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The end of Las Vegas buffets?

Apply whatever religious metaphors you prefer-administering the last rites, sitting shiva or preaching a mataka-bana. They all impart the same fate of a Las Vegas dining institution, the buffet. 

This death is most certainly a direct effect of the coronavirus pandemic, and, more specifically, how the human race will behave in public going forward. It’s terribly tragic for the thousands of employees who worked in these massive operations throughout the city and state.

The Las Vegas buffet as we know it was conceived in 1946, the same year that Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and his “partners” opened the Flamingo Hotel. It was at the already established El Rancho Vegas hotel where management needed a hook to keep customers in the building after the last featured show. Thus the Buckaroo Buffet was born. And as has been the case for nearly anything a resort conceives that becomes successful, other properties quickly followed suit.

When I started to put together this piece, I thought about whom I could interview that would have insight into this culinary evolution of gluttony. And after a few minutes of thought, “duh,” my boss and GT publisher, Bill Paulos. 

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He was the GM for Circus Circus and eventually vice president for the parent company which developed Luxor and Excalibur. These were buffet meccas for their particular clientele.

“I was a heretic at Circus, simply anti buffet,” said Paulos. “Management sent me to Knott’s Berry Farm in L.A. to learn how they prepared their famous fried chicken. Bill Bennett, owner of the hotel, asked how we can shorten these two-hour buffet lines without affecting the slot play.

“I said ‘Raise the price by one or two dollars’ and he looked at me as if I were insane. He asked if I was willing to put my career on the line for this philosophy. My answer was that we’d have a better customer and still get slot players. We raised the prices, the lines were still two hours, and our slot play went up.” 

Circus Circus was a regular advertiser in GT back in the 1970’s and 80’s. They always promoted the buffet and the fact they had the world’s largest plate. It was certainly a loss leader. 

Fast forward to the summer of 1989 when I first visited Las Vegas as nearly an adult (it was an excellent Tennessee driver’s license). My friend and I were staying at the Sands but knew we wanted to hang out at Caesars Palace. Earlier in the year, the award-winning movie Rain Main proved to be an incredible public relations vehicle for Caesars. 

This was the place for luxury, opulence, and a real-life strapping Caesar and stunning Cleopatra strolling around the property just schmoozing with guests. Adjoining the beautiful race and sportsbook was the Palatium Buffet. This would be our spot for dinner. It was a circular shaped, elevated space that had all the food stations toward the middle. The seating was on the perimeter. Our table faced the big screens of the sportsbook. I was crushing prime rib and had an eye on several ballgames. Basically it was what I envisioned heaven would be.  

Later that year The Mirage opened and many historians would argue this property changed the development paradigm in Las Vegas forever. The bar was raised in every aspect of the resort whether it be rooms, dining, the pool area, and of course, the entertainment. I moved here in 1992 and was certainly spending a good amount of time there when I wasn’t working. The buffet was top notch. I didn’t hesitate to ask my casino host Gil Cohen for a ticket (a comp slip) whenever me and some friends were famished.

To this day there has not been a coconut macaroon that has come remotely close to that of the Mirage Buffet.

As Las Vegas and buffets evolved, we started to witness both creative and innovative approaches to the niche. The all-suite Rio Hotel conceived the Carnival World Buffet where food stations were separated by cuisine type. It was quite the rage for many years. When the Rio expanded by adding a second tower and a Mardi Gras simulation through the casino, they installed a lavish seafood-only buffet.

I was at the grand opening and this buffet was incredible. They prepared shrimp more ways than Forrest Gump’s friend, Bubba Blue could ever describe.

Certain hotels built upon the basic buffet idea by implementing elaborate weekend brunch buffets. One that comes to mind was the Sterling Brunch at the Bally’s Steakhouse. They’d offer champagne, oysters, sushi, and much more. 

Back in the early 90’s this meal would cost around $50. Up until recent events took place the cost was $85. For that kind of money I’d eat until I couldn’t breathe. And definitely untuck the shirt and undo the top button.

The old Desert Inn had a great brunch set up in the back dining room, facing the pool and the golf course.

It was no surprise that when Bellagio opened a new standard for buffets was set. The food offerings and presentation was like attending a wedding at The Plaza or the Beverly Hills Hotel. Not surprisingly, this recurring theme continued when Wynn Las Vegas opened seven years later, the wedding was relocated to Dubai.

We’ve seen solid buffet iterations in recent years. The Wicked Spoon at Cosmopolitan, the buffets at M Resort, Red Rock, Aria and Caesars Bacchanal. Is it possible any of them return to business? Will they adopt the Golden Corral playbook of employee served food only? That will be quite a challenge with the cost of labor and the cleaning protocols that will be necessary.

Paulos believes less food will be eaten as portions will be smaller when served by a staff member.  This will result in better cost control. He even joked about folks being embarrassed by going back to an employee multiple times to keep filling up on a particular item. I agree with this assessment.

Time will tell as to which buffets survive this massacre. My prognostication is that it will be very few.  Not based on COVID-19 alone, but the realization that economics supersede satisfying casino guests expectations for a 70-plus-year tradition.