Mark with reference to the Comic Strip, I don’t know how much help I can offer. It seems to me you are operating a club through which performers pass whereas the Comic Strip was a comedy troupe-a group of people who wanted to work together-who happened to have their own club. After all the place only lasted a year, once all the performers moved in to TV and film the club closed, it was not passed on to other comedians. So if you want to move things on then you might want to try and found your own troupe who move on together or you can keep running the club but the quality of the performers I think will inevitably vary. I suppose there are clubs like Second City that do have a continuing ethos but I don’t have any experience of that.
Dan, I felt shame when you described the behaviour of people at the supermarket salad bar because that is me, I am a crammer. However I do think taking a rubber band is cheating, you have to be able to get the lid on, that’s the game yo. Its like there used to be one of those weird Chinese Veg buffet places just over the road from the pub in Clerkenwell where all the bike messengers used to meet on a Friday. Some of them would come in, pay the takeaway price of £3.50 rather than the sit down price of £6.00 but then they would cram their takeaway container way beyond the level where they could ever possibly get the lid on. The messengers would then sit outside the restaurant and eat their food. To me that was an absolute outrage completely betraying the whole morality system of the all you can eat buffet but I never said anything because I didn’t want my parcels to go astray.
Since you ask, here’s my article from The Times yesterday but sadly not the photos.
You don’t always know exactly when you fall in love - once it has happened it is very hard to remember that you were not always in thrall to the beloved one - but I can date my lasting passion for all-you-can-eat-buffets to a specific moment which involved some art students, gravity and a hat-stand. When I was a child in Liverpool working-class families such as ours did not eat out frequently but when we did, at the Bon Marche department store or a Kardomah Cafe, there always seemed to be a tremendous lack of generosity in both the service and the cuisine. The staff would grudgingly dole out tiny portions of food as if us diners were survivors of a shipwreck who were now crammed into a lifeboat under the baking sun with rescue not expected to arrive for weeks. You always had the feeling while dining in a British restaurant in the 1950s or 1960s that if you tried to get more than your meagre rations the head waiter was going to shoot you with a revolver.
I might have accepted this if I hadn’t had something to compare it with. My father was a railway guard and the most important thing that came with my his job was free rail travel. Every railway worker and their family could go absolutely anywhere in Europe for twenty-five percent of the normal fare and we were in addition entitled to six free passes a year which meant we could travel right up to the borders of the Soviet Union for nothing. All ferries - to Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Scottish Isles, across the Baltic and over the English Channel - were also included in the deal. So from the age of six I travelled with him and my mother all over Europe and, as he was also a communist, our journeys tended to end in one of the countries of the old Soviet bloc. In a workers’ cafe in Paris I had dined on simple cuisine de terroir: fresh bread, coq au vin, fragrant salad of a quality you couldn’t approach even in a top hotel in Liverpool. On the tables were Duralex glasses, sturdy and elegant, carafes of water and a rough but drinkable vin de table. I’d eaten a Wiener Schnitzel with a fried egg on top in a traditional restaurant in Vienna, a huge old place with warped ancient wooden floorboards and a gigantic, ornate, black iron stove in the centre of the room with a fat pipe reaching up to the ceiling and among the tables waiters in long aprons pirouetted with massive trays of food held high above their shoulders. In Hungary in a cafe beside Lake Balaton I saw what a salad really could be like :there were red, green and yellow peppers, corn on the cob, huge tomatoes stuffed with Russian salad, artichokes, celery, lentils, okra and fresh herbs all of them covered in rich oils or smooth mayonnaise. In none of these places did I feel like I was appearing in an amateur production of In “Which We Serve.”
I longed to discover the same munificence in Britain but it wasn’t until I was studying at art school in Chelsea that one of my fellow students told me about a place in Kensington that for a single price let you eat as much as you wanted from what they described as a groaning buffet table. Almost in a trance I said “I want to go to there.” Urged on by me an enthusiastic group of us arranged to visit this Promised Land the very next night.
Entering the place in Kensington I was overexcited and nervous. I did not notice the hat stand by the door was already vastly over-loaded and without thinking I took my coat off and flung it on top of the heap of clothing already hanging there. The weight of my coat proved to be the final straw and caused the hat stand with a creaking groan to topple like a giant redwood tree: it seemed to tumble in slow motion until finally it came crashing down onto a table around which six or seven diners were seated. This table proved to be only an unsecured circle of chipboard resting on a trestle so the whole thing, with all the group’s food on it, tipped up and flew through the air, fortunately without hitting anyone. For a second I was paralysed with fear: in any eating place, especially back in my native Liverpool, at the very least I would have had to pay for seven people’s dinners and would still in all likelihood also have got beaten up, but with a rush of gratitude I suddenly realised that in this place and this place alone I only needed to say to the people at the table, “Look I’m very sorry about that but you can see that the hat stand was overloaded and anyway you can just go and help yourselves to more food.” Which is what they all did. And from that moment I was in love with all-you-can-eat-buffets.
Since that day I have watched as the concept has slowly spread across the country and I feel by and large that it has been a good thing. Admittedly not everyone agrees, I was reading an article a while ago lamenting the fact that Manchester’s Chinatown now has many all-you-can-eats where before there were conventional restaurants and describing this process as a race to the bottom. There is an element of truth in this. Certainly you are not going to get absolutely the finest cooking at a serve-yourself joint: it’s highly unlikely that Heston Blumenthal is ever going to open an all-you-can-eat snail porridge and black pudding ice cream restaurant (though how much of that you could manage to cram down yourself is open to question) but at the top end of the buffet market there are plenty of Chinese and Indian places that have their own sushi chefs, naan makers and wok fryers while at the bottom of the scale they are just incredible value. A friend, knowing my interest, told me about a number of pubs in the Hull area that do a carvery for a mere £3.50! Admittedly you only get one go at the huge joints of lamb, beef and pork but you are allowed to make as many trips to the vegetable selection as you like. She said that this formula had saved many of these large pubs from closing and each day coachloads of residents are brought from care homes, hospitals and prisons to eat a much nicer lunch than they would get if their establishments were doing the catering and at a price the institutions can’t match.
But I think the most persuasive argument for them is that, in my experience at least, all-you-can-eat-buffet restaurants always seem to be full of really happy people. Maybe this is because the diners are freed from many of the anxieties that still trouble them when they visit other establishments. None of the customers are going to act superior, there is no daunting menu and you serve yourself so there are no snooty staff unless you fancy being snooty to yourself.
Of course on the downside it can be hard to have a conversation because you’re always thinking about what you are going to eat next and a certain compulsion can settle in. Once when we were visiting Zen CX at the now sadly vanished Oriental City Complex in Colindale North London my friend Harry found himself pouring with sweat and certain that he was having a heart attack but he still couldn’t stop himself eating. It was only when he stopped trying to force more shrimp down his gullet that the sweat and the palpitations went away and he realised his number wasn’t up just yet.
Since the incident with the hat-stand I have dined at some of the finest buffet places in the world, such as those at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok and the Oberoi Hotel in Adelaide, but It has also become a hobby of mine to try and find the cheapest all-you-can-eat place in Britain. So far it is still Indian Veg in Chapel Market Islington. When I started going there the price was £2.50 though it has now crept up to £3.95. There always seem to be an extraordinary mix of people in there, including a large number of academics discussing string theory with pappadum crumbs in their beards, off-duty Buddhists and a smattering of people in those paper jump suits the police give you when you’ve been sick on yourself in the cells.
I have mentioned this place in a newspaper once before and when I next visited I discovered they had constructed a little Hindu shrine to me consisting of an old photo garlanded with paper flowers.
The manager also said, “ Of course Mr Sayle your meal is on the house.” “ Great... “ I thought, “everybody has their price and mine turns out to be £3.95.”