I turned 60 this week. As I see it, I am more wrinkled now and thus even more qualified to write this blog. So while I was fondly recalling my youth, I pondered the many other things that have gone by the wayside: typewriters, cassette players, corded telephones and – the midnight buffet.
In the early days of mass market cruising, food was the primary reason people travelled by ship. Ads showed people gorging on giant lobsters, feasting on an unlimited sea of shrimp, and devouring sugary delights of every shape and hue.
Back then, pizza wasn’t available round the clock, there were no food courts with their dozens of specialty and ethnic restaurants and room service was extremely limited or non-existent. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of food available.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner were only served in the dining room, but meals were so substantial that you didn’t have the desire to eat between them. I mean, on my first cruise on the NCL Skyward, I recall so much silver on the table that I had to ask my tablemates what to do with it all. As it turned out, each of those 20 utensils (or so it seemed) represented a course or a beverage.
You had fruit in your room. It wasn’t a welcome gift like it is today. They brought it to your stateroom daily, ‘just because’. Gourmet hors d’ oeuvres flowed at every bar. Not goldfish crackers. This was the hard stuff. Many of the lines offered high tea featuring a selection of loose teas and scones with real Devonshire cream. Today if you can find one, most offer bagged tea and cookies. Back then, there was no additional charge.
So it stands to reason that the midnight buffet was a natural progression: it was the only time of the night when food wasn’t available, so the cruise lines made it available. It was heavily promoted and the cruising public loved it!
In its heyday, the midnight buffet took place every night. When the doors of the main dining room flung open at 11:45, it was a sight to behold! There were dozens of dramatic ice and butter sculptures, fresh flowers everywhere and the food – oh the food! You found everything from endless shrimp to a dessert area that was so pretty and so big that you almost didn’t want to touch it. Yet you did.
You looked in awe and took photos until midnight when the buffet officially opened. In what seemed like minutes, it was all but destroyed by diners who like vultures, sampled all the goodies leaving only a few crumbs.
Then things started to change. I don’t remember exactly when they stopped serving the midnight buffet. It just sort of dwindled away.
First came the round the clock pizzerias. Then there were the food courts featuring all sorts of selections from sandwiches to Indian specialties. Then barbeques appeared and casual dining areas cropped up for those who didn’t want to play dress up. Suddenly there was food anywhere and the midnight buffet began to lose favor with the hungry masses.
Soon dozens of ice sculptures were replaced by one or two. Shrimp was replaced by tacos. The buffet service was cut to two or three nights a week and lots of food went wasted because there were so many other options.
There are a few stragglers on today. There is the occasional late night food extravaganza or the elaborate brunch, but none compares to the original midnight buffet.
Like my youth, I wouldn’t want it to make a comeback because overall it was awfully wasteful. But I will always remember it fondly for what it was – a little piece of cruise history that became outdated, much like my old friend the typewriter.