Diving deep into the history and evolution of the Las Vegas buffet

Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet

The South has fried chicken, Texas has barbecue, Chicago has hot dogs, New York has pizza and Las Vegas has them all. That is to say, our regional cuisine is the buffet. The all-you-can-eat extravaganza is the epitome of Sin City self-indulgence. But how did buffets become synonymous with Las Vegas? How do they remain relevant in the ever-changing culinary landscape? And what are the latest #buffetlife trends? We're here with a veritable smorgasbord of answers.

Fittingly enough, the first casino on the Strip also featured the first buffet. Opened in 1941, the El Rancho Vegas fed hungry gamblers at its chuck wagon-styled Buckaroo Buffet. For the low price of $1 (the equivalent of about $12-$17 today), diners enjoyed “every possible variety of hot and cold entrées to appease the howling coyote in your innards … everything you can eat and you’ll want it all,” according to a vintage advertisement. An online exhibit about Strip dining by UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research explains that the 24-hour buffet was “a big hit” that “changed casino dining forever,” and that by the 1950s, most Strip casinos followed the El Rancho’s lead with $1.50 “midnight chuck wagon buffets.” The menus might look familiar to modern diners: lobster, steak, shrimp, cold cuts and fish.

The El Rancho’s buffet, circa 1956.

The El Rancho’s buffet, circa 1956.

Second course

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Las Vegas was starting to become a culinary destination in its own right, with the opening of the Mirage and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago at Caesars Palace. To keep pace, the better Vegas buffets began expanding beyond traditional American fare to embrace multicultural cuisine. “Casinos created exciting new spaces by renovating their old, value-oriented mess halls into fashionable, even opulent, gastronomic temples,” according to the Center for Gaming Research, which cites Treasure Island’s Dishes buffet (now called Corner Market) as one such transformation. With its international focus, the Rio’s Carnival World Buffet, in particular, helped bring buffets into the modern era.

The latest flavors

Today, buffets are thriving, and there seem to be as many trends as there are food options. Unattached from the branding of celebrity chefs or even the commitment of printed menus, buffets are free to experiment with new dish ideas.

Buffets have begun offering a variety of luxury upgrades, often involving line passes and special gourmet add-ons. At the Excalibur buffet, for example, a $10 upgrade gets you lobster tail. Many buffets now offer a bottomless booze package, typically for roughly the price of one casino-bar cocktail. The Mirage’s Cravings Buffet even features a bar with stools and a TV.

The most popular upgrade—available at the Bellagio, Mirage and Caesars Palace—might be the Chef’s Table. This concept, borrowed from elite restaurants, offers guests an opportunity to sample special foods—some presented tableside—and connect with the executive chef. Live cooking stations are all the rage, allowing diners to sample made-to-order dishes while also enjoying a bit of a show. They’ve expanded from the classic omelette station to encompass French toast, crepes, pasta, hand-tossed pizza and more.

Value customers are enjoying recent innovations, too, like all-day wristbands (Luxor’s day pass costs $40-$45, for example) and Caesars Entertainment’s popular Buffet of Buffets pass, which grants access to the buffets at the Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Harrah’s, Paris, Planet Hollywood and the Rio within one 24-hour period ($70-$80; $25-$35 upgrade to include Bacchanal). And get this: at the Mirage, your buffet meal can continue even after you’ve left the premises thanks to the To-Go Container ($16-$20 on its own or as a buffet add-on).

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