Cafeteria plan

One promising thing to come out of this pandemic is the return (hopefully) of cafeterias and cafeteria-style dining.

No one wants to eat at buffets now and let’s be real, they’re kind of gross. I understand the appeal of a buffet – buckets of all-you-can-eat food at a reasonable price (unless you’re in Las Vegas). I even think buffets are the best option when you’re with a big group of people. But seriously – people are disgusting. No matter how many sneeze shields and clean serving utensils you put out, people will still touch everything with their unwashed hands, cough all over the place, and act like they’re at home.

From the D. McKinney Collection

But cafeterias are different! Granted, it’s not an all-you-can-eat type of deal (traditionally), but you still have the freedom to choose your food and no one else touches it besides the cook, server, and you. Sometimes it’s a little fresher (if they have grilled items), but cafeteria food still has that “sitting around under a heat lamp” look and taste that’s similar to buffet food.

So all of this cafeteria-talk got me to thinking. Other than elementary school and while visiting someone in the hospital, I’ve only dined at three legit cafeterias – Clifton’s Cafeteria in West Covina (no longer there), Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles (it’s there, but no longer an actual cafeteria), and Luby’s Cafeteria in Dallas, Texas (the Luby’s chain still has quite a few locations that are open.) The rise of fast food in the 1960s put the first nail in the coffin for cafeterias, family-style casual restaurants put the second nail in the coffin in the 1970s, and by the time the 1980s rolled around, cafeteria’s were out-dated and not a “chic” and “hip” dining option and they died a cracked plastic tray themed death.

Despite a cafeteria giving you options, I guess it wasn’t option-enough for some people and there lies the rise of salad bars (or any self-service food bar), grab-and-go, and buffets. Some restaurants have the best of both worlds – you order your hot food or main dish, then you either go through the line and acquire your sides and drink from a server or you go to the salad bar to get your sides, and when your hot dish is ready, you go pick it up or they bring it to your table. I’ve experienced this at such restaurants like Sizzler, Sundowners, Steak Corral, Tam O’Shanter, Philippe’s, and Western Sizzlin.

Ontra Cafeteria – Vermont Ave. location in Los Angeles. From the D. McKinney Collection

Cafeterias (in the United States) started in 1885 at the Exchange Buffet in New York City. It was the first self-service restaurant where customers (men only) would order and purchase their food from a server over the counter and then go eat standing up. Sounds fun! While it wasn’t a buffet, it was a predecessor of both the cafeteria and automats (another lost dining format.)

At the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago, a gentleman by the name of John Kruger created an American version of a Smorgasbord that he had seen while visiting Sweden. He named it a “cafeteria” which is Spanish for coffee shop. Real Swedish Smorgasbord’s would get their debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair’s Swedish Pavilion.

From the D. McKinney Collection

But now I’m confused – I thought a Smorgasbord was similar to a buffet because of it’s all-you-can-eat? According to the inter-webs, a Smorgasbord is also eaten family-style, where they just bring all of the food to the table and you pig out. But at IKEA, their restaurant is actually more cafeteria-style than an actual Smorgasbord….

From the D. McKinney Collection

So scratch that – I’ve been to FOUR cafeterias if you include IKEA, and I do.

As someone that is kind of a germaphobe, a light and picky eater, and a collector of cafeteria matchcovers, I’m hoping restaurants go back to the way of the cafeteria. I do know that some buffets have gone family-style in wake of the pandemic and even pre-pandemic, buffets in Las Vegas were going a little bit more cafeteria-style with individual portions that are ready to grab-and-go instead of the traditional troughs of food. Even IKEA has come up with some great ideas for cafeteria style dining, such as a cart where you can stack your trays of food to bring it to your table (great for a mom with 10 kids.) We already have sushi bars, mongolian BBQ, and Chipotle/Subway where you tell them what you want and they prepare and give it to you. Now all we needs are some thick plastic trays, cold-aluminum rail bars, and a lady named Dot manning the register at the end of the line.

Don’t forget your straw and silverware!

From the D. McKinney Collection

The following items are some leftovers from my collection or things I’ve found online that didn’t make the cut above:

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