&tLet us explore the psychological phenomenon that is “all you can eat.”
In many ways, this culinary catchphrase is a challenge. “Ok eater,” says the restaurant, “I dare you. Come here, and try to eat all you can eat. I bet you won’t finish more than two plates.”
And for the most part the restaurant is correct. You won’t finish more than two plates. It’s just that you know you can.
The language of American dining these days is the language of value. “Come in and buy one hoagie and get the second hoagie free!” “All entrees come with unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks!” “Take unlimited trips to our gourmet salad bar!” “Keep the table and the furniture! It’s on us!”
In other words, American diners, let us lure you out of your homes with promises from the land of plenty. The result, of course, is that the quality of ingredients goes down while their quantity increases. It’s like the Woody Allen joke that starts Annie Hall—First Old Woman: “The food here is terrible.” Second Old Woman: “Yes, and such small portions!”
Americans will eat crap if you give them a lot of it for cheap. “Give me value or give me death” may as well be our mantra. Certainly it’s my family’s mantra. We like our portions big, our refills free and our bread basket frequently replenished. Why shouldn’t we? We want our dollars stretched thinner than the noodles in our bottomless bowl of spaghetti.
And so tonight Lauren lured me out of the apartment with promises of unlimited pizza and salad at The Patio in Inman Park. What’s funny about me and Atlanta is that I have lived here for seven years, and yet I still have no idea where I am half the time. Roads bleed into other roads and all of them are called Peachtree. I have friends who marvel at how completely lost I am when driving through Atlanta. And thus, I have no idea how we got to where we got to tonight but once we were there it looked cute enough.
The deal worked like this. First they bring you breadsticks and oil:
This is a trick. They’re trying to fatten you up so you don’t gorge on more expensive products like salad and pizza. (Which are, essentially, variations on the theme of something and oil. Salad = lettuce and oil; Pizza = Bread and oil and topping; so maybe they’re not saving that much money after all).
Regardless (or Irregardless? That is the question), we next split a giant salad:
This salad was decent enough. What made it good was the fact that it was UNLIMITED. Amazing how that changes things. Were this a one-and-only salad, I would have been more critical. But this was a plenty-more-where-that-came-from salad. How could I complain?
Of course, we didn’t order another one. We were saving room for pizza. We were ready to down 8 to 9 pies.
The way it works is you tell them you’re ready for pizza and they start bringing them out. You don’t choose toppings, they choose you. If you don’t like what they bring out, wait for the next one. We started with this one:
This pizza was half chicken and half onion. It was–like the salad–decent enough. Sometimes Atlanta pizza reminds me of those students you see in museums with pencils and heavily marked notebooks, trying desperately to emulate the genius of a Boticelli or a Tintoretto. They just can’t quite get it.
The crust was fine, the sauce was fine, the cheese was fine. Just not great. Adequate. Yet heightened by the fact–yet again–that it was unlimited. Plenty-More-Where-That-Came-From Pizza.
And so we scarfed down a few slices and prepared for our next pie, which came shortly after:
This was half meatball, half red pepper. We ate a few slices–no better than the first pie–and got full. We were done. Our “all you can eat” meal turned out to be just as plentiful as a normal not “all you can eat” meal. The difference, though, was that we knew we could have more if we wanted more. To quote Robert Frost: “And that made all the difference.”