"I love buffets," a Japanese acquaintance once confided to me, "but I can never get my husband to come to one with me. He insists that you can't get good food at a buffet." I told her: "Try taking him to Hinano. He might change his mind."
Shunsai Shokuken Hinano, to give it its full name (which your navigator is most likely to recognize), is a chain of buffet restaurants with 43 branches throughout Japan, from Sapporo to Wakayama. Their policy is to use local, organic, seasonal ingredients, and combine them into original creations without any additives, preservatives, artificial colors or flavors. Consequently, the menu varies widely. There are some reliable standbys: a salad bar, vegetable tempura (the carrots, remarkably sweet, are highly recommended), and mabo-dofu (Chinese-style tofu with ground pork in a spicy sauce), among others. Some perennial kids' favorites (such as mild curry with rice, and french fries or hash browns) are also standard. Apart from those, the buffet table will generally be full of surprises, but always well balanced between Japanese and Western-style dishes. When last we went, during the Christmas season, some of their featured items were pot au feu, glazed carrots, mildly spiced chicken wings, and tuna-potato pizza with a touch of curry powder.
The drink bar (included in the price) features a variety of juices, organic tea and coffee, and five kinds of Japanese tea. There is also a dessert bar with cakes, cookies, and the occasional mousse or pudding, none of them overly sweet, and all served in minuscule portions in case you have no room in your stomach after a couple of trips to the buffet table. (If you do, you can always go back for more.)
The Isehara branch, closest to me, is a favorite haunt for my family. At the peak lunch hour, especially on weekends, we sometimes have to wait for a table, but never unreasonably long, especially considering that once we're seated, there's no need to wait any longer for our food.
And sure enough, the husband of my buffet-loving friend, after his first Hinano experience, became a convert.
The Isehara branch is open for lunch from 11:30 to 4:00, dinner from 5:30 to 10:30. (Buffet service ends half an hour before closing time.) Lunch for adults is ￥1680; dinner is ￥2100. For those who enjoy a lively party, the all-you-can-drink supplement is ￥1500. For the more family-oriented types, children under middle school age are charged half the adult price (￥840 for lunch, ￥1050 for dinner). Those below elementary school age can partake for ￥400 (both lunch and dinner), and those under age 4 are free. And if you'd like to bring the grandparents as well as the kids, Monday is "Silver Day", with a ￥500 discount for customers over 65. Prices and opening times in other locations may vary; check their website for details.