Some restaurants sure did seem better when I was a kid.
Chuck E. Cheese was a magical wonderland of singing animals and perfect pizza; the ball pit at McDonald's was spotlessly clean -- and Ronald McDonald was always smiling down upon me benignly as I ate my cheeseburger that looked exactly like the picture.
It might have been smarter to skip dining at Furr's Cafeteria as an adult, keeping my childhood memories golden.
But after writing a piece on buffet etiquette -- or lack thereof -- I got a hankering to haul my cans to the Furr's at 4900 Kipling Street in Wheat Ridge, the last Denver vestige of a once-mighty empire out of Plano, Texas. My voyage across the universe yielded me my first grownup glimpse of the same kind of unstylish tan building that I used to frequent with my grandparents back in the mid-'80s, when I would cram my gullet with machine -dispensed vanilla soft-serve. The recollection was tasty.
I did not recall that Furr's allows diners to eat, then pay as they leave, so I kept trying to give everyone money on the way in -- the beverage person was particularly bewildered by this. And the buffet line itself was much smaller than I remembered. I suppose the magnificent buffet at the Bellagio in Las Vegas has spoiled me, because I was disappointed by the single-line setup of salads, entrée meats, side dishes and desserts. And not only were the mounds of wilted kale that fenced in the partitions depressing, but the trays weren't clean.
Also, you don't get to serve yourself at Furr's. This place really does take the term "cafeteria" seriously, with apron-ed and hair-netted servers waiting for item requests, then quickly dropping food on plastic plates.
I couldn't find anything to request in the cold section, where the most interesting salad seemed to be one made up of broccoli, raisins and mayonnaise. The dressing choices were limited, the fruit of questionable quality, and the the wet, sticky mounds of assorted slaws looked extremely unappetizing.
The hot entrée meats included a turkey roast; a rather gray, overdone hunk of beef roast; and some hamburger patties swimming in a dark, murky broth. The server dropped a slide of each on my plate, then added a scoop of mashed potatoes, ladling a spoonful of thin gravy over the spuds before thrusting the plate at me. I also loaded up on a couple of dry, crusty squares of fish and some green beans, as well as a mysterious, wiggly green dessert and a slice of Millionaire Pie, which I loved when I was eight.
While getting my meal, I noticed that pretty much every bit of polite buffet etiquette was unapologetically violated by the diners in line before and after me. An older gentleman snaked his hands underneath the plastic protectors to pick through the dinner rolls; the lady behind me was demanding the server cherry-pick the "good" slices of watermelon for her; stray children darted around the dining room like mosquitoes; and people were staggering from the line to their tables with so much food piled on their plates that I wondered if they understood that they could go back for more at any time. The dining room was a mess -- a pack of wild dogs would have been kept occupied with the amount of food on the floor.
I tucked into my first plate, and it became apparent that despite the pool of from-a-mix brown gravy, the meats were tough as tires. I gnawed at the roast beef for a few minutes, managing to tear a few bits off of the outsides, then I tried the turkey, which had an unpleasant, institutional flavor. The hamburger patty was so hard I had to use a knife to cut away a corner, and I chewed -- and chewed -- until it was tender enough to swallow. I poked at the fish with my fork, and finding it implacably dehydrated.
The mashed potatoes were instant. I hadn't had instant potatoes in so long that I'd forgotten what they tasted like, and was instantaneously sorry to remember.
I moved on to the mystery dessert, which appeared to be constructed out of gelatin, canned pineapple bits and cottage cheese -- all of which many have been fine to eat on their own, but together formed a tactile nightmare with a disagreeable taste.
Even the green beans were not as good as I remembered. How Furr's managed to make canned green beans unpalatable is a secret that I'm okay not knowing, but it seemed as though they were bathing in salt-free, smoked water.
I prayed to whatever god was listening that the pie was at least edible, since by this point I was frustrated -- and awfully hungry. I never knew what Millionaire Pie actually was when I was a kid; after two bites, I now deduced that it's buttercream filling topped with non-dairy whipped topping filled with chopped pecans and pineapple bits.
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The filling was so rich that it made my teeth ache, and I put down the fork. No childhood nostalgia was worth this ongoing, sadistic self-torture.
I paid, left with a rumbling tummy, and mused that maybe Golden Corral, Sizzler and every "Golden-Imperial-Dragon-Hunan-House" Chinese buffet in town weren't such bad options for food that you can actually eat. Much as I love carousing through the annals of my rosy childhood, there are plenty of things that are better left in the past.
Like Furr's Cafeteria.