway, you can rest easy knowing you likely lack the digestive fortitude, ill manners or combination thereof that tends to cause trouble in the all-you-can-eat scene. If you can pace yourself, not cut the line and observe other bits of basic decorum, you won’t end up the subject of a rather embarrassing local news story.
One last piece of advice: Look for the guy tearing through crab legs — just to make sure you’re eating fewer than him.