This restaurant, situated in the corner of a shopping mall on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City — was unrelated to the chain of Ponderosa Steak Houses that now dot the nation. This one was a huge “all you can eat” emporium that my friends and I loved in the seventies and eighties. It was set up cafeteria-style with a large salad bar and then a carving station where several chefs would dispense about six different entrees including prime rib, baked ham, roast turkey and corned beef, and as many side dishes. The food was pretty decent but of course, the best part was that you could go back for more and more and more, and you could try everything.
What fascinated me about the place was that while the outside advertising emphasized how you could stuff yourself on meat for a modest price, once you were inside, all efforts were devoted to getting you to eat the cheap foods. Servers would place baskets of very fine, thick-sliced sourdough bread on your table and tell you how yummy it was. They were also apparently instructed to never take away a dirty plate until you’d eaten every possible scrap of edible material on it. If you tried to get them to remove a plate with one more bite on it, they’d look at you like you couldn’t possibly be serious and ask, “But…aren’t you going to eat that?”
In the meantime, you had to pass the salad bar to get to where they carved the prime rib and if you hadn’t already put a lot of lettuce on your plate, the carvers would look at you in astonishment and mutter, “No salad?” Like they were very concerned you get a balanced diet. As you went back for your third or fourth helping, the slices would get thinner and they’d hurriedly toss a huge scoop of rice or mashed potatoes on your plate even before you asked for a side dish.
Once, I talked to the manager about booking a banquet there for C.A.P.S., the cartoonist group of which I was then president. He told me they loved private parties and explained to me that private parties were not on an “all you can eat” basis. The way it worked, when our group was ready to dine, they’d close off the serving line to everyone but us. We could then go through and each of us could have our pick on any of their entrees, which would be carved for us in portions larger than the usual serving size for the Ponderosa.
After I left, I realized two things. One was that our members would complain about the cost per plate, which was higher than the “all you can eat” price to eat the same food if you were dining in the next room. Also, I realized that we’d become part of the restaurant’s efforts to get their patrons to not go back for more food. It would take our group at least twenty minutes to go through that serving line, during which all the other folks dining in the restaurant wouldn’t be able to get seconds or thirds or ninths. I think that was the main reason they liked private parties.