Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Restaurant Chicken

On Saturday Dean announced that we were going to Whistle Junction for dinner. Whistle Junction is a buffet-style restaurant just a couple miles from our home. Dean had been making noise about trying it, more for the redneck ambiance than the actual quality of food. With me graduating within six months (hopefully) we are on a quest to experience All Things Florida, which means the good, the bad and the ugly. But while we love "good" food (gourmet, authentic ethnic, etc) here's the dirty little secret: we also love bad food (White Castle, Waffle House, greasy pub food). So I wasn't completely opposed to a comfort food buffet, likely reminiscent of Old Country Buffet.

What I didn't realize after agreeing was that Dean didn't really want to go. He wanted to appear to want to go and try Whistle Junction, but he was scared to put his money where his mouth was, and was counting on me to veto the decision. What he didn't realize was that the adventurer in me was willing to try it, and was sick of vetoing suggestions just to hear about how mean and unfair I am. So what actually ensued was a game of restaurant chicken that played out to the grisly end.

We pulled into the parking lot of Whistle Junction to find it largely empty save for a handful of minivans taking up all the handicapped spaces and those closest to the entrance. I am not one to make fun of the truly disabled, but it became apparent that most of the patrons' "disabilities" were obesity induced, likely exacerbated by frequent trips to buffets like Whistle Junction.

"Well, here we are!" I said enthusiastically.

"Yep, he we are," said Dean with a hint of terror in his voice.

The inside of the restaurant smelled a lot like I remember our junior high cafeteria smelling. A distressing combination of canned vegetables simmering to the point of disintegration and grease. We bought our "tickets" at the "station" and tried to dig in.

Now I am tolerant to all sorts of questionable food from hospital cafeterias to airplane food, when they actually used to serve it, but this was too gross even for me. I found very little edible at the salad bar - the lettuce was brown, the cherry tomatoes were pockmarked, the cucumbers dried out (*shiver*). The main course tables consisted of unidentifiable meat, potatoes of various sorts and vegetables that were little more than bits floating in cloudy water. There was an intriguing "ethnic" table which consisted of pizza, fried rice, petrified stir fry and tacos. But, like so many of our experiences together, we took it in stride with a healthy sense of humor. I settled on some fried chicken (difficult to mess up too badly), and some mashed potatoes.

What amazed us were that handful of people there were eating this stuff up like it was their last meal. There was a birthday party in progress, another gathering of what appeared to be a large extended family and a few couples on "dates" like Dean and I. There were lots of cowboy hats and belt buckles. The guy sitting behind us was a particular gem, he complained about being able to play baseball with the biscuits. When the waitress apologized and suggested the rolls instead, he replied "I'm a hillbilly, we eat biscuits, not rolls." Priceless.

What I think amazed me most about the whole experience was that as awful as the food was, it wasn't cheap. It was $10.50 per person, not counting drinks and a small tip. Didn't these people know that you could get a much better meal almost anywhere for less money? It had to have been the lure of a buffet. But still, a place like Denny's has a large menu, is inexpensive and if it's quantity of food you're looking for, I believe they have several "grand slam" type meals for still way under $10.

It was while I was pondering how a place like Whistle Junction got away with charging an arm and a leg that I witnessed something that helped to explain the combination of clientèle and buffet asking price. The unpleasant gentlemen that had previously complained about the biscuits called the waitress over once again and threw an absolute hissy about the fact that he had seen a small child take a cookie from the dessert table with her bare hands rather than using the cookie tongs. I realize that the buffet is an unspoken honor system in which patrons silently agree to use tongs whenever possible and any breach can be a little unappetizing. However, the skeptic in me sensed an ulterior motive and I was right when the man got his full money back over the incident. Recall, this was a incident witnessed over the dessert table, so he had already had his half dozen plates full of food.

So you may be wondering what, if any, is the redeeming part of this experience? When, technically Deano got what he asked for, we were entertained by the absurdity of the whole experience, and I get to choose next week's restaurant!


MIL said...

I hope you asked the "Hillbilly" what his favorite restaraunts are so you can avoid picking them next week! How about something safe like LeRoy Salmon's.

fermicat said...

Too funny!!! I guess Dean should be careful what he asks for next time. I love that you "outstrategized" him.

Scott said...

Wonderfully descriptive, Nat!

My wife and I signed up for a health club because our friends were members. It was really, really expensive, and has a name that draws the "Oooh!" face from everyone in the area that knows you belong. (That's not why we joined -- we only found out that part of it later, and it's a negative as far as we're concerned).

Once a week in the summer they have an outdoor barbeque in the pool area. You would think that such a prestigious club would have clientelle with some class. But alas...

We watched in horror as a man, with bare hands, shovelled through tomatos and lettuce looking for just the right piece.

The bathrooms were disgusting...

We let our membership lapse. Next time we're going to the Y. At least its clean.

dr sardonicus said...

I hope you snuck some chicken out for the cats...

magnetbabe said...

Selmon's sounds pretty good after that disaster.

It only took me 8 years to figure out how to do it!

I remember that story from your blog. What are people thinking? And what's with the gym hierarchy? I don't get it. If you are going to pay for any "luxury" as far as a gym, I would hope that the bathrooms would be pristine.

dr. s-
Sadly, Deano wouldn't let me take any home for the kitties. He puts up with a lot from me, but apparently he draws the line at watching his wife shove greasy fried chicken in her purse. :*(

chloe said...

Great story!!! I'm glad that there is still some element of unpredictability in our behavior, even in the most intimate of relationships. Allows for untold adventure. Also kudos for having the flexibility to see the absurdity in the situation and enjoy it for what it is.
Re the question why do people settle for mediocrity when there is a whole world out there? I would posit: fear of the unknown as one of the driving factors. When I was in China adopting Emma, I travelled with 13 other families. Very few would leave the hotel. If they did so, it was only to go to the KFC that had just been franchised, even though I doubt they were being served chicken. Being an adventurous eater, it was hard to understand how anyone could pass up such a unique opportunity to sample local Hunanese cuisine. When would any of us be in China again? I may not understand this particular brand of parochialism, but I have had numerous brushes with my own limitations and anxieties. And I know that I have missed many opportunities because of this.

chloe said...

PS - " Do on thing that scares you everyday" Eleanor Roosevelt. I use this to pry myself out of my comfort zone...and sometimes it works.