With the economic downturn continuing to bite in Japan, people who still want to dine out are driving a renewed enthusiasm for buffet restaurants.

Often known as "viking" in Japan - for reasons that are not entirely clear - the buffet is suddenly fashionable, according to restaurant operators.

"Buffets are surely becoming more and more trendy, due to the wide variety, freshness and value for money," said Denis Richter, executive assistant manager for food and beverages at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo.

Holder of three coveted Michelin stars for three of its restaurants, the hotel's Ventaglio has been serving up a lunchtime buffet - including an impressive dessert selection - since 2005.

"Organic seems to be the buzzword for 2010 and people really seem to be paying attention to where the produce comes from," said Richter. "Another trend that we are monitoring is that guests are once again looking for their all-time favorites, as well as 'comfort food'."

The organic element is also proving popular elsewhere.

"Every day, our most popular dishes are brown rice and traditional miso soup and we believe that is because we always use organic ingredients and natural foods," said Mari Ishimura, of the vegetarian restaurant Naht.

"Our buffet-style meals may not be all that profitable, but our customers know they are tasty and safe and they're comfortable coming to our restaurant."

Many of the regular customers at the restaurant, located near the Budokan Hall in central Tokyo, are salarymen or middle-aged people living nearby who want to eat healthily, but can also take advantage of fusion-style dishes that meld Japanese tastes with cooking techniques from France and Italy. Right now, the "chanko nabe" - so beloved by sumo wrestlers - is also hitting the spot with diners.

Restaurateurs here are inventive in coming up with ways to stand out from the crowd, with some specializing in buffets containing only fruit and cakes, or Chinese dim sum, while diners who have found their sea legs can try a buffet on a cruise around Tokyo Bay.

Others, such as the Restaurant Stockholm, offer a taste of the cuisine that is unique to their countries.

"Perhaps Japanese people have heard of 'smorgasbord' and meatballs, which we serve all year round, but we have some excellent winter dishes - such as potato and anchovy gratin - and the crayfish are a traditional summer meal," said Hideki Takeuchi, manager of the Akasaka district restaurant.

The Mango Tree is a Thai restaurant that occupies a coveted spot in the Marunouchi Building, with fantastic views out across the city.

"I think that Japanese people really are interested in food from abroad and we find that customers like the freedom of being able to try a little bit of a lot of things, which is why they come to buffets," said Aya Tanaka.