Let me tell you about Food Star. In the late '90s this all-you-can-eat buffet joint in Bankstown, 16 kilometres south-west of the Sydney CBD, was my family's restaurant of choice for special occasions and Saturday night dining out adventures. Well, for most of the family. My mother would often roll her eyes, let out a little scoff even, when it was suggested as our restaurant of the night. I guess I saw something in the glistening tongs, spray-and-wipeable sneeze guards and stacked white plates, still warm from the dishwasher, that she simply couldn't, or wouldn't, understand.
The price for entry into this hallowed hall of bain-marie gastronomy was $14.50 for adults and $10.50 for children aged 12 and under. In the car ride over, we rehearsed our lines, dutifully following our parents' instructions to… round-down our ages if interrogated by the cashier.
The Food Star logo comprised a purple anthropomorphised cartoon purple star, a fork and knife brandished in its greedy little hands, a ravenous look in its eyes. Within moments of being ushered to our tables – "Smoking or non-smoking?" – I would set off with my empty plate with an expression not dissimilar to the five-cornered logo of the business.
Before me lay the spoils of the culinary world, arranged in neat categories: SALAD, CARVERY, HOT FOOD, those words spelled out in upper-case neon letters suspended from the ceiling. For this child of Chinese-Vietnamese immigrants, this was my fantasy Anglo-Western food land. Heck, even the fried noodles and spring rolls at the ASIAN station looked nothing like what we ate at home. Pale sticks of carrot and celery stood sentinel in their stainless-steel buckets, glazed turkey and roast beef sat sweating under heat lamps, trays of peas and corn leeching their nutrients into an ever-expanding warm puddle of water. A pull of a ladle would unearth creamed pumpkin soup, piping-hot in temperature, insipid in colour, from a bottomless tureen. Croutons (stale) were a novelty. Aunties and uncles would load up platters of boiled prawns and ferry them to our tables to share. The sea critters were the most valuable buffet item, see, and therefore ensured our value for money.
But nothing compared to the wonders of DESSERT, of which the glowing beacons were the soft-serve machines, one holding vanilla-flavoured ice-cream, the other, chocolate. Over the years, a server would be assigned to dispense sensible-sized portions of the stuff. But before the Great Soft-Serve Crackdown of 2000, it was a free-for-all where children (all aged 12 and under, of course) would pull on the machine lever and let the saccharine dairy product spew forth. My bowl, always, comprised this: a near-perfect swirl of chocolate soft-serve, three squares of jelly, wobbly and uncertain, arranged in a pleasing traffic-light configuration (red, yellow and green), a dusting of rainbow sprinkles. Sometimes, a piece of pineapple would crown the lot. Glorious.
In 2020, a medical imaging centre sits at the corner spot where Food Star once burned brightly. It's too apt a metaphor for the demise of the all-you-can-eat buffet as a global pandemic has rendered open smorgasbords and communal tongs a danger to public health. It may be a new strange beginning for restaurants around Australia that are permitted to open their dining rooms to a limited number of patrons this month; but the future of the buffet dangles by a thread.
In most states, current guidelines on the COVID-safe operation of restaurants recommend buffet-style food service areas are removed, affecting clubs, hotels and other destination buffet institutions. Sizzler, for example, has paused its self-service salad bar. The Star's all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, the most illustrious spread in Sydney according to urban legend, has been closed since March.
It just takes simple mathematics to work out when it comes to your buffet entry fee, the scales tip towards ensuring the quantity, not quality, of your food. Some would argue that's the very allure of the all-you-can-eat model. But no matter the tray of instant gravy steadily forming a wrinkled epidermic top, the lemon chicken that glowed as phosphorescent as the neon lights above. In the '90s, Food Star was a meeting ground of cultures in the diverse Bankstown neighbourhood, where Lebanese kids ate rounds of sliced sushi, Chinese parents chomped on pizza, Italian families slurped hot-and-sour soup. And where this little Asian kid, who grew up to be the digital editor of a national food publication, had her first taste of baked ham, pumped full of water and hormones as it was, sliced fresh from the bone.
To the demise of the buffet, some may bid good riddance. For me, it's a fond farewell.