Buffet-style eating can bring to mind the frightening side of dining: an army of dishes full of sketchy meat cutlets swaddled in a dried skin of gravy, heat lamp-desiccated sandwiches and steam table glop. It doesn't have to be this way. Many cuisinesówith their braised meats, rich stews and soft grainsóare perfect candidates for the all-you-can-eat-buffet. Here are a few choices that transcend the norm.
Go Indian: Khyber Pass
For most Chicagoans, Oak Park is just as close as Devon Avenue, and so it's not much of a trek to test the best Indian-style buffet in Chicagoland. Located off the Green Line L, you'll find a rich offering of creamy butter chicken, spicy lamb curry and velvety smooth saag paneer (spinach cooked with onions, tomatoes and homemade cheese) served in copper bowls. A first course of cracker-crisp papadums and baked-to-order naan is brought to your table. While you gorge on samosas as big as your fist, a sizzling cast iron platter of fiery red tandoori chicken arrives. On weekends belly dancers and sitar players offer a rich soundtrack. Cost: $7.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner.
Go Chinese: Buffet Palace
While most Chinese buffets are dirty banquet halls serving up mushy General Tso's chicken, Buffet Palace is the perfect antidote. With its mahogany accents, padded leather banquettes and swishy koi pond, the well-lighted Vegas-style buffet serves deep-fried delights like sweet and sour chicken that, to be truthful, aren't much better than what's served at the other places (though the Chinese BBQ spareribs ribs are smoky, sweet and toothsome). But Buffet Palace's seafood offering is incomparable. Dungeness crab coated in caramelized onions and garlic, fresh snow crab, briny oysters and peel-and-eat shrimp are impeccably fresh. The place is best on weekend when crowds are large and food moves fast. Cost: $6.99 lunch, $11.99 dinner.
Go Polish: Bobak's Sausage Company
Any place with a massive cartoon pig as its mascot takes its pork seriously. Indeed, Bobak's, a combination grocery, restaurant and charcuterie, cures the assortment of kielbasa you'll find in this buffet in-house. Smoky sausages with rich tangy sauerkraut, fat pork chops and pork roast are a swiney delight, while tender prime rib, smoky roast chicken and lean corn beef round out the meat selection. Carb lovers will find piles of sweet apple and savory crispy potato pancakes and sweet cheese pierogis. Fruit-filled cheese blintzes make for a great meal's end; if your sweet tooth isn't satisfied, you can grab a dozen pazcki from the bakery to go. Cost: $8.95 lunch, $9.95 dinner.
Go brunch: Stanley's Kitchen and Tap
No Sunday breakfast buffet would be complete without a little hair of the dog, and Stanley's buffet features a bloody mary bar that is a make-your-own affair. An endless assortment of tomato juices (clamato included), various hot sauces, olives, celery and citrus cover the bar, allowing you to mix your poison the way you like it. Assuming you came to soothe the previous night's bender and not to just to keep it going, you can load up on made-to-order omelets, creamy mac and cheese, crispy fried chicken, sweet thick waffles, good sawmill gravy and biscuits and fresh baked cookies for dessert. Cost: $10.95 Sunday brunch. $8 bloody mary bar.
More all-you-can-eat buffets:
Best Indian buffet within city limits: India House (lunch only, $12.95-$13.95)
Best vegetarian buffet: Arya Bhavan ($10.99, weekday lunch and weekend nights only)
Best all-you-can-eat in the Loop: Baisi Thai ($9.95)