One of America's Best Buffets Is Nowhere Near Las Vegas

At the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the classic Shady Maple Smorgasbord is selling a trip back in time, at exceedingly reasonable prices.

My introduction to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking came the summer my parents decided to send me to live on a farm in Lancaster County. I know exactly what they expected me to glean from the experience, and I'm proud to say I learned absolutely nothing I was supposed to.

Beyond a newfound respect for the intelligence of pigs, and an affinity for Turkey Hill brand iced teas, what I really came away with was an abiding affection for the often brutally simple cuisine. We're talking about a group of people who, at least back in those days, considered ketchup an extravagance. That kind of simple.

It's easy to understand why some people don't get Lancaster's Shady Maple Smorgasbord — the largest buffet in the U.S. — at all. I absolutely get why, upon encountering the 200-foot buffet, a good number of diners are more than a little perplexed. How much desiccated cooked veg does one groaning board need? How many lightly seasoned cold salads or eggs pickled in bright red beet juice, can one consume in one sitting? Are they seriously serving baked ribs, without irony? Does the gravy go on everything or only most things?

My own first trip to Shady Maple, years after I'd last indulged in the local cooking, I had no such questions. Entering the buffet area, I was transported to Mrs. Hoover's poorly lit kitchen, back in Ephrata. There were the baked meats. The lima beans. The potato rolls — the real potato rolls, ones made fresh. This time, however, I could go back for seconds and not risk another lecture on the evils of gluttony. A trip back to a simpler time but without the bad bits. In these tumultuous times, what more could you ask for?

There were beautifully plump, almost cherry red legs of smoked chicken. Surprisingly meaty — if baked, yes — barbecue ribs that even a snob would have to admit end up tasting pretty great. Deliciously funky, grilled chicken livers. Kielbasa with the appropriate snap, crackle, and pop. Potato pancakes and fresh rolls of all kinds, alongside vats of fresh apple butter. In a minute's time, you could pull together a meal that will be far from the most adventurous you'll have ever eaten, but one that will also ably demonstrate that extreme beauty can often be found in complete simplicity.

At the very least, you'll love the price point. On my last visit, I paid about $15 for lunch, including tax. (The price inches up to $23 or so for dinners and a little over that on Saturday nights, but that's only because they offer an even more extravagant spread. They are closed on Sundays.)

Owned by the Weaver family, Shady Maple is just over two hours by car from Manhattan and much closer to Philadelphia. It's just one piece of an empire that began with a humble farm stand, located near a busy intersection, out in the fields of Lancaster County.

After over 60 years, that stand is now a sprawling, indoor market, operating year-round; across the parking lot is the Smorgasbord, added in 1985, which has grown to 110,000 square feet of classic gastronomic pleasure, and that's not even counting the legendary gift shop and quick-service café downstairs, which adds nearly 50,000 more square feet of space to the mix. Many Las Vegas buffets top out at a fraction of that. Every square foot of the space is needed — nearly 1.5 million people stop in for a meal at Shady Maple each year. (If you don't like lively crowds, come on weekdays, or don't come at all.)

The buffet is about 200-feet-long and generously complimented by four live-action grill stations. One is dedicated to all-day breakfast and another is a gold mine of very good meats, including a decent brisket, fresh-carved as needed. There are burgers, too, even kid-friendly things like pizza and French fries.

On my latest visit, I found their typical beef offerings (including their so-called "famous" roast on the buffet line) to be far inferior to the pork and chicken offerings; the abundance of old-school (not fancy) fried chicken alone will overwhelm. Those vegetables might not look great, sure, but don't be timid — there's something, in particular, about those lima beans in barbecue sauce, best consumed with a bit of salty, baked ham — that's well worth exploring.

And then there's the dessert — pies, cakes, puddings, ice creams of all kinds; by now, best case scenario, you probably won't have much room left — still, a modest slice of the simple local specialty, Shoo-Fly Pie, along with a cup of locally roasted, organic coffee, make a great digestive.

Unless you've spent your whole life on a farm in the county, the venue will appear as plain as the food — attempts have been made to glam up the lobby, and a couple of the anterooms have a distinct, classic charm, with giant windows letting as much light in as possible. Most diners, however, are seated in a simple, cafeteria-like setting, underneath the most basic lighting.

Tables are cleared as soon as you move your plates to the edge, and service is brisk, but I found everyone to be uncommonly patient, considering the workload and the fact that you're not supposed to tip. Locals come here as much as city folk or tour buses of bemused international tourists — you're as likely to be seated next to a group of young farmhands from up the road, as you are to be surrounded by a church group from Philadelphia. It's a terrific slice of life as it has been lived in Southeastern Pennsylvania for generations now and hopefully will be for many more. I bet you'll be back for seconds.

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