Are Pennsylvania Amish buffets—where diners pay a hefty sum for all-you-can-eat carbohydrate payloads—hypocritical, grotesque, or even evil? You’d think so if you pay attention to critics like the Chowhounder who recently moved back to Lancaster and wants to promote the area’s fine dining. “The buffets haven’t changed in decades,” he complained. “It’s just that the food around them has. Nothing is more frightening to me than to see obese people with walkers and oxygen bottles getting up for one more plate of fried chicken.”
Until my recent visit to Amish country I was of a similar mindset. I had a tentative plan to eat at Good and Plenty, an Amish buffet that Yelpers gripe about because they are forced to share the table with strangers. But I scrapped this plan in favor of buffet alternatives, regular restaurants that specialize in Pennsylvania Dutch cooking. That same Chowhounder recommended Town Hall in Blue Ball—“where buffet employees go when they themselves want to eat out”—and Fisher’s Amish Restaurant near Intercourse.
Fisher’s was so so (and we happened to encounter a buffet, their weekend special) but Town Hall was fabulous. It’s a diner wedged into the side of a firehouse where the same family has been serving good and simple food for over 50 years. I had stuffed pig’s stomach (like corned beef hash with a rind) with sides of corn fritters and cucumber slaw and my eyes rolled back in my head. I was lucky enough to score one of the employee t-shirts with the motto “Quality AND Quantity”. Says it all.
However, before dining there we did a little detour to the Shady Maple complex a couple of miles away. This includes an immense supermarket, a gargantuan furniture store, an colossal gift shop, and the Shady Maple Smorgasbord—the mother lode of Amish buffets. We parked and entered under a wide portico that reminded me of nothing so much as a Las Vegas casino. The interior public spaces continued this feeling of déjà vu. They’re expansive and opulent without being particularly distinctive—ornamental carpets, large overstuffed chairs used as accent pieces, and generic artwork of Amish country scenes (some in 3-D). Before long we could look through big windows and observe the diners at long tables as far as the eye could see. Then we turned a corner and spied a line snaking across the lobby: patrons waiting for their turn to enter the room. (Wait times stretch to 45 minutes at busy hours.) We snickered and high-tailed it out of there.
In retrospect, though, I find myself asking what is wrong with all this? Do I not pride myself in trying to beat the house at Vegas buffets by eating more than the cost of the food? Shady Maple tops out at a little over $20 for dinner (some days are less) so this shouldn’t be hard. Especially if I plan my visit around my birthday, where the meal is free as long as I am with a companion paying full price.
Yes, I am planning to eat there! In fact, I am already scheming around a two-day itinerary in which I eat at Shady Maple one day, Good and Plenty the next. (Ideally the two days will include a Friday, so I can make a return visit to Green Dragon market and hopefully find some decent Shoo Fly Pie.)
I think the bad rap for Amish buffets is in fact our own prudishness. We don’t have similar fits of outrage when we dine at Vegas buffets, do we? It rankles us that the devout Amish would make money by catering to the baser desires of the “English” and do it in such an ostentatious and frankly commercial way. But what’s actually wrong with that? We want them to stay in their buggies and remain quaint for our enjoyment as we tool down their byways and chuckle about the bargains we’re getting on fresh produce. Yet there’s no evidence the Amish intend to abandon their beliefs and their lifestyle in the face of modernity and prosperity. If the money we fork over in the buffets helps to maintain this lifestyle (with perhaps a few buggy upgrades) I say more power to them. Let’s eat!