Manners & Misdemeanors
Buffet Dining Etiquette: How Should You Behave?
Unfortunately, manners fly out the window when we see this sign: “Eat all you can.”
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Nothing excites the Filipino diner like a buffet. Food in abundance is his ultimate celebration of life, and a buffet comes to him as a challenge he cannot pass up.

The buffet is not really meant to be taken that way: it is a spread of food laid out for the discriminating guest generously and in a wide variety to accommodate as many reasonable choices as he may have; it is meant, in other words, as a gracious offering. Necessarily for a restaurant, which has to make a profit, the buffet is informed by the chief scientific fact that a human is capable of ingesting only so much in one meal.

The commercialized buffet is but a paid and little-exaggerated version of the feast at family reunions or at a town fiesta or even just at Mom’s or Grandma’s on Sunday. Grandma, in particular, tends to encourage gastronomical excesses among her grandchildren—she likes them chubby.

Aha, right there in the Filipino customer’s eyes is a gauntlet thrown down! And quite possibly this customer is drawn to a subculture dedicated precisely to breaking such limits, as in the case of getting a toll-free phone connection by bypassing the operator or breaking the bank at a gambling house by cracking its code. In fact, most likely he is well-practiced in precisely breaking buffets.

The commercialized buffet is but a paid and little-exaggerated version of the feast at family reunions or at a town fiesta or even just at Mom’s or Grandma’s on Sunday. Grandma, in particular, tends to encourage gastronomical excesses among her grandchildren—she likes them chubby.

Our own clan itself provided a classic case. When we went to the beach, as our kids were growing up, each family brought food even if Lola, who was hosting, was sure to have more than enough not only for us but also for visitors and drop-ins. Not that we didn’t realize that, but Uncle Quitos always provided the rationale: “At the beach, our family’s greatest fear is starvation”—beaches being at the time isolated yet from the town center, therefore isolated from food markets.

Buffets used to be an almost exclusively high-end business; now there are buffets for everyone. But in all cases, the customer seems to attack a buffet with the same predisposition as the man who frantically rides his horse, aiming to cover as much land as he can by sundown and take ownership of it by royal decree.

Was it the memory of war privations that made Filipinos so hung up on food they won’t settle for less than a feast? Indeed, I have observed some families of war survivors tending to validate the theory, sitting down at meals that rival buffets. Did we younger moms ourselves identify with the fictional war heroine of our impressionable years, Scarlett O’Hara, who swears in Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, “I will never go hungry again”? I, for one, remember a tendency to overbuy groceries.

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The fact, in any case, is that Philippine life revolves around food—plentiful food—and the restaurant buffet is the ultimate commercialization as well as, in a way, refinement of perhaps the most conspicuous Philippine tradition of overkill, a tradition satisfied by the reciprocal roles of overfeeding, on the part of the restaurant or the host, and overeating, on the part of the customer or the guest.

Buffets used to be an almost exclusively high-end business; now there are buffets for everyone. But in all cases, the customer seems to attack a buffet with the same predisposition as the man who frantically rides his horse, aiming to cover as much land as he can by sundown and take ownership of it by royal decree. The buffet customer suffers a comparative disadvantage: He’s paying and what he can’t finish he can’t take home in a doggie bag—even if he truly has a doggie. But all that serves only to sharpen his proprietary sense and, he can only hope, his appetite, too, consequently.

On my way to the buffet line, I nearly collided with a socialite who had suddenly turned around to get out of the line escaping with the whole platter of smoked salmon.

Alas, no one can have his cake and eat it, too. All the same, as only too evident, it is not easy to moderate one’s greed, not for one who as a child gorged himself as Grandma cheered and sometimes even served. Grandma has her own rough equivalents at restaurant buffets—the waiters themselves.

Elsewhere, particularly in the United States, buffets are strictly self-service, thus saving on waiting-labor. In contrast, our waiters are not made redundant by buffetsthey are kept busy, and happy, getting food for customers, who, after surveying or actually sampling, send waiters for their choices. Some waiters even stand in wait holding the plates for the customers as they go around the buffet tables making up their minds, which may be the first and only time they will be on their feet during the meal, for afterward they need only send the waiters back for seconds. And if a dish goes quickly out, there are only the waiters to blame.

A dish going out was the precise case I was myself witness to, a definitely more brazen case because it happened at a wedding reception at a five-star hotel many years back when salmon was a choice delicacy, not only because of its rarity and exquisite taste but also because of its prohibitive price.

On my way to the buffet line, I nearly collided with a socialite who had suddenly turned around to get out of the line escaping with the whole platter of smoked salmon. I felt scandalized, and must have looked it unmistakably, for she felt she owed me an explanation.

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 “This is all I’ll eat,” she vowed and proceeded back to her table in her glittering gossamer gown of, as happened, matching salmon-pink chiffon.

In the end, everybody loses: the quality of the buffet suffers, if the restaurant does not itself go.

Other restaurants, like Dad’s, have imposed additional rules and rewarded decent behavior: No leftovers on your plate, or you pay double. But diners find unbeatable arguments: I can’t eat that piece of meat, it’s too hard... That’s full of fat; I don’t eat fat.

There seems always a way, and it also seems easy to swing the waiters to the customer’s side. If a case goes to the manager, a friend of mine has a line readya powerful non-sequitur: You call yourself a three-, a four-star establishment? Well, I think your restroom is definitely not up to par!

In the end, everybody loses: the quality of the buffet suffers, if the restaurant does not itself go. I must confess my husband and I were ourselves tempted to try to beat the system in our way the last time we booked at the Edsa Shangri-La Hotel for a weekend stay at a big discount with free breakfast at the buffet. We woke up to catch the first hour of the buffet, open from 6:30 to 10:30. Our idea was to linger, read the papers and chat, as we digested our juice and coffee and our toast and bacon and eggs, then return to the buffet just before it closed for a brunch feast of salads, sushi and sashimi, cheese and cold cuts, perhaps a little piece of beefsteak or baked ham, and some fresh-baked bread. That would be two meals in one buffet! It didn’t work: our age-slowed systems, we discovered, needed more time between meals, which the restaurant probably had already taken into account. Anyway, for our own health and reputation, we thought we should be thankful.

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Chit Roces
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