How to Buffet: A Complete Guide to All-You-Can-Eat Buffet Etiquette

Buffet time!

I am a people watcher. Everywhere I go, I have a strange compulsion to observe not only my surroundings, but also what is going on around me. Having just returned from five days in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to dine at five different buffets, which allowed for a fair amount of people watching. I made many observations that were startling, appalling, and downright baffling. There seems to be something about dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet that brings out the worst of people. The reptilian mind must take over with some people when they are around all of that readily available food.

I make it a point to abide by the social morays set forth in these United States of America as often as possible. To call out a poor showing of etiquette with a sharp, “hey, we’re trying to have a society here!” is not uncommon for me. Some people live in ignorance of the politeness required from all parties involved when communal dining, and for those, I have a list of points I would like to make so that we may all live and dine in harmony. For many, these guidelines are moot. They are the kind of things people may roll their eyes at, while thinking to themselves, “well yeah, no duh.” But I wouldn’t be writing this if I wasn’t so surprised at how many people I saw blatantly ignoring these seemingly obvious guidelines.

Timing is everything. This simple statement covers quite a few bases. The time of your arrival will obviously impact the amount of time you spend waiting in line, as well as how crowded the buffet is going to be, which in turn might mean more waiting in lines for popular items, such as omelets, crepes, or a carving station. The earlier the arrival, the less time will be spent waiting in line. Breakfast buffet diners will benefit from arriving as close to opening as possible. When I visited the Baachanal Buffet at Caesar’s Palace, I arrived at 8:30 in the morning, and there was barely anyone in line and at the buffet. By the time I was leaving around 10:00 am, not only had the buffet become more crowded, but the line to enter had grown as well. The later it gets, the worse the wait. No use complaining about the wait to get in if you show up to the breakfast buffet at 10 in the morning because you were up until the wee hours of the morning doing Jager shots.

Timing while you are dining is also an important aspect. Sitting down to enjoy a well timed plate of food can lead to the line at a crowded station dying down enough to allow you to take advantage of the tasty crepe, omelet, or cut of beef or bacon on your next round.

Do not cut in line. Patience is a virtue. There are plenty of lines when it comes to a Vegas buffet. First, there is the line to pay. I watched a party of two people cut in front of another party of two, just for the privilege of paying for the buffet an extra 20 seconds earlier than the couple they cut in front of. This again carried over and allowed them to wait in the line for the buffet a whopping 20 seconds earlier than had they not cut. The host then sat both parties at the same time. The cutters therefore had no time gained on the day, but did gain plenty of bad karma. Whether or not you believe in karma does not matter, it is simply poor form.

Reconnaissance is important to a well-executed plate. Unless you show up late for breakfast and have to rush to get your omelet made before they shut down the custom omelet bar for lunch, understanding what is being served and where it is located will help with planning subsequent trips to the buffet.

Do not stack everything on one plate. There is no need to see how high you can stack the food on your plate. A tower of food sitting precariously atop a plate always paints the possessor of said plate in a bad light. It is tantamount to gluttony. I understand, sometimes the whole point of a buffet is to over indulge, but remember, you can always go back for more.

Bread is not your friend. When I see people eating rolls or bread at a buffet, I want to slap it out of their hands and yell, “NO!” but I have to refrain, after all, we are trying to have a society here. I understand that some folks are brought up to eat bread during a meal. It is a great way to fill up without having to eat expensive items such as protein or fresh produce, but the buffet is one place where the privilege of filling up on strictly protein is perfectly acceptable. In fact, patrons are paying for the right to do so. Stay away from the bread, and get another plate of prime rib.

Unless you get to a serving tray, and your single serving is literally the last item, leave some for those behind you in line. Take a reasonable serving, and be mindful that you are not the only person who is enjoying the buffet. When people only take a single serving of a particular item, it leaves more food for more people, and everybody wins.

When serving yourself a dish, use the specifically provided utensils. Please, for the sake of everybody else, do not use your hands. If you are serving yourself more than one dish in an area, use the specified utensil for the specified dish. Do not serve yourself chocolate pudding with the tapioca spoon. You just ruin both for everyone else.

While I’m on the subject of hands, do not lick your fingers, touch your hair, scratch that rash on your arm, etc. unless you plan on washing them immediately afterwards. I was dumbfounded at the amount of people I saw rubbing their eyes, scratching their heads, and licking their fingers, only to pick up a common area serving utensils.

Use a clean plate. Many states have a public health policy in regards to a clean plate for every trip. If you stop to think about why, it makes perfect sense. A used plate not only has left over food stuff on it, be it sauce, crumbs, or oil residue, but your hands have been all over it. Not to mention the transfer of saliva and whatnot from your spoon and/or fork to the plate, just get a fresh plate. That is why there are stacks of them to use on every trip.

Do not touch any plate other than the one you are going to use. The turnover on plates is high enough that you do not have to remove the top plate to get to what you may consider a clean plate, further down the column. Touching a top plate to remove a bottom is clearly unsanitary, but I watched people do it every day in Vegas. 

Do not eat in line. This was the most common and most egregious offense. I am not even sure where to start here. I mean, unless the buffet is shutting down and you have to cram as much food into your gullet as you can before they start taking trays away, I cannot think of any reason how this could be considered acceptable behavior. Even within the confines of this proposed situation, I am not certain that eating in line is warranted. Please, wait to sit down and enjoy your plate of food. It is distracting when I have some yokel masticating loudly next to me as I attempt to scoop my Eggs Benedict onto my plate without the stack falling to pieces. 

Do not return an item. If it is on your plate, it is there to stay. You do not have to eat it, but do not, under any circumstances, return it to the tray. This touches upon the importance of the previously mentioned reconnaissance. 

If you know you are going to take a little while in a particular area, let those behind you in line go ahead. Let us say you are looking to construct the perfect salad. I know, not too many people go to buffets for the salad bar, but bear with me here. So you are putting together your ultimate salad, and you notice the people behind you on the line beginning to stack up. All it takes is a simple, “please, go ahead, I’m going to be a couple of minutes” and you avoid being the jerk in line who wouldn’t let people go ahead even though all you wanted was a salad.

Do not let small children serve themselves. You may think your little angel is more than capable of self-serving, but the reality of the situation is that kids are gross. Their hygiene is lacking, their mouths and noses are well below the protective shield of the sneeze guard, and sometimes they simply have no idea what to do in complex social situations such as a self serve food line. Not to mention that they can be badly burned on steam from the hot end of a serving tray. No one wants to eat out of a dish that a small child has run his/her fingers through, or licked off the utensil and put it back in the pan. So much can go wrong here, if you choose to take a small child to a buffet, it is your responsibility to act as their personal server.

Do not test sneeze guards. If you have to sneeze or cough, move away from the food station, and cover your cough or sneeze. I see enough people cough and sneeze into the ether, and that is bad as it is, but to make use of the sneeze guard is gross. Just the thought of overspray from that is enough to make me queasy.

Do not plate what you cannot finish. This seems straightforward enough, but I witnessed people on multiple occasions leave full plates on the table, only to go back for more. I understand trying something and not liking it, so it remains on the plate, but multiple items left over on the same plate is a clear indicator of someone over-serving themselves. It is always better to under serve and go back for more than it is to over serve and not finish what you took. This touches upon leaving something for others as well as wasting food, which is just wrong.

If the buffet is all you can eat, take it easy beforehand. Do not preload on a big lunch if you are going to a dinner buffet in a few hours. Get the most out of your buffet experience. The less in the stomach beforehand, the more dishes you can sample, and the better value the price of admission. Going to a buffet and only having one plate is a colossal waste. I am a fan of arbitrary rules I set for myself, therefore I have a three-plate minimum/five-plate maximum when I buffet. Sticking to these guidelines I generally leave having tried one of what I would like to try, and leave without totally over doing it. The five-plate maximum includes dessert and salad, so do not think I am going overboard here. Having established that, do not feel the need to replicate my guidelines, set your own maximums and minimums.

Say “please” and “thank you” to employees of the establishment you are patronizing. I noticed people treating buffet employees like dirt, which is not okay. I do not know what it is about the buffet that makes people act like animals, but it is an obvious drawback to the genre of restaurant. I watched as people would have a custom omelet made and as soon as it was on the plate, off they went without a word. I witnessed the same behavior at both the carving and crepe stations as well.

No double dipping. If you want to use a sauce, put some on your plate. I do not understand how something so simple can be overlooked, but I have watched as a person grabbed a baby carrot from the salad station with their bare hands, dipped it in ranch dressing, took a bite, and went in for the second dip. Ugh. Yet another reason for me not to eat ranch dressing, but I digress. Way to put your mouth in the dressing dude. Yuck.

Tip the server. In a way, this calls back to the please/thank you rule. People seem to treat employees of buffets as second-class citizens. No pleases, no thank yous, and no tip. Even when waters go unfilled, dirty plates are generally cleared with efficiency. This allows for the multiple trips to the buffet that make visiting such an establishment worthwhile. The tip should of course depend on overall service, but for the love of humanity, leave a couple of dollars per person.

No take away. This is a buffet, not fast food. Eat, drink, and be merry, but do not ask for a doggy bag. If you do not finish what is left on the plate, you should have had better portion control, because it stays.

Next time you are in Vegas, or a local all-you-can-eat buffet, I hope you keep these guidelines in mind. The fact that you have read this article means you are concerned with your behavior in such a strange social situation. To that point, I give you kudos. I know the reality is that the people who really need these bits of advice are not interested in how to behave at a buffet, but I can rest easy knowing that it is here to remind the socially conscious the dos and don’ts in case they need a refresher. Now get out there and put an omelet next to some prime rib and some sushi!


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