Pros: excellent breakfast, yummy vegetables, inexpensive, all-inclusive
Cons: main dishes often bland, fatty meats, can be slow to remove used plates
I've always liked buffets. Although I had lots of exposure to all-you-can eat salad bars growing up, I didn't really hit many bona fide buffets until I went to college. I've eaten in something on the order of 100 different campuses over time and I freely admit I lucked out at the University of Chicago. Chicago had three different dining halls all of which were buffet-style (although at Woodward they discouraged getting seconds of anything on the main serving line because of the physical setup of the space). Each of the three dining halls unofficially specialized in a different meal - Pierce was the best place to go for breakfast, Woodward for lunch, and Burton-Judson for dinner. Since I didn't have a meal plan for most of my stay, I was free to purchase individual meals at the cafeteria of my choice - $3 for breakfast, $6 for lunch, and $9 for dinner.
I quickly learned that if I went to breakfast between 10 and 10:30 and stuffed my face I wouldn't need to eat again that day. That's the true way to any college student's heart - good cheap plentiful food.
My days on campus are long gone - my 10th year reunion was last spring - but I still have a fondness for buffets, particularly breakfast buffets.
Unfortunately buffets are not very plentiful here in the Boston area. You can find ethnic buffets, mainly Chinese, Indian, and Thai, but there are very few more general options. The only general buffet I've found is the Old Country Buffet located in the Meadow Glen Mall in Medford.
There was an Old Country Buffet in Albuquerque but I almost never went there - I quickly discovered both Hometown Buffet and Golden Corral were better options. Alas, more frequent exposure to Old Country Buffet has not improved my assessment.
The basic problem is that most of the food is bland and tasteless. Meats are fairly fatty and food isn't always replaced often enough so you can get food that's been sitting out for an hour or more. Old Country Buffet is a minefield of experimentation that requires you to visit several times and develop a real sense of what is and is not edible.
Like most of the general buffet restaurants, Old Country Buffet is all-inclusive. One flat rate covers your food, beverages, and desserts. Everything is self-serve; you get your own food and your own drinks at a pace that works for you. Employees clear away your dirty dishes, although sometimes not terribly promptly. You do everything else yourself.
When they're really busy Old Country Buffet does ask you to wait to be seated but most of the time you're free to select any table you want. At the Medford location, the food is all on one side of the room with three sections of tables (generally seating four people apiece) in the middle of the room and booths along the three sides not filled with the buffet setup. One thing to note is that different booths provide different amounts of space between the table and benches - if you need or like a lot of room don't assume any booth is fine just because the one you had last time worked. The room feels functional and generic; don't go to the Old Country Buffet for the atmosphere.
Most of the week Old Country Buffet provides lunch and dinner. The menu varies by day of the week and lunch is usually a preview of dinner without any carved meats. On Sundays they offer breakfast and dinner instead of lunch and dinner. This is my favorite time to go - it brings back memories of my 10am breakfasts during college. Like those meals, I can eat a large breakfast at Old Country Buffet and not be hungry for the rest of the day.
The breakfast buffet offers scrambled and poached eggs, hashbrowns, corned beef hash, french toast, pancakes, waffles, english muffins, biscuits, pecan rolls, bacon, sausage, ham, oatmeal, grits, and other traditional breakfast dishes. It also includes a fresh fruit and salad bar, the full range of desserts including soft serve ice cream and frozen yogurt, and a few dishes traditionally served later in the day like fried chicken.
They usually do a good job keeping these dishes fresh and (when appropriate) warm. The english muffins are sometimes a bit hard but still good and sometimes the eggs can be either slightly runny or slightly overcooked but for the most part breakfast is done well.
Breakfast runs from 8am to 11:30, with dinner picking up right at 11:30. They don't toss breakfast diners out at 11:30 so if you feel like it you can partake of both meals for the breakfast price of $6.79 per adult. Children are charged according to their age; the younger your child the less you'll have to pay to get them in.
Lunch is slightly cheaper; $6.69 per adult and the same sliding scale for children will get you into Old Country Buffet from 11am to 3:30 Monday through Friday. Dinner (after the aforementioned lunch or breakfast times) runs $9.69 for adults and also uses an age-based scale for children (at a higher rate than the breakfast and lunch scale).
The main dishes change daily but a few items are available every day. Both fried and baked chicken are staples of the menu and baked and fried fish appear most of the time. Of the rotating dishes, they tend to be very hit or miss. I like their cheese pizza but most of their other attempts at Italian dishes fall short. Their stuffed shells (a heavily florentined version) simply have no taste.
Other main dishes vary in quality as well, sometimes from day to day. The macaroni and cheese is extremely bland and uses an extremely mild cheese. The carved turkey available several times a week during dinner can be excellent or it can be fatty and difficult to eat. The carved roast beef is almost always on the rare side and almost always too fatty for my taste.
Where Old Country Buffet really shines, though, is with its vegetables. All of the vegetables are always perfectly cooked. I've never once had a bad vegetable at Old Country Buffet. They always have mashed potatoes, bread stuffing, carrots, corn, and green beans. They also often have cabbage, baked beans, candied sweet potatoes, steamed broccoli and other options. Baked potatoes are available once or twice per week.
Of the side dishes, the mashed potatoes are the weakest but they're still generally very good. They have both beef and turkey gravy available if you're a gravy lover but the beef gravy is a bit strong for my taste. The turkey gravy is wonderful and matches the gravy used in the bread dressing which is also delicious. The green beans come with small slivers of onions which I could take or leave, but the beans themselves are extremely flavorful. The carrots are cut into circles and are generally very large and taste fresh.
The salad and fruit bar is only so-so. I'm extremely picky about lettuce (I once got food poisoning from bad lettuce) and their offerings don't always meet my rigid standards. The other vegetables have always been fresh but the fruit sometimes is a bit overripe. The melon options are cubed and they often cut a bit too close to the rind so you need to be very careful.
The lunch and dinner buffets generally include hot buttered rolls. Sometimes they have both white and wheat rolls but sometimes they only provide white rolls. There are no breads available that aren't smothered in butter but there are saltines if you're dying for a plainer carbohydrate option.
There are always two soups on the buffet. A hearty, thick chicken noodle is available almost every day. It uses thick noodles, large pieces of carrot and celery, and just enough white meat chicken to qualify for the name. A lot of places smother their soup in dark meat chicken which tends to overwhelm the other ingredients; not so here. The second soup varies. I've seen a clam chowder, a minestrone, and a pea soup. They always have a scrumptious corn chowder on Sundays. A creamy yet tart mix of potatoes, corn, peppers, and other vegetables, I often treat myself to two or three (small) bowls when it's available.
The dessert bar offers a combination of puddings, cakes, cookies, and ice cream. I am usually pretty good about not overloading on desserts but Old Country Buffet has one of the best chocolate cakes I've ever tasted so I usually allow myself to indulge in a piece. A chocolate crumb cake, the cake proper is light and airy. It's topped with a light vanilla frosting with a dusting of chocolate powder on top. Fortunately Old Country Buffet provides very small portions on their desserts allowing you to either just take one small piece or to mix and match for a larger dessert.
Old Country Buffet offers both frozen yogurt and soft serve ice cream. They usually offer chocolate, vanilla, or twist for each but at times they'll turn off the chocolate and twist. They do have hot fudge and butterscotch sauces but they don't have any other toppings. If you go for breakfast I heartily recommend a bit of vanilla soft serve on a belgian waffle. The two flavors go together incredibly well. I generally save a piece of waffle and use this as my dessert on Sundays.
As far as drinks go, Old Country Buffet has two sets of fountain drink machines with different drinks; you'll find them filled with different Coke products including a lemonade. There's also a large container of fresh brewed iced tea, coffee and tea, a variety of milk options and (for Sunday breakfast only) orange juice. The one issue I've had with drinks is that they can sometimes fall behind in ice production. Once the ice runs out I've found it takes an inordinately long time for them to refill it. Other that that, I've never had any problems. There are always clean glasses and mugs and the drink dispensers are generally filled.
Should you go to Old Country Buffet? It depends on what you're looking for. Do you like large breakfasts? Then definitely try their Sunday breakfast buffet. Would you be happy composing most of your meal from soups and vegetables? If so, then lunch and dinner would probably work well for you. But if you're a meat eater and you live near a Hometown Buffet or most especially a Golden Corral then I'd go to them before I'd go to Old Country Buffet. One thing to note if you do go is that the quality and menu do vary; some visits will be much more satisfying than others.