Life is a buffet – until someone mistakes your hand for a prego and tries to eat it.

An empty plate? We're just getting warmed up...

There’s no place on this planet to bring out the worst in humanity quite like a buffet.  Although this is perhaps followed closely by an art gallery opening where the drinks are free.

Seriously, it’s as if the presence of a set price and a potential ‘unlimited’ amount of food short-circuits our central nervous system and we revert to some lizard-brained opportunistic sneak machine whose only motivation is to just consuuuuuuuuuume bitches! Kill! Destroy! Maim in the name of Meatballs!

You want to see a petite Chinese woman punch someone in the face to get the last ginger-lemongrass grilled prawn?  Just hang out anywhere that says “R100 a plate”.  Old people are suddenly transformed from reserved, slow-moving sweeties to ruthless, sharp-elbowed, queue-jumpers with no sense of anything other than how the fuck to lever more roast potato onto that plate.  Suddenly the dude who was best man at your wedding is locking you in the toilet so that he’s got a clear run at the lasagna.

My dear friend Candice – who I love and adore, once worked her way through thirty-six oysters in a single sitting, because some restaurateur was dumb enough to put them on his all-you-can-eat Sunday buffet.  He was later seen smoking cigarettes with emo teens in the parking lot, kicking cans and wearing a T-Shirt that said Fuck The System… and there may or may not have been tears.  Candice didn’t care – she’d just eaten thirty-six oysters for R100. Go her.

I myself grew up taking such unbelievably cynical advantage of the Salad Valley (R15 a plate back then) at the Grahamstown Spur, that I’m fairly sure I could have gotten an honorary engineering degree for some of the gravity-defying Heaping and Balancing that was carried out in an attempt to get as many fried pumpkin balls back to my booth as possible. Students – they’ll find a way.

It’s a murky, devious environment where the good go hungry, and only those who don’t mind a bit of collateral damage can kick back at the end of the day full of the pride that they didn’t flinch at that crucial moment when a man in a wheelchair (most likely fake, rookie) needed to be shoved out of the way in order to get the last pizza slice.  That, my friends, is a man who has conquered all before him and earned his Beer at the End of the Day (Carling Black Label I hope your overpaid advertising team is paying attention…).

The reason I bring this up, is that – on a recent trip to Capetown – I actually had the pleasure of a very good lunch-time buffet at Café Paradiso in Kloof Street.  It was a bargain at R45, and with a couple of very carefully applied rules – made for an excellent lunch on a day where old friends were around a table for the first time in forever and time was ours to do with as we pleased, because it was raining outside and no-one felt like being anywhere else in particular.

However – if you’re going to brave this Amazon Jungle of eating – you need to know these rules, otherwise you’re going to be one of those guys sitting miserably staring a plate of lettuce and shattered self-esteem.

The Rules of Buffet

  • Close students of the buffet will know that restaurateurs will always put a lavish basket of bread on the table: DO NOT DARE TOUCH IT.  Send it back immediately, put it on another table or throw it out the window.  This is fool’s gold designed to fill you up on relatively cheap starch, reducing your impact at the business end of the deal – the meat platters.
  • Be careful with drinks – for a buffet the prices are usually hiked up a bit, because that’s where the restaurant is planning on making their money for the day. Order lots of water and wine by the bottle, it’ll work out better that way. Stay away from beers, hard tack and wine by the glass.
  • Eat little of lots.  There’s a reason all the cheaper, bulkier stuff is placed enticingly up front – because these clever bastards know that with eyes bigger than our stomachs, we’re going to pile into the dratted pasta salad and then have no fucking space left for the fillet medallions. They’re sneaky these guys, so you have to be sneakier. Smaller portions of a wide range will make you the ultimate winner.
  • Know your enemy, and watch their every move.  Trust me, that sweet-looking little lady with the determined look in her eye is going to clean the fuck out of EVERYTHING – so whatever you do, time your run before she even thinks about pushing back her chair for the main attraction.  Also, big families and lone wolves are also mega-threats. The extended family of nine from Bryanston will feel nothing for throwing their screaming 4 year-old in your path as a smoke-screen while they totally clean out the seafood – down to the last crumbed mussel.  And the single assassin will strike quickly and with laser-efficiency – somehow always getting to the things you wanted just before you manage to get there.
  • Learn the fake out: duck left before you jink right… the dummy is one of your greatest assets.  Basic frenzy psychology tells us that what other people want is always one of the greatest factors in deciding what’s valuable.  I’ve eaten huge mounds of cold, minted potato because I saw some other slobby guy making for it like a fake mouse on a string: ‘it must be good – so I want it too’.  Pretend that the thing you hate is actually what you want, so while everyone else is scrabbling for the grated beetroot salad you so sneakily suggested was just scrummy, you’re loading up on chicken wings with barbecue sauce.
Go forth my children, and conquer.
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I’ve spoken about good buffets before, recently here, but if you guys know of places that do a particularly fine all-you-can-eat special, post it in the comments section.  There’s nothing quite like an informed, hungry mass that knows exactly where and how to take advantage…

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