Beach-bound? Beware the buffets

Last week I came back from a short trip to Myrtle Beach telling myself one thing: I have grazed for the last time.

On the trip, I went to one of those all-you-can-eat seafood buffets, and the meal was mediocre and expensive. But I won't blame the restaurant; I won't even mention its name. Because I knew going in how much it was going to cost ($22 before drink and tax - it would have been $26 if I hadn't had a coupon).

And for the sake of my palate, my wallet and probably my health, I should have resisted - and so should you.

If you know Myrtle Beach, you know seafood buffets are everywhere. So I called a friend who knows the area for advice. She told me a place to try but said, "Really, they're all about the same." That should have been my first clue...

Our first meal at the beach hadn't been at a buffet. It was at the Pier House Restaurant, which looks over the ocean at the Second Avenue Pier. As we watched the sunset, my husband dove into a bowl of seafood pasta while I had two feather-light crabcakes. And since I was on vacation, I splurged and had a frozen hurricane. You may be thinking, "Restaurant by the ocean, crab cakes, seafood pasta, alcohol. How much did that cost?" The answer is 53 bucks and change - and that was after tax and tip. And I didn't even have a coupon. Not bad considering the quality of the food and view. I left happy.

At the seafood buffet, we dined with the early birds to get the discount on our coupon. I expected lots of fried items, but I was determined to eat a fair amount of healthier fare. I tried some broiled shrimp that were still tucked stubbornly in their shells. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised that many of the shrimp were still sporting that dark intestinal vein.

Next up was the fried fantail shrimp, baked salmon and fried clam strips. The shrimp had too much breading, the clams were soggy and the salmon was a touch overcooked. I did have some flavorful clam chowder, but as I inspected the shrimp for veins, the excitement had waned.

Many people - me included - are lured to buffets by the prospect of consuming massive quantities of food. But if the food is mediocre, what's the point?

Also, given there were so many fried items - and judging from the round shape of many of the diners' midsections (mine included) - none of us should have eaten half of what we did.

And consider this: If I hadn't had that coupon that took $4 off each meal, my buffet adventure would have cost us $52 before tax and tip - more than our oceanside meal.

It's possible to get good seafood at a reasonable price. On our way out of town, we stopped at the Mrs. Fish Seafood Grill, where we had some first-rate barbecue shrimp and a stellar grilled grouper fish taco for about $20.

My buffet experience reminds me of Las Vegas. People go to Vegas to try to beat the house, and most people go to buffets to try and beat the house - by eating as much of the restaurant's food as possible. But if the diner's cholesterol goes up in the process, what was really won? So aim for quality over quantity, and even if you think you have both, choosing moderation - in price and in portion size - is wiser.