ABC Restaurant Is The Iraq Buffet Inspired By American Favorites

ABC Restaurant in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, seems an unlikely place. Here, diners move around themed buffet tables picking foods that have international inspiration, but with a heavy lean toward American cuisine. Burgers and diner fare sit alongside steaks, spaghetti in meat sauce, Turkish kofta, and more. Ephemera evocative of the American West decorates the place and a stylized Uncle Sam character works the crowds and poses with children.

The restaurant draws crowds of mixed locals with its eclectic range of foods spread across 11 buffet stations. But the concept's roots run deep and spread across oceans, both culinarily and conceptually. ABC Restaurant is part of the larger ABC Restaurants group, which was founded in the Netherlands and inspired by founder Eric Meurs' visit to a location of the iconic American buffet chain, Golden Corral, in Florida. The first ABC was opened in Velp in the Netherlands and immediately caught on with locals.

It was this popularity that attracted the attention of Northern Iraqi businessman, Nawzad Martani, looking to open a franchise in multiethnic, financially flourishing, relatively pro-West Kurdistan. The venture was seen as a bit of a gamble for all parties involved, not least with the inclusion of the Uncle Sam character, but it has proved a hit. In addition to the 1,800 seats in the Erbil restaurant, a second outpost was added in the city of Sulaimani boasting room for 800 diners.

What to expect at ABC

So, what do the Kurds and others who have made ABC such a rousing success enjoy? The answer is a bit of everything, which the restaurant provides in spades. Buffet tables are manned by chefs and carvers who help diners learn more about the food and fill their plates.

A popular draw — and possibly the most American of the buffet stations — is the steak house, exuding what ABC calls, "Route 66 atmosphere." Chefs grill cuts of beef over a fire and serve them alongside baked potatoes and corn on the cob. A diner has a casual all-American Sixties atmosphere, slinging hot dogs and quick snacks. There's also a fresh salad bar and a soup and bread station with six daily rotating selections and fresh-baked bread.

International fare ranges, but is reflective of flavors that most Americans are familiar with. That includes sushi rolls and nigiri billed as "continuously fresh" and "very healthy." There is also a wok station that serves "classic Asian specialties" made from a mix-and-match selection of sauces, vegetables, and meats. Pasta, lasagna, and pizza top the bill at the Italian section, and of course there is a Middle Eastern food stop with a specialty bread oven. Rounding out the savory selections is a "Maritime-style fish restaurant" with 10 varieties of fish as well as grilled king prawns. ABC sweetens things up, too, offering pancakes, waffles, soft-serve and scoop ice creams, donuts, brownies, cheesecake, fruit, cheeses, and more.

American flavors abroad

Of course, ABC isn't the only American-themed restaurant in the world — even if we're not counting official U.S. fast-food chains in the mix. The trend of co-opting elements of American cuisine and culture to create interesting eateries abroad has long captured attention, if occasionally in a kitsch way.

Take, for instance, the multi-storey American Dream restaurant in Paris. Although sadly closed, until 2021, it jammed into one space as much disparate neon-lit American culture as possible, and served burgers, chili, sushi, onion rings, Kentucky Barbecue, and Missouri Soup. Perhaps it was too much for residents of Paris, who prefer the authentic Fifties-style American diner, Breakfast in America, offering blueberry pancakes, burgers, and bagels to happy Parisians daily. A bit more targeted in their American theme is Betty's Midwest Kitchen, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. The restaurant owner fell hard for the hearty food of the Midwest during a visit, and today serves hungry hordes brisket, ribs, chicken-fried steak, and other comforting fare, all cured, smoked, and prepared in-house.

And, while we did just note that we're not counting fast food, we'd be remiss to leave out the loving, if illegal, homage to fast food that persists in Iran. American chains are verboten there, as is much of Western culture, but that doesn't mean there is no demand. In the vacuum, chains like Pizza Hat, Kentucky House, and Sheak Shack have been ascendant, offering their takes on the menus not available in the Islamic Republic.