Is this the end of the buffet?

The writer Joel Golby has been obsessed with buffets since he was a kid. But in a post-Covid world, will we see the end of helping yourself?

In Liverpool, before the pandemic, I went to a hotel breakfast buffet. I always fret about the breakfast buffet, mainly about what to wear, because it’s one of those weird places where the full 7am suit-and-tie crowd sit elbow-to-elbow with people yawning in frayed jogging bottoms and thin hotel slippers. So anyway, I found my hotel slippers, rubbed a small mark off my jogging bottoms, and wound through the carpeted hallways, down the silent pinging elevator and through one of those weird hotel open spaces where a corridor is intersected with three small sofas arranged around a table with flowers on that nobody has ever sat at in history, which bloomed out into the huge, heaving, wall-to-wall meat market that was the Liverpool Hilton Breakfast Buffet. That’s where I saw a man put four hash browns and a single crumpet into a bowl and eat it.

My theory with breakfast buffets, more than any other buffet at any other time, is that they reveal the deepest and darkest crevices of you, your true and real nature. Take my usual breakfast buffet order, for example. I linger near the fruit salads, the platters of melon, the pile of ice studded with single-serve yogurts, and maybe take a small bowl of granola with arctic milk (I do not eat porridge from breakfast buffets, because porridge from breakfast buffets has the consistency and, I imagine, flavour, of the limp and grey snot of the medically dying). I’ll sit and eat this healthy meal with a thimble-sized glass of juice. After a beat, I’ll get up and just eat an entire fry-up. And a small plate of four miniature croissants. Then, often as a sort of pudding course, just some continental-style slices of ham and cheese, arranged plainly on a plate. Some compulsion will drive my body to do two things: drink four or five cups of coffee, Just Because It’s There; and, also, steal a small napkin of snacks to “enjoy later”.

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