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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2005 05:52 pm

Rating Springfield’s buffets

How we gained 10 pounds so you didn’t have to

Please hold the letters and e-mails. Of course the buffet you ate at last week deserves mention, whether you ended up in blissful nap or ran out of toilet paper in the wee hours. We did the best we could, but with so many buffets to choose from, space constraints, and the price of Alka Seltzer don’t permit an exhaustive rundown. Unless otherwise noted, the 13 we review here all cost about the same — figure $7 for lunch and 10 bucks for dinner, including drink. Ratings are based on quality, value, number of dishes, ambience, service, and cleanliness.
Best Buffet, 3431 Freedom Dr., 217-787-2828. Nice sweet-and-sour. Yawn. Good egg rolls. Yawn, again. Decent wonton soup. Ho-hum. Best Buffet does everything adequately, and that’s the sticking point. Nothing here that makes you want to drive out of your way. TWO AND A HALF PLATES
Buffet City, 1774 W. Wabash Ave., 217-787-8299. Tommy Ye, owner of Buffet City, squeezes everything possible out of this strip-mall all-you-can-eat. It’s especially good for crab — during several dinnertime visits, Buffet City consistently replenished the supply faster than did Buffet King or International Buffet, Buffet City’s closest competitors. The roast duck is plentiful and outstanding. The biggest problem is the Mongolian grill: Instead of woks, Buffet City uses a short-order grill, which takes too long and doesn’t get hot enough, robbing the dishes of the flavor that is seared in with a more traditional approach to stir-fry. Other than that, this buffet is first-class. FOUR PLATES
Buffet King, 2753 S. Veterans Parkway, 217-726-9999. Formerly known as the Grand Buffet, Springfield’s first big Chinese buffet is showing its age. During two recent visits, we saw neither the crabmeat baby-corn soup nor the clam soup touted on the online menu. There’s no Mongolian grill, and the interior looks like McDonald’s compared with International Buffet, which has the same owners, on the other side of town. But, for seafood lovers at least, this place is still worth a visit for one reason: It’s the only buffet in town that serves crab chilled rather than hot on the steam table. That’s how we like it, and that’s why we keep coming back. During our visits, the prime rib was superior to the cut served at International and as good as, if not better than, the beef served at Ryan’s. FOUR PLATES
Chesapeake Seafood House, 3045 Clear Lake Ave., 217-522-5220. In the words of the immortal Johnny Rotten, ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? OK, there is some seafood here, but more than breaded-and-fried fish and steamed shrimp that tastes old should be expected from a restaurant that has “lobster” on the sign out front. A Newburg casserole featuring fake crabmeat was gummy, bland, and lukewarm — the epitome of horrid. The fried fish was fine, as was the fried chicken, but that’s about what you’ll get at most any other decent buffet, if not more. This place that’s order-from-the-menu at dinner is enormously popular, perhaps owing to the rich wood paneling and floors that lend an air of elegance. Just know that the lunch buffet doesn’t measure up to the environs. TWO AND A HALF PLATES
Gateway to India, 3115 Chatham Rd., 217-726-6890. Right across the street from Buffet City, this is the only place in Springfield we know of that serves all-you-can-eat carrot pudding for dessert. Don’t laugh — it’s delicious, especially when topped with mango ice cream. Big crowds aren’t the point here. Rather, the lunch buffet is designed to persuade diners to come back for dinner and order from the menu. Every day, there’s a half-dozen-or-so authentic Indian dishes, plus tandoori chicken. On some days, the kitchen even adds goat to the selection. A great place for hungry folks who want to try something new. THREE AND A HALF PLATES
Holy Land Diner, 518 E. Adams St., 217-544-5786. What? A buffet run by folks who serve eggplant with a straight face? That this place has survived a decade in the land of meat and potatoes is nothing short of a miracle. Featuring assemble-your-own gyros, the lunch buffet is outstanding. Dinner buffet is served Fridays and Saturdays, with vegetarian-only on Saturdays. The baklava here is heavenly. THREE AND A HALF PLATES
International Buffet, 2520 N. Dirksen Parkway, 217-788-8833. Open less than a year, International Buffet raises the bar for local buffets. For our money, it doesn’t get any better than this, even though they don’t serve mashed potatoes. The place is spotless, your bottomless glass is never empty, and, with hardwood floors, lacquer-topped tables and comfortable yet elegant high-backed chairs, it’s classy. At these prices, a buffet like this one would go broke outside the Midwest. Don’t see your favorite Chinese dish? Ask and they’ll make it for you, no extra charge. That goes for sushi, too — all you need do is point to the octopus or tuna or eel on display (come on, try it just once — you don’t know what you’re missing). The Mongolian grill is the best in town. Dinner features prime rib and crab, with oysters on the half-shell on Sundays. The alleged New York steak is hit-or-miss. It was fine on one visit, although it had the texture of a less expensive cut. It was ghastly another time, thin and underdone as if it had been taken from a freezer and defrosted in a microwave. FOUR-AND-A-HALF PLATES
Kitchen Table, 2704 Peoria Rd., 217-391-0028. A one-of-a-kind place. Open for lunch Monday-Friday and Sunday brunch, regulars know it as Abe’s Tradin’ Post, the secondhand store with which it shares space. Offerings are limited — which is the only reason this place doesn’t have a higher rating — but what’s here is very good, especially the chicken on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Fridays are known as “Fried Days,” when it’s all the catfish and walleye and potatoes you care to devour — all fried, of course. Good selection of desserts — three kinds of pie during one recent visit, plus strawberry shortcake, plus chocolate-chip cookies, plus Oreos. At $5.85, including tax and all the soda you care to drink, this is two or three bucks cheaper than most other lunch buffets. You can’t go wrong for the money. THREE AND A HALF PLATES
Mario’s Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, 3073 Clear Lake Ave., 217-523-2211. Pizza is featured for the lunch buffet (dinner is from-the-menu), but salads and soups are the star attraction. With a blend of lettuce, coconut, walnuts and mandarin-orange slices, the mandarin salad is like ambrosia for rabbits. The pasta salads have the taste of homemade, as did the potato soup on a recent visit. Oh yeah: The pizza is pretty darned good, too, with a thin, crispy crust that puts Antonio’s to shame. Biggest complaint: At $1.74 for a bottomless glass, soda is way too expensive. Stick with water. THREE PLATES
Maverick Family Steak House, 3100 W. White Oaks Drive, 217-546-7686. (Other area locations: 1640 W. Jefferson St., 1104 W. Reynolds St., 3165 S. Dirksen Parkway) Maverick can’t decide whether it wants to be a buffet or a cook-to-order place. The dinner buffet costs $7.49. For a dollar more, you can get a steak. For a bit more, you can get a better steak. Prices top out at $10.99 for surf and turf. Factor in soda or iced tea and this ends up significantly more expensive than Ryan’s or a Chinese buffet that offers prime rib, and you won’t find nearly as large a selection of dishes. Aside from fried chicken or ham, you also can’t hammer the meats to your heart’s content. Being purists, we stuck with the basic buffet and were startled when a waitress approached and asked if we’d like a baked potato or dinner roll — no reason why such basics can’t be set out on the grazing line, especially since that’s where they keep the butter and sour cream. Mid-meal, she left dinner mints and a laminated card with her name on it, odd considering you pay upfront. The ham, which tasted genuinely sugar-cured and had real texture to it, stood out. The fried chicken was moist and pretty good for buffet fare. Beyond that, the offerings range from pedestrian to high-school cafeteria — they serve sloppy joes, beanie weenie and dried-out pizza, all right next to each other. TWO PLATES
Old Country Buffet, 2733 S. Veterans Parkway, 217-787-2201. In a word, yuck — take out the “country” from the name of this restaurant, and you have an idea what’s in store here. It’s hard to believe that a place this awful has stayed in business since 1987. No fresh-grilled anything. Instead, they’ve got the good old carving station that became passé during Clinton’s first term. The posters in the windows practically scream “Tightwad!” Shrimp and salmon on Wednesdays and Fridays, steak on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays — it’s like a child-custody schedule drawn up by bickering, petty parents who want to make things as inconvenient and difficult to remember as possible. The broccoli-and-bacon salad was the only thing here that stood out, but not by very much. Everything you need to know about this place is summed up in less than a minute by corporate spokeswoman Patti Chadwick, who kept referring to diners as “users” when we asked her how Old . . . Buffet coexists with Buffet King right next door: “We have our regular users that like the home-cooked meal.” Earth to Old . . . Buffet: At the Chinese buffets, they at least call them “customers” — and this ain’t home-cooked. HALF PLATE
Ryan’s Steak House, 2730 N. Dirksen Parkway, 217-789-7684. Despite all-you-can-eat steak, even the biggest eaters aren’t likely cost this place any money. One of the biggest buffet chains in the Midwest, Ryan’s has all-you-can-eat down to a science. Aside from farmed salmon and Lord-knows-what-species white fish, you’re not going to find anything that once swam in here. But this is more than just meat and potatoes. Highlighted by fresh strawberries and pineapple wedges, the fruit-and-salad bar is tops in town. Desserts are abundant, and the service is flawless — if they don’t have a steak ready with the degree of doneness you desire, they’ll cook one up pronto and give you a nice helping of roast beef to tide you over while you wait. The biggest problem with Ryan’s is, well, it’s Ryan’s. There’s no sense of adventure here. FOUR PLATES
Shakey’s Pizza & Buffet Restaurant, 2441 S. MacArthur Blvd., 217-793-0212. The dill-pickle spears are fabulous but hardly worth the price of admission. Lukewarm Jo-Jo potatoes, dried-out fried chicken, and a whole bunch of heat-lamped pizza was a big deal back in grade school. Not anymore. The salad — shredded iceberg lettuce — is laughable. The plastic plates with raised dividers are, take your pick, straight from a high-school cafeteria or prison chow hall. Yes, Shakey’s stays with the tried-and-true, right down to announcing over a loudspeaker when hot cinnamon rolls are ready. Like Pav’s dog, diners still answer the call. The only question is why. HALF PLATE
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