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Redefining All-You-Can-Eat

Myrtle Beach has anchored the area's restaurant industry around seafood buffets for decades. Today, society is tuned into the Food Network and online restaurant reviews virtually daily, so the luster and integrity of the "all-you-can-eat buffet" has diminished significantly. Our focus, as a population, has shifted from preferring mass quantities of food to opting for items that are fresh and flavorful. We have finally discovered that good food has little to do with heat lamps and chafing dishes. The constant thread from one generation to the next is value. We all want a value when we dine out. So, in response to our new-found food savvy, there are concepts of all-you-can-eat restaurants in Myrtle Beach that answer the endless questions about service, quality and price.

Rioz Brazilian Steakhouse in Myrtle Beach serves in the all-you-can-eat style, but the focus goes well beyond expectation. I'm a long-time fan of the churrascaria style of cooking (grilled over an open flame) and the first thing you notice about Rioz is that it literally smells like steak on a grill. The walk to the table acted as an impromptu amuse-bouche and surely tempted my carnivorous habits. Instead of serving yourself in a buffet line, a team of gauchos (loosely translated as a cowboy) serve grilled cuts of beef, lamb, pork, and poultry tableside. The gauchos also versed me in grilled spiced pineapple, of which I still have cravings for. Likewise, other servers kept the table stocked with side dishes and beverages. I highly recommend the tableside preparation of Brazil's national cocktail, the Caipirinha. Rioz is the only place on the beach that I've visited that serves this drink properly. Given the service at the table, Rioz didn't feel like an all-you-can-eat restaurant. In fact, the salad bar is the only self-service part of the experience. From Italian meats to steamed shrimp to sushi, there is no wonder that it is also offered as a meal on its own. At $34.95 for an adult dinner, Rioz is an answer to our quest for high quality food and drink, substantial portions and attentive service. Rioz definitely raises the bar for the next generation of all-you-can-eat restaurants in Myrtle Beach.

Possibly the newest all-you-can-eat trend on the Grand Strand is the Mongolian Barbeque. My first experience in the late 1990s at a Mongolian Barbeque invoked expectations of Asian brisket. I quickly learned the truth. The concept has beginnings in ancient Mongolia, as legend has it, but became vastly popular in Taiwan in the late 20th Century. It refers to stir frying on a large, flat iron skillet at very high temperatures.

It has nothing to do with our definition of barbeque these days, but if you crave Asian-inspired cuisine, Empire Fire Mongolian Grill in North Myrtle Beach is a great place to experience this style of cooking. The buffet lines consist of raw vegetables, noodles and seafood as well as dried meats. I'm sure the dried meat is to honor a health code of sorts, but I always choose the seafood nonetheless. Once you select your items, a chef combines them with your choice of sauce before being cooked right in front of you on a flat iron large enough to allow three or four chefs to cook at once. In another area of the restaurant, a sushi chef makes maki rolls and yet another chef grills shrimp and steak to order. There is also a more traditional buffet line with soups, some items for kids and an array of dessert selections. While the service is fast and on par with any standard buffet, the two saving graces for a Mongolian barbeque are the chefs cooking the food in front of you and the preparation being, relatively speaking, healthy. Cooking fresh food in a simple way keeps both the nutritional value and flavor profile in tact from start to finish. In fact, you choose what you eat, what sauce you have and what starch, if any, you want. It's easy to eat healthy at Empire Fire and, for less than $12 for an adult buffet; the price comes in cheaper than many all-you-can-eat deals in town.

In today's economy, value reigns supreme with service and quality coming in as close seconds. In the recent past, we have seen places such as Rioz and Empire Fire instill a sense of pride in their food and service in order to win the local business. While there is significant economic value in the older buffets, in terms of employment and tourism, I do commend the innovation and attention to value, service and quality displayed by the newer all-you-can-eat style restaurants. If you must eat all you want, then eat well when you do.