Derby – my hometown. It’s only gone and got itself another "multi-cuisine", all-you-can-eat (AYCE) restaurant. Admittedly, it’s not really news, not even by Derby’s standards, but I can’t help thinking that something sinister’s going on. For a city the size of a walnut, having three of these places is excessive.
I started thinking about it when I found myself in Cosmo, not the magazine but the latest addition to Derby’s burgeoning buffet scene. I’d never heard of it, but apparently they’re a chain which prides itself on offering a ‘Pan Asian and World Banquet Dining’ experience. Never has eating dim sum and chips until you sweat, pass out, vomit or split a seam sounded so sophisticated.
It’s my third AYCE experience (fourth if you count the time I poured gravy onto my profiteroles at Taybarns, in Swansea, during a work trip). I've been to Jimmy's World Bar & Grill (opened in Derby in 2012), and May Sum (technically not multi-cuisine, which opened in Derby 2001). It's odd, really, because I don't like these places: the food’s shit, you overeat and you’re forced to watch other people overeat, like some epic version of Man Vs. Food in 3D. But my mother likes them and insists on christening each newcomer with a visit.
Cosmo's different, my mum tells me. It’s a bit pricier than the others, she whispers, but well worth it because it’s nicer, and bigger - which isn’t a lie. Housed in a former 1930s cinema, Cosmo’s big enough to give the illusion that it stretches to infinity and beyond. You can’t actually see the other side when you walk in, but who cares when there’s a 20-mile stretch of gastronomic exotica to trough through. It offers at least 100 dishes from China, Japan, Brazil, Mexico...as well as chips for those who still aren’t up to adventure.
No matter what its PR bumf says, Cosmo is no different to any other multi-cuisine AYCE place: it has the air of a cut-price cruise ship about it. They might drop words like ‘casual dining’ ‘exceeding expectations’, but in the land of AYCE, quantity, not quality is still king.
Despite myself, it takes all of five minutes sit down to a plate of food which looks like it's been assembled by a culinary schizophrenic: deep-fried seaweed, pizza, barbeque ribs and, of course salad (I’m not a complete barbarian). It looks and feels like food that's had all the taste extracted, so I skip dessert: I feel dirty, used, cheapened...like an AYCE food whore, just like I did at all the other AYCE joints in town.
I get the appeal of AYCE’s: they’re cheap, filling and just like real restaurants, only less so. Lots of people (my mum included), hate the idea of intimidating waiters, wine lists and menus. What I don’t get is when this is all going to stop?
To give you some idea, there are buffet restaurants plotting as we speak: Red Hot World Buffet has got 6 restaurants around the UK, Jimmy’s World Bar & Grill, 10 and Cosmo - King of the AYCE - has 15 sites around the country; including the UK’s largest buffet restaurant in Croydon. All have got plans to double their numbers in the near future,and I haven’t even mentioned all the other up-and-coming AYCE wannabes.
My problem is that for a restaurant concept which prides itself on giving people almost unlimited choice, these places are giving Derby increasingly less choice. Forget having smaller, independent restaurants where you might be able to see the faces of other diners, or identify the food, that’s for losers. Mega-buffets are where it’s at – now and forever.