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In Dining Reviews

In terms of ambience, there really isn't much at OCB. But during our visit, we saw fewer seniors than expected.

In Dining Reviews

The first course: pizza, mac and cheese and corn bread.

In Dining Reviews

The steak at Old Country Buffet was unfortunately borderline inedible.

In Dining Reviews

The taco bar, however, was just fine.

In Dining Reviews

Dessert was quite good.

In Dining Reviews

The author, "enjoying" plate after plate of all-you-eat food.

The "NonMilwaukee.com" review: Old Country Buffet


October is the third annual Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delicious features, chef profiles, unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2009."

Don't freak out. There's a reason we're reviewing the Old Country Buffet, and it's not to make fun of it.

Because we're now at the end of OnMilwaukee.com Dining Month, and because we've delivered dozens of articles, reviews and blogs about everything edible in Milwaukee, we thought we'd throw in one curve ball. That change of pace is a serious review of a seriously popular chain restaurant that isn't the kind of establishment usually discussed on the pages of this magazine.

Honestly, I haven't visited an Old Country Buffet in at least 20 years, but I know that my wonderful grandmother loved the place. I also know that in this economy, an inexpensive, all-you-can eat restaurant could be immensely popular, and Milwaukee loves a bargain. And finally, I know that I'm not a buffet aficionado; while I enjoy the brunch at Las Vegas' Paris and Milwaukee's Potowatomi Bingo Casino, unless it's Thai food, I prefer my restaurant fare just a little less family-style.

Still, I went into Old Country Buffet, 4902 S. 74th St., with an open mind, prepared to check my holier-than-thou attitude at the door. Maybe it would be good, both in terms of value and quality.

My verdict: I stuffed my face, sampling as much food as I could. Other than a tasty Caesar salad and well above average desserts, my dinner was institutional quality, at best. Better than school lunch, but not by much. Better than, say, prison food (or so I imagine) but nowhere near its Potowatomi or Vegas equivalents.

In terms of value, about $12 for an all-you-can eat dinner is far, far from expensive. On the other hand, there are plenty of places you can eat just as much (realistically speaking) for the same prices, and you'll probably get a better meal.

Value philosophizing aside, the experience was an interesting one. After we paid for our dinners at the hostess station, we seated ourselves. We didn't know that we were on our own from here on out, so after a few minutes, we asked a staffer if we could just start. He said yes, so we took turns filling our plates. The attendant came back frequently, politely clearing our plates each time. The process was easy and efficient, clean and well-organized.

For my first course, I grabbed a slice of deep-dish pizza, some macaroni and cheese, a piece of cornbread and a Diet Coke (I'm watching my figure). Fortunately, it was mostly uphill from this carb-loaded plate, which tasted like slightly flavored cardboard, reminiscent of sixth-grade lunch at Lakeshore Middle School.

For my next plate, I tried the hand-carved steak, Caesar salad and mashed potatoes. The steak was borderline inedible, gristly and tough like a leather shoe. But the salad was good and fresh, which led me to my third and final plate of tacos, Jell-O and fruit. Everything on this course was fine. Not spectacular, but in no way offensive.

For dessert, I went a little nuts with cheesecake, hot fudge chocolate cake, banana cream pie and apple pie. By now, I knew that it would be another 15 years, at least, 'til I returned to Old Country Buffet, and I wanted to go out with a bang.

And you know what? The dessert was really, really good. Obviously, the presentation wasn't fancy, but the taste and quality was on par with a mid-range restaurant's offering. Add up everything I crammed into my face, and I'm sure I ate $12 worth of food -- whether I needed to or not.

And that's my problem with buffets: I feel the urge to eat as much as I can, even when I know I shouldn't. Other than the salad bar (which my wife liked a lot), Old Country Buffet's menu wasn't particularly healthy. Starch-heavy and low on green things, it would be a waste of time and money for a vegetarian -- or even for someone who doesn't crave lots of meat -- to eat there. I left feeling stuffed, and not in a good way. My stomach hurt not only from how much I ate, but from what I ate, too.

In terms of ambience, there really isn't much at OCB. I didn't see as many seniors as I expected; more young families slurping ICEEs and big groups celebrating birthdays. Of course, we showed up at the "late" hour of 6 p.m.; I imagine the crowd would've been much older had we arrived two hours earlier.

Judgmental and as snarky as I admit I can be, I've never claimed to have a sophisticated food palate, so even this bland and pedestrian menu didn't offend me in the slightest. The loudly coughing kids and mumbling octogenarians might've frayed my nerves eventually, but I knew what I was getting myself into from the start.

One could do worse than dinner at Old Country Buffet, especially if quantity and food diversity (as long as it's all fattening) meet your criteria for value. If it's quality, well, at least the place is clean and its employees are constantly sticking thermometers in the food to make sure it hasn't sat out too long.

Is Old Country Buffet my cup of tea? Not really, but now I at least somewhat understand why my grandma loved it so. It's easy, family-friendly, relatively cheap and you can try a whole bunch of stuff all in one meal -- then top it off with really good dessert. And that's probably why it's so popular -- for the experience, alone, it just might be worth a visit.

Talkbacks

nosnhoj49 | Nov. 2, 2009 at 10:55 a.m. (report)

Wow does that bring me back. When i was a kid every Sunday after church where did mom dad sister grandma and I go? OCB! for as picky an eater as I was as a kid Old Country Buffet was the cats meow! on the other hand I applaude you, today I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole!

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brewerfan13 | Oct. 30, 2009 at 9:14 a.m. (report)

Wow this totally brought me back to my pre-teen days. My grandma was a huge fan of Ponderosa so we always went there, not OCB. However they are clearly on the same level. I remember loading up with spaghetti, mashed potatoes, breadsticks...all carbs. All gross now that I think about it. But when you're 8 and you can eat anything you want it's pretty exciting. When I have kids, I'm not sure I'll ever expose them to such places. I know when my mom becomes a grandma she will never want to go there either!! Blech. But funny for a review.

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brewcitypaul | Oct. 29, 2009 at 9:28 a.m. (report)

Lakeshore Middle School...HA, I went there too. My grandparents used to take me to the OCB you are referring to on a regular basis. For a 8-13 year old kid that place is awesome. All you can eat, whatever your taste buds desire, and dessert. Lots and lots of dessert including a build your own sundae bar. I will like to have fond memories of that place which is why I won't taint the memory with a visit in my adulthood. Hats off to you for the review though, good change of pace article.

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FLOYDSTERDA | Oct. 29, 2009 at 4:17 a.m. (report)

Old Country Buffet is for people that need two chairs to sit on. Crude, but it's a fact. There is no reason to go to these types of restaurants unless you wish to blow your weekly diet in one day. The food is acceptable, compared to the school lunch programs, but I rather eat Tuna Helper. :)

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brunocarlson | Oct. 28, 2009 at 7:01 p.m. (report)

It used to be tradition when a friend came home for Thanksgiving or Christmas from the service. We would hit the bars hard then over indulge at OCB. After almost ten years of this, wives, health, exposure to decent food, we stopped but still enjoy the memories. I wish you all the luck in your acid reflux and running to work it off.

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