Three of the lunch buffets are broadly similar. (We won’t discuss Veranda, because their buffet isn't up to the mark of the other three.) Zeytin, Andalous and Terra are all “Mediterranean Grills.” They’re all priced around $15. They all offer more class, complexity, and atmosphere than your average buffet.
They're similar, yes, but not overly so. “Mediterranean Grill” is an American euphemism, used to avoid anti-Islamic prejudice, but the Muslim Mediterranean is a very diverse place. Many differences exist between Turkish, Lebanese, Greek and North African foods. The owners of Andalous and Terra are Lebanese, while Zeytin is Turkish.
Something simple like hummus or baba ghanoush doesn't differ much from buffet to buffet. All three places make fabulous cauliflower, roasted or fried until golden. But look at the bean salad. My family recipe for Turkish white bean salad is a light, summery concoction with thinly sliced tomatoes, red onions and parsley in a simple oil-vinegar dressing. Dust it with sumac and top with black olives if you like. At Terra, the dressing is similar, but the Lebanese chefs mix in big red beans for an earthier flavor. And at Zeytin the white bean salad is spicy, with a slathering of red pepper.
Each restaurant seems to win in a different category. Terra’s meat offerings are weak, including blandish saffron chicken and a shish kabob skewer that’s beautifully seasoned but kind of foamy from sitting out too long. Its pita bread is hidden in an unlabeled metal bread box, so I had to ask some random middle schooler where he got his. But they have lots of good veggies, like crisp green beans with huge slices of garlic; a big mix of sautéed spinach, bell peppers and tiny mushrooms; and maybe Irving’s best falafel.
Andalous excels at salads. They have literally a dozen kinds of salad, from beans to tabbouleh to Greek, and I've never had a bad one. Andalous also serves the freshest, hottest pita bread, baked right in front of you. Zeytin won points from my Israeli-American friend Ariel for spicy hummus that’s “true Mediterranean spicy,” not watered down for cowardly Americans like the competition's. And at Zeytin you can get fried eggplant made just the way my mom learned to make it as a kid in Istanbul, plus a surprisingly good selection of affordable wines.
The three buffets also have different atmospheres. Terra has a liquor license and a fully stocked bar, with draft beers including Grapevine Lakefire, Rahr & Sons Ugly Pug and a couple Revolver taps. (They had just run out of Franziskaner when I visited.) Terra is also trendy: the stereo plays "Uptown Funk" and "Blurred Lines," and don’t even try going on Friday at noon, when hungry crowds stand outside like zombies at the Winchester Pub. Andalous, just a block away, is slightly less packed, and doesn't serve booze. Zeytin, the only place not on MacArthur Boulevard, is so quiet you can walk straight up and get a meal without any wait.
Need dessert? At Andalous, you can pick up baklava and other baked treats at the cash register. I’m not a fan of rice pudding, but when my friends got the rice pudding at Zeytin, they said, “Now this is rice pudding. It’s so good it doesn’t need adjectives.”
So which Irving buffet spot is the best? I’m in love with the salad selection at Andalous, and when I took my coworkers along, they enjoyed everything they tried, including a chicken stew and a well-made gyros sandwich, ordered from the menu. But my top pick is Zeytin, because the crowds haven’t found it yet, and the meat dishes are more consistent than at the others. Also, maybe I’m biased because Zeytin is Turkish and I am too. Deal with it.
Technical note: At Andalous and Zeytin, the meal is cafeteria-style. You point at what you want and they give it to you. Zeytin is still all-you-can-eat, while Andalous charges you by the item. Trust me, if you max out on salads, you will not be hungry.