As a teenager in the small city of Christchurch, New Zealand during the early parts of the 1980s, good food in a restaurant was a rare commodity. Nouvelle cuisine of the late 1980s was yet to reach the shores of the Land of the Long White Cloud (A colloquialism that New Zealanders refer to their country) and the conglomerates of high fat, higher carbs and beige looking meals such as McDonald’s and Hungry Jacks (Burger King for everyone else in the world) had not dominated the street corners. The corners were dominated by something else.

In such a small city (then population approximately 310,00) Christchurch was a city that had yet to be spoiled by restaurant chains, franchisors and American corporation. There was no such thing as a professional coffee roaster and a flat white was some pakeha (a Maori word for a white person who is a local) who had drunk too much and passed out in the middle of the city mall. The eateries in the middle of the city was dodgy as hell to eat at but the taste got better after a night out at the movies usually post 8pm on a Saturday night. (Maybe the oil of the deep fryer had been changed for the week) It certainly hardened your stomach; the inconsistencies of food safety was probably not a high priority on most food establishments back then.
Hotels were few and far between, but what was there at the time was luxury, for a city that was cold and hostile as the Antarctic continent during the winter and as hot as Texas spare ribs during the summer.
What was in abundance in Christchurch in the 1980s though was motels and pubs. There was even a night club district. (Well, an arcade and at least 5 nightclubs that I can remember)
And within some of these motels that was dotted along one of the city’s longest street at the time (called Papanui Road) was an abundance of smorgasbords. A smorgasbord for those unsure of what that is, it is a Swedish term for an assortment of hors d’oeuvre. Cold and hot food options and a help yourself to as much as you can eat, kind of attitude. Now being a teenager in the midst of all this buffet madness was a godsend. All you can eat for as little as $25 (at the time the New Zealand dollar was a little like cryptocurrency is today. The New Zealand dollar? where do I find it? Oh, it’s worth how much?) It was where I could feast and fulfil the nutritional (and not so nutritional) needs of a growing boy.
One such place I remember well which was considered the elite of dining out if you wanted buffet style dinner, was a place called the Autolodge. A motel down this strip of all you can eat heaven. With its cobbled driveway, stone archways and lead light windows, this was a palace and fit for the upperclass (add some fog and I swear you could be mistaken for thinking that you were in search of Jack the Ripper in London in the late 1800s)
What made this place so special? It was the fact they had a seafood section on the buffet. Along with it, a carvery of different roast meats. Accompanied with exotic foods such as spring rolls this was the place to be seen. Perhaps more so as a young teenager. And besides it was cheap enough (particularly at the family gatherings when the grandparents used to pay) and it was a great place to fill my ‘hollow legs’ as my mother used to say.
The buffet was like a try before you buy scenario. You could fill up your plate with whatever food could fit on it and then you could plough through the morsels of edibles until you find a particular item you liked. To which then you could return for more. And magically the trays never seemed to empty.
In hindsight the buffet was a great family friendly dining area and although there was not much in the way of customer and staff interaction, I remember with fondness the friendly staff that always greeted us in this small city.
However by the time the 90s rolled around and the food connoisseur came about (along with jeans that hung around our arse) the smorgasbord style of eating became passé. The quick and easy takeaway took over Christchurch dining out, then the fine dining scene begun.
Alas as with most food, restaurants and new age ideas in hospitality the trends don’t last long. Smorgasbords, buffets, all you can eat, whatever you want to call them were the pinnacle of dining for so long. Made popular in Las Vegas , USA in the late 1940s with hotel restaurants promoting all you can eat to the popular Sizzler restaurants with all you can eat salads in Australia. Even Pizza Hut for a time had all you can eat nights.
Research indicates that there is surprisingly good margins, and lower food costs per sitting, which is a wonder that the buffet or smorgasbord hasn’t fared too well. Along with tricks of the trade, including smaller plates so people would not consume as much and the heavy carbohydrate options that were always in direct eyesight of the first pickings. All just egging you on to try the creamy potato dish to fill you up or the cheapest food that would be more cost effective for consumers to eat. As for value for money, what once was cheap now at an average cost of buffets here in Australia are now approximately $65.00, I am not sure I can eat the dollar value in food anymore. Perhaps as the restrictions of food and safety came into play things started changing. Maybe it would be best, for now, to leave the buffet at the wedding or conference that we attend.

There are still a few of the existing smorgasbord restaurants still operating, so I have been informed, hidden in pockets of Christchurch suburbia. A place where locals go for a treat and often leave with over exuberant stomach and a belly ache that quickly ensues.
I for one will always be grateful for the smorgasbord, the buffet, the all you can eat. It certainly saved me doing the dishes at home and I got try different food (although maybe not the best of quality) which began my culinary journey.


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