When ordering in a restaurant, you must have come across the term à la carte at least once in your life. But what does it really mean? There is more than one way to order food in a restaurant and à la carte is only one of them.
A buffet means all you can eat for a fixed price. In a cruise ship, breakfast, lunch and dinner are all buffet affairs.
Prix fixe means “a fixed price charged for any meal chosen from the variety listed on the menu.”
À la carte (literally, “by the bill of fare”) means each dish is ordered and itemized in the bill separately.
Buffet and smorgasbord
Before restaurant buffets became the craze, all-you-can-eat meals were called smorgasbord. I remember my father taking me to Marquina (closed now for years) in Manila for lunch and I had the time of my life.
I so loved the experience that by the mid-1990’s when buffets started to become mainstream, Sunday lunch found us at a new restaurant every time. The best we went to at the time was the buffet at a hotel rumored to be owned by film producer Lily Monteverde. The roast duck was sublime. Still, after too many buffets, we were bored. With few exceptions, it was more of the practically the same dishes each time despite the different names and locations of the establishments. We started to stay away from them.
It would take a decade for us to renew our love affair with local buffets. By then, buffets ranged from inexpensive to super expensive and each establishment boasted of a specialty. Spiral at Sofitel, for instance, has its to-die-for cheese room while the much less expensive Sambokojin has Japanese and Korean food, and a smokeless grill at the center of the dining table.
Today, we’ve entered another we’re-bored-with-buffets phase. As I try to recall each and every buffet we’ve been to (some with longing and others with disgust), I wonder how the moniker for these all-you-can-eat feasts transitioned from “smorgasbord” to “buffet”.
Is “buffet” just another name for “smorgasbord”?
In widespread current usage, yes. Historically and culturally, however, there is a distinction.
Buffet is the French name for a sideboard furniture—a cabinet that consists of shelves and drawers where China and silverware are stored and often displayed. Its purpose—historically, at least—was to display the wealth of its owners.
Unlike the taller China cabinet, the French buffet is no higher than the dining table.
Smorgasbord is derived from the Swedish word smörgåsbord—”smörgås” means sandwich and “bord” means table— which traces its roots to the brännvinsbord, a table of small, open-faced sandwiches served before the main meal. Think simple hors d’oeuvres served to people on their feet, mingling and indulging in small talk, before dinner.
How did smörgåsbord become smorgasbord? The internationalization of the spelling was the result of the Americans embracing a Swedish custom.
The first smorgasbord in America was seen at the 1939 World’s Fair held in New York, when Sweden’s delegation served up a traditional buffet as part of the exhibition. The Americans loved it so much they got rid of the pesky dots and rings over the “o” and “a” and americanized the word into its current state.
When did “smorgasbord” become “buffet”?
You must have figured that out already, right? The Swedish smörgåsbord is a side meal and the French buffet is a sideboard… Although unrelated, the name of the furniture positioned on one side of the dining room was applied by the English-speaking world to the practice of serving an array of food “on the side”.
Today, buffet means a meal where all the dishes are laid out on a table or series of tables and diners serve themselves.