Down Home Cookin': Cracker Barrel & Old Country Buffet

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Cracker Barrel
6643 Transit Rd., Williamsville, NY 14221
Web: Cracker Barrel
Phone: 716.635.9542
Rating:    [learn more]
Pros:

Fine Southern-style fried, mashed, and broiled foods served in generous quantities at reasonable prices; inexpensive drinks and desserts add to appeal. Charmingly quaint venue with an attached, old-fashioned general store.


Cons:

Overall food quality and ambience are nothing special; store-bought versions of anything here will likely be as good, assuming you're willing to do the work yourself.


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"Cracker Barrel may not be a phenomenal restaurant - it merits 2.5 stars - but it's surely a better place to eat for $12.50 per person than Old Country Buffet, which earns 1.5 stars."


Old Country Buffet, we remember your Amherst location fondly as the wholly American alternative to the Chinese and Indian buffets we used to love during college - the place we'd go for some good carved ham or beef, fried chicken, and baked fish when we wanted a big dinner on a small budget. My, how things have changed. Today you sell your dinners for $12.50 and your lunches for $8.58 after tax, either enough to buy a nice enough meal at plenty of other restaurants in town. Yet your meals aren't equally good, unless a customer picks through your buffet very carefully, ignoring some of your most initially attractive entrees. Amazingly, people can get better old country grub for the same prices at Cracker Barrel. So we present this review as a brief compare-and-contrast between these two Southern-fried chain restaurants, both found on Transit Road straddling Williamsville and Clarence, as well as in many other towns and cities.

Start with Old Country Buffet. If nothing else, the Clarence location's dining hall-like venue caught our attention merely by having lines out the door on major holidays and when church gets out - we figured that people must be lining up for a reason. Get inside and the answer is obvious: everyone's in line to pay for their meals before they start rather than after they finish. Once you've handed over your cash, you can sit around here for a long time drinking as much soda and eating as much food as you want. On our recent visit, we witnessed quite literally the largest human being we've ever seen in person finishing a meal here. As he walked out, the rope he was using to hold up his pants wasn't doing a very good job of keeping his lower half evenly clothed, a remarkable sight even by buffet standards. No one in the place seemed surprised that he was there.

We didn't leave quite so stuffed. Across several visits to the buffet tables, we wound up with a leathery chunk of steak, a couple of pieces of fried chicken, some extremely thin slices of ham, and portions of everything from fried clams and mini mushrooms to bread stuffing, Chinese-style orange chicken, and cornbread. The fried chicken was decent, as was the cornbread, and the stuffing was legitimately good. Everything else might as well have come out of a microwave dinner or a box of yesterday's leftovers from another restaurant. Some of the food, like the steak and orange chicken, was actually really quite bad. It completely transformed what were positive recollections of Old Country Buffet from 10 years ago into a realization that this place had at some point become little more than a filling station for a different sort of gas. Before we got to our desserts, which ultimately consisted of sloppy, handmade ice cream sundaes with picked-through toppings and slivers of fine-tasting but depressing-looking carrot cake, we knew that we really had no reason to come back again. We didn't finish our desserts.

This opinion, it should be noted, is nowhere near universal. As mentioned, lines form in front of Old Country Buffet on certain days, and between the hungry kids we saw there and the savvy adults who seem to know which items are consistently terrible or edible, this restaurant has more than enough patrons to keep it afloat even though its buffet dishes are populated with scores of items that wouldn't pass muster at other chains. We wondered, however, whether we couldn't use the same dollars better somewhere else.

Old Country Buffet on Urbanspoon

Old Country Buffet on Urbanspoon

That brought us to Cracker Barrel, a more charming Williamsville-slash-Depew area country restaurant with an entrance that's set back and off to the side of an old-style general store filled with candies, clothes, and CDs of country music. The menu here proudly touts "fancy fixin's" such as a $8.79 Roast Beef Dinner, a $7.99 Meatloaf, and an $8.99 Chicken Fried Chicken - you read that correctly. For under $9, you get a very decent-sized entree with your choice of any three side dishes from a collection of 16, including vegetables, fruits, cheese, and "dumplins." There are also $7 meals, $8 entree salads, and sub-$3 desserts. That's right, sub-$3 desserts. Consequently, you can put together a meal here that's as filling as one at Old Country Buffet and spend a little less, more, or the same dollars doing it. All you give up on is the variety of a buffet, but then, at Old Country, we were grossed out by so much of what we tried that we found ourselves happier with the fewer, properly-prepared Cracker Barrel items.

Here, our meal started out with some complementary biscuits and cornbread, both with enough butter flavor to make strong impressions. It wiped out any sweetness from the moist cornbread, but tasted fine in the biscuits, which were roughly supermarket quality; Red Lobster's famous Cheddar Bay Biscuits don't have anything to worry about here. But Cracker Barrel's entrees packed a lot more punch for the dollar than the seafood chain's. The Country Fried Steak ($9) arrived appropriately breaded and cooked inside, alongside a bowl of white, tasty gravy and plain home fries. Two other included sides, fried apples and creamy noodle "dumplins," added enough extra carbs to the plate to almost fill one of us up. It wasn't haute cuisine, but it was exactly as expected.

The other of us ordered a Chicken n' Dumplins Platter that mixed sliced white chicken breast in with the noodle dumplins, then placed it alongside chosen sides of macaroni and cheese, breaded fried okra, and more fried apples; all of these items were fine to good, and obviously freshly prepared. This platter turned out to be a big meal for the $8 asking price; we couldn't finish it all and doggie-bagged some to bring home. Then we struggled a little to finish the single dessert we ordered - a $2.69 Frozen Mug Sundae, with more ice cream and syrup that we've seen for that price in years. Given our choice of five toppings, we picked the Sorghum Molasses mostly out of curiosity, and found that it tasted like a natural, slightly anise-flavored caramel, true to our last memories of tasting bottled molasses on a spoon. Hot fudge, chocolate, plain caramel and strawberry toppings were available as alternatives for less adventurous diners.

Our grand total at Cracker Barrel was $25.28 after tax, including a nice $2 raspberry iced tea with unlimited refills, and a similarly good $1.59 hot decaf tea. For those keeping count, that's 28 cents more than we paid for two meals at Old Country Buffet, and we threw in a $4.72 tip at Cracker Barrel because our waitress was nice. We didn't tip that generously for the poor table-clearing service at the buffet, and in fact, debated whether to leave one at all.

Ultimately, when times are tough economically, it's possible to find places that will serve you plenty of food - enough, in fact, to get or keep you seriously overweight. But as we try to cope with our own expanded waistlines, we prefer to pick restaurants that serve smaller quantities of better food. Cracker Barrel may not be a phenomenal restaurant - it merits 2.5 stars - but it's surely a better place to eat for $12.50 per person than Old Country Buffet, which earns 1.5 stars; even if neither place makes its money serving health food, you're more likely to walk away satisfied eating food from the middle of the barrel than its bottom.

Cracker Barrel on Urbanspoon


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