Here's What Restaurants Actually Mean By 'All You Can Eat'

Have you ever hesitated to go to an "all you can eat" (or AYCE) restaurant, like one of the 20 absolute best buffets across the U.S., because you didn't know exactly what AYCE actually meant? Or did you feel confused when you were in an AYCE restaurant? You're not alone. For starters, there are a few rules you need to follow at AYCE restaurants — these rules often differ from establishment to establishment — but they are in place so people don't waste food or abuse the AYCE system. 

For one, most, if not all AYCE establishments will not allow you to take home leftovers in a doggy bag your food. And don't even think about bringing your own Tupperware, because if you're caught taking home leftovers, the restaurant may ban you permanently. However, there are AYCE restaurants, like buffets, that will allow you to buy takeout by the ounce or pound. 

Another rule that's sometimes hidden in fine print, is that you may have to pay an extra fee if you end up ordering too much food and not eating it. We recently visited an AYCE Korean barbecue restaurant in Tukwila, Washington, and while our server told us we could order as many dishes as we'd like, we only discovered the rule in fine print after studying the menu harder. If we had ordered an extra plate of galbi beef and left the plate untouched, we would probably have had to pay the "wasting food" fee. 

Everyone is happy at all you can eat restaurants when you follow rules and read the fine print

Additionally, you may have to check your smartphone or watch occasionally, as AYCE establishments may impose a time limit on you and your fellow diners. You can eat all you want but within a time frame of one to two hours. Once your time is up, you will have to leave the establishment. 

Now let's say you are at an AYCE restaurant that also offers a regular menu. It's not uncommon that if one person in your party chooses the AYCE option, the rest of your party must choose the AYCE option. Most AYCE will not allow guests to share AYCE dishes. Babies can probably eat for free, and children at a discount or half-price. If you're unsure about any of the fine print or signs you read at an AYCE establishment, ask your host or server to clarify so you avoid hidden fees and a soured experience. 

While AYCE restaurants do allow you to eat to your heart's content, note that you probably will not have unlimited time to eat and that there are reasonable limitations and rules you and your guests should follow. These rules prevent AYCE establishments from going out of business and help them make a profit. Knowing this, along with our 20 tips you need to navigate any buffet, you'll be an AYCE ace in no time.