Smorgasbord has become a bit of a dated word this century, but for me, the word conjures up vivid memories from childhood into adulthood. Part of Australians’ enthusiasm for the idea of the smorgasbord and the concept of all-you-can-eat might stem from the eventual relaxation of post-war rationing that baby boomers may have remembered from their childhoods. Rationing officially wrapped up in 1950 in Australia and as late as 1954 in the UK, so as a late baby boomer, I had no personal experience of it, but my parents and my English in-laws shared stories with me. Another reason for the ongoing allure of the smorgasbord, aside from the opportunity to gorge on a variety of foods in pleasant surroundings, is that families get to recreate the eating atmosphere of Christmas dinner, any time of the year.
As the decades progressed, venues began to tweak the smorgasbord idea so their version had enough novelty value to entice new customers. Literally, smörgsbord means an open sandwich smeared in butter and presented on a table, but in reality, it was so much more. My first smorgasbord experience was as an eight-year-old at the Weis Top of the Range restaurant at Picnic Point in Toowoomba. While I can’t remember all the details, I just know that I had never seen such a spread of what were considered in the 1960s to be exotic European dishes. More intriguing was the concept of being able to choose a main or dessert and then return with an empty plate to do it again. I mean, I’d been to the Myers cafeteria and slid my tray along to choose one of the prepared meals, but this was next-level decadence.
Some hotels soon caught on to our fascination for a large variety of food with unlimited plate refills. Our family often visited the Sunnybank Hotel smorgasbord in Brisbane on a Saturday afternoon, where we were tempted by a range of hot dishes, cold meats, salads, and, of course, desserts. At these hotels in the 60s, if you were lucky, an uncle would give you 50 cents to buy him a packet of cigarettes from the machine out in the foyer. As the vending machines weren’t equipped to dispense change, you might have earned some extra pocket money by being allowed to keep the 12 cents change that was sticky taped to the pack of Craven As.
At many venues, the smorgasbord was scaled down to a buffet. The same sort of all-you-can-eat idea, but without the original flair and variety. The humble beer garden also had a go at the pseudo smorgasbord experience. The steaks weren’t self-serve, but the accompanying salads were your choice, and you could return to top up with as much of the green stuff as you like. Washed down with a beer, a fluffy duck, a blue lagoon, or a soft drink for the kids, it made for a great dining experience. The dessert menu was often a ticketed choice, with one ticket per person, but you sometimes got lucky if one or more of the relatives didn’t want dessert, so their ticket was up for grabs.
Another option was the specialty smorgasbord. Salvatore’s was our family favourite for many years. As the name suggests, it had an Italian theme and was my introduction to all foods Italian. Every conceivable pasta dish was on offer, and the pizza toppings were next level compared to the usual cardboard box variety. Then there were the tables full of decadent desserts, whose names I won’t attempt to recall even with the help of a gourmet website and a spellchecker. The seafood smorgasbord was an Australian adaptation of the traditional Swedish version.
Available at many hotels, no matter how far from the coast, these weekly events consisted of almost every possible seafood delicacy. The seafood was displayed with fish nets and plastic starfish to enhance the freshly caught nautical theme. Prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, scallops, mussels, crumbed and battered fish fillets, crab, and buckets of seafood sauce all fought for space on the bulging trestle table. Everything was presented among shimmering clusters of ice. The accompanying range of salads added colour to the generally orange and silver seafood backdrop.
In the mid-eighties, Sizzler hooked into our love of smorgasbords and ran with it. It wasn’t really a true buffet, with main meals charged separately from the all-you-can-eat salad, pasta, and dessert bars, but the novelty of the concept as a go-to family restaurant was embraced by Australians for three decades.
My challenge at each visit was to come up with a new combination of pasta, savoury mince, potato skins, guacamole, and bean mix to go with the nacho chips. But as with all food novelties, no amount of menu tweaking saved Sizzler from eventually serving its last customer in 2020. As a parting gift, Sizzler publicly released the secret recipe for their signature cheese toast.
Aside from Sizzler, there were many other smaller chains and independent all-you-can-eat restaurants. The now-defunct Smorgys smorgasbord restaurants in Victoria were immortalised in an episode of Upper Middle Bogan where the character Kane told us he was having a “smorgasm” at the thought of so much food
Pizza Hut still has the all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta, salad, and garlic bread buffet at a few of its stores, though many were converted to take-away only years ago, and all-you-can-eat pancakes are still a thing. At one stage, KFC in Brisbane even offered a mini buffet of sorts by having an all-you-can-eat fried chicken buffet of wings and drumsticks along with a large tub of their iconic potato and gravy to ladle onto your plate.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for the all-you-can-eat self-serve concept. Giving people communal access to food at a buffet has led to some disgruntled patrons placing undesirable additives in salads and meat dishes. I’ve told myself that the smeared gooey surface of the perspex sneeze guards proves their effectiveness, but I’m probably not the only one who has wondered what bodily fluids have breached these barriers.
I’ve also sworn off getting soft serve from a self-serve dessert bar after seeing a happy bunch of children avoiding the supplied waffle cones by taking turns sucking directly from the ice cream nozzle. But despite some setbacks, the all-you-can-eat concept has continued to adapt and still lives on.
As part of the evolution of the smorgasbord in Australia, the novelty moved offshore to cruise ships. Take a look at anyone’s Facebook post of their latest ocean cruise adventure, and most of the photo opportunities feature the amount and variety of food and food venues on board. Occasionally, a photo of a walk around the decks will appear, but the reason for the stroll will inevitably be revealed as a way to walk off a meal or build an appetite for the next round of eating.
This got me thinking about the next novelty step for the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. What about an orbiting smorgasbord restaurant like in The Jetsons, with Elon Musk’s Space X shuttles ferrying hungry but well-heeled patrons there and back? Watch this space!