I don't often go to smorgasbord restaurants. My first and last visit to Valentines was to celebrate the third or fourth birthday of my nephew who has just turned 21. I'm not especially against buffets. They're just not on my radar at the moment. Well, that, and also because anything involving a sneeze-guard doesn't hold huge appeal.
But when it comes to breakfasts at resorts and hotels, the buffet reigns supreme. They're more or less unavoidable. On a trip to Cambodia, I was breakfasting one morning last month with my daughter, my old university roommate and her daughter.
It was a routine occasion until one particular couple arrived. The waitress led them to a table but the man peeled off halfway and went straight to the toasting unit to get some bread on. The woman didn't sit down either. She just flung down her backpack and headed for the food.
They approached the buffet with much haste and urgency. It must have been some breakfast emergency that caused them to dispense with the civilising rituals that normally accompany such a dining experience.
We always ordered our tea and coffee before getting up to grab the tucker - even on the morning we arrived back with rumbling stomachs after a 4.45am wake-up and three hours trekking around Angkor Wat.
It's not often I have words of wisdom to impart to the younger generation but here was my opportunity. I leaned forward and whispered to the nine-year-old and 11-year-old dining with me: "When you go to a smorgasbord restaurant, always sit down first and order your drinks before heading to the food. Otherwise it's just rude." Looking at me as if I was mad, they kept eating their bespoke breakfast: sliced watermelon with a side of hash-browns.
The children might have been underwhelmed by the advice but smorgasbord etiquette is not a subject to be taken lightly. After all, you never know when you might want to impress someone with your grasp of the finer points of all-you-can-eat dining. Here are a few guidelines worth considering.
No tasting or sniffing
It's widely understood that you shouldn't taste-test food while standing up at the buffet. Either take some or don't. You can make up your mind about it back at your table. However, some people think that it's okay to sniff food before dishing it up. In fact, watching someone bend over a dish and inhale deeply is off-putting for everyone else.
No returning uneaten food
In my wildest dreams I would never have imagined that anyone would think of returning uneaten food to the smorgasbord but legend has it that this waste-not-want-not practice has been witnessed. It's said that this is one reason waitstaff are sometimes quick to remove discarded plates from the table - so diners aren't tempted to scrape the remains back into the pot.
Avoid unusual combinations
Unless you're partial to strange food combinations (such as the aforementioned watermelon with hash browns) try to preserve some semblance of logic and put likeminded foods together. Bearing in mind the entree-main-dessert sequence will prevent unappealing culinary mash-ups such as pavlova piled onto roast pork.
No overloaded plates
If the venue has a rule that allows you to fill your plate just once then, yes, you probably are obliged to pile as much on your plate as you possibly can. Dribbling edges, unorthodox pairings and wobbly mountains of food will all be forgiven in this instance. However in the absence of such limitations, try to show a little restraint when loading up your plate. A useful rule-of-thumb is to keep the food within the inner rim of the plate.
No unsupervised children
No one likes seeing little children closely perusing (or, worse, poking their fingers into) communal food. Additionally, their height often means their nose is virtually touching the food piled up on the platters. Adults should really serve the children's food for them or at the very least supervise them. I think my daughter was nine before I let her grab her own food from a breakfast buffet.
No stealing food for later
Twenty-odd years ago at a hotel on Australia's Gold Coast, a member of my wider travelling party was averse to trekking down to breakfast each morning. Accordingly, I was tasked with whipping a Danish pastry off the bakery table and smuggling it out for this person. (I was in my 20s at the time if that's any excuse.) Feeling like a thief and hoping no one was looking, I'd wrap the pastry in a couple of serviettes and stash it in my handbag. But this is not cool at all and is strictly not recommended. In fact, it may well be poorer form than that exhibited by that hasty couple in Cambodia. Some people are so low rent. You can't take them anywhere.
What unwritten rules do you follow when dining at a buffet restaurant? What's the worst breach of decency you've witnessed - or committed?
Debate on this article is now closed.