Tonight I had an experience that is quite rare for me: I ate at a high-end buffet. Given my notorious stinginess and my staunch “I don’t eat out in Manila unless it’s canteens, pizza or fast food” policy (which will get its own post, of course!), it takes some truly unusual circumstances to drag me out to the high-end smorgasborgs which have sprouted up throughout the Metro.
As it happens, this high-end buffet served as a most unusual location for a first date with a local woman off an Internet dating site. (What can I say? I’m trying to get out more.) For some reason, she decided that such an ostentatious choice would be ideal for the first meetup between two total strangers; with my usual suaveness, I informed her that I would only eat at such a ritzy establishment if it were birthday or if someone were treating me. Although I expected her to simply lose interest and find another dining companion who wasn’t a stingy jerk (or who was currently celebrating his birthday), she surprised me by insisting that she’d pay for both of us. After a few incredulous rounds of “Do you really want to pay for me?” and several affirmative responses, I finally accepted. I was pretty baffled, but since it’s not every day that strangers offer me expensive meals, it was hard to say no. So, after meeting up with her in Makati and wandering around the malls for a few hours, abusing the free karaoke machine demos in music stores and searching for a pepper mill – more of the makings of a great first date – we ended up at Buffet 101, which touts itself as the longest buffet line in the Philippines. (Incidentally, I did manage to find an inexpensive pepper mill, and I expect my nose to be very happy during the coming weeks and months.)
Buffet 101 is one of several highish-end buffets that can now be found in Manila and other major cities, along with such competitors as Dad’s, Yaki Mix and Vikings. A meal at one of these restaurants could run you between 500 and 1200 pesos ($11 to $25 US), which sounds like a pretty wide price range, but all are equally unaffordable for your average indigent rice farmer or sidewalk cigarette-and-mint vendor. These massive food-based amusement parks have popped up all over Manila, Cebu and Davao as the aspirational middle class continue to seek out new ways to celebrate the sweet life. Or, to put it another way, they provide a helpful answer to the nagging question: “Now that I have all this money, what can I spend it on so as to avoid giving it to the poor?”
As is befitting of an amusement park, the restaurant provides a rather impressive all-around experience: it is massive, gleaming, new, and full of hordes of dutiful staff scurrying around laying out a mind-boggling array of international dishes. But also like an amusement park, you realize that no matter how much you’ve paid to get in and no matter how much there is to do, it all amounts to nothing more than cheap thrills in the end. In and of themselves, none of the dishes are high enough in quality to justify the steep price. (Even with the large Japanese section, one particularly glaring omission was sashimi, which is apparently too expensive to offer even at this price point; I guess I got spoiled by the buffets in seafood-rich Davao City during my year there.) The only justification, perhaps, is the sheer thrill of being able to wander from end to end of the vast array of food, pluck up anything that grabs your eye, and wash it down with unlimited wine and beer.
My philosophy at any buffet – but especially one charging 900 pesos, even if it’s not my money – is to maximize my value. If the establishment will be enjoying lavish profit margins at the expense of people filling their gullets with cheap rice or pecking away at low-value salads, I try to make a dent in their profit margin by eating as much high-end seafood as possible. So, with monetary acuity worthy of a The Price is Right contestant, I wandered from one section to another piling on the most opulent offerings I could find: sea mantis, spicy garlic crabs, grilled pampano, no rice, and almost no carbs whatsoever. I only partially suspended my single-minded mission so as to make room for several courses of dessert, including two bowls of crème brûlée, which were one of the few highlights of the meal (and coming from a connoisseur of French cuisine, that means a lot).
In the end, my strategy left me with the satisfaction of someone who had pulled one over on The Man, but it was not without cost. One reason I avoid buffets is because my heroic efforts to maximize value mostly result in me abusing my body and making myself feel terrible, and tonight was no exception. For whatever reason, it was actually even worse than usual: a few steps out of the restaurant, I felt a rising tide of nausea, and hobbled very slowly over to the mall bathroom – I was even afraid that walking too fast would cause me to upchuck. I waited five minutes for one of the three toilet stalls to become vacant, and in that time none of them did, leaving me to wonder if all of the stalls were occupied by customers who had come from the same buffet. When I mentioned to the cleaning staff that it was “Super tagal”, they giggled at my attempted Tagalog and finally led me to the disabled bathroom, where no vomitworks ensued. My date waited patiently for me outside, put herself back on standby during one more bathroom pit stop a few minutes later, and even helped me get a plastic bag from a mall vendor before we made it to the bus station and found our respective rides home. I felt a lot better after I sat down on the improvised seat provided by the crowded bus’s front steps, possibly due to the healing power of the Skyway, and made it back to my house with an empty plastic bag.
Perhaps it was the mild illness I’ve felt since yesterday, or the mix of many kinds of extremely rich food, or more specifically the raw oysters, squid and kinilaw that I indulged in, but something didn’t sit well with me after that meal. On the other hand, at least it seemed metaphorically appropriate: it made me think of the so-called Ancient Roman Vomitoria, rooms that the Romans supposedly designated solely for the purpose of vomiting after wild feasts where they consumed more than they could possibly keep down. The fact that vomitoria were actually exits in amphitheatres seems to have had no impact on this myth, which endures as a tribute to the decadence of a famously debauched ancient civilization. I suppose most of the guests at the restaurant are less money-grubbing than me, and so do not gorge on raw oysters until their stomachs turn inside out just because they want to minimize a restaurant’s profit margins; still, it does make me wonder whether prosperity and economic growth are really best represented by establishments that turn eating into an Olympic sport, to be enjoyed by athletes who arrive at the venue in tinted SUVs after passing through slums full of desperate souls without electricity or even running water.
During our meal, before the nausea set in, my date asked me if I often went to such buffets. I told her I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about eating at a restaurant where a meal cost more than twice the daily minimum wage in Manila (and I know plenty of people here who make less than the minimum wage, either through legal loopholes or outright labour law violations by their employers). “Well, it’s not twice our minimum wage,” she replied – a response that had a beguiling logic to it, but seemed less persuasive after several emergency bathroom breaks.
At the end of the day, it’s not really fair for a foreigner like me to preach about how people here should best enjoy unprecedented middle-class income growth, especially when some of the individuals chowing down on 900 peso buffet meals are probably one or two generations removed from extreme poverty. I suppose it’s a bit like western nations trying to cap carbon emissions of developing countries, in spite of the fact that these same wealthy western countries industrialized a hundred years ago by burning ungodly amounts of dirty coal. And though I’d rather cook a big pile of vegetables at home than go out and eat mediocre, impressively arranged food until I projectile vomit, I certainly have my own middle-class indulgences, like travel, that could easily be foregone and converted into charitable donations. I suppose that rather than reducing it to any sort of stark clash of cultural values, I would just earnestly hope that all of us, as individual human beings and moral agents, wherever we are – and most of all myself – think about whether we really need to ride the hedonic treadmill until we’re on the verge of puking up raw oysters in a mall disabled bathroom. In retrospect, I wish I had just stayed home and given my dogs tummy rubs.
To be fair, though, I will say this: the air of freewheeling decadence was offset by the restaurant’s “no leftovers” policy. It’s common for buffets to state such a policy, but Buffet 101 are certainly putting their money (or more precisely, yours) where their mouth is with their 1400 peso surcharge for leftovers. With such a hefty penalty, we can at least hope that any wasted food will spew out from your mouth instead of simply being left on your plate.