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This issue of Desert Companion includes a travel guide to mountain towns — where to stay, eat, and play, and what to see in five high-elevation, low-stress destinations within a day’s drive (or less!) of Las Vegas. Bonus: an adapted excerpt from the forthcoming book Chasing Giants: In Search of the World’s Largest Freshwater Fish.

All You Can’t Eat

An arrangement of foods from the Wicked Spoon
Caesars Bacchanal Buffet

Are the Vegas casino buffet’s salad days over, or is it coming back for seconds?

With buffets gradually — and quietly — slipping into oblivion across the valley, many lovers of the all-you-can-eat extravaganzas are finding themselves asking: Is the Las Vegas buffet dying?

Maybe not.

“To misquote Mark Twain, their demise has been greatly exaggerated,” says Mehmet Erdem, an associate professor in the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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Las Vegas is a destination city, and most destination cities are known for a food item or style of cuisine, he says. Think: cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, or Cajun/Creole food in New Orleans. Las Vegas is known for indulgence in pretty much every category. In dining, that often means a lavish buffet.

Erdem says he remembers his own first visit to Las Vegas as a tourist in 1997, when he went to the Flamingo for lobster and steak — for $9.99.

“It was crazy,” he says. “Lobster, steak, and a buffet.”

But it’s been a while since the Strip was peppered with bargain buffets. Starting with Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan in 2010 and followed by Bacchanal at Caesars Palace in 2012, the steam trays faded away and individual servings — with, in many cases, on-demand preparation — arrived. Taste, quality, and appearance became more important than bargains, and prices went up accordingly. But it was still culinary excess, albeit an updated version, with some of the newer buffets offering as many as 500 choices.

“Vegas resorts are telling people this is part of the experience package,” Erdem says. “You’re not going to get this kind of experience anyplace else.”

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The locals buffets, on the other hand, were long viewed as loss leaders.

“The goal was not to make money,” he says. “The goal was to bring locals in. Then comes COVID. One of the things COVID taught the industry was we need to do more with less and generate revenue more carefully. They’re looking at revenue generated per square foot. Revenue techniques didn’t happen just after COVID, but COVID put it more in focus.”

Indeed. In a May 2020 earnings call, Frank Fertitta III, CEO and board chairman of Red Rock Resorts, parent company of Station Casinos, sounded the death knell for locals’ beloved feeding frenzies.

“Buffets generate traffic, but they definitely were loss leaders,” Fertitta said at the time. “So, we’re going to narrow it down to basically the restaurants that were the most popular.”

He was addressing initial phases of reopening, but buffets never returned to any Station casino, and in some cases, such as Red Rock Resort, their spaces have been converted to full-service restaurants. (As for other locals buffets, the ones at South Point and JW Marriott/The Resort at Summerlin are back in operation.)

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But Anthony Curtis, publisher of Las Vegas Advisor, which since 1983 has been closely following gaming-industry trends including dining, thinks the coronavirus was a convenient scapegoat.

“I think for the most part, the buffets were a tough thing for the casinos to stop,” Curtis says. “I think that COVID was exactly what the casinos wanted to get out of them.”

And he’s dubious that locals buffets were simply lures to draw gamblers into casinos — something he says has been discounted over the years by “people deep inside.”

“I’m the only one who disputes that buffets are loss leaders,” he says; it’s just that “they don’t make the money they want them to make.”

Curtis has watched as a number of buffets were converted to spaces for individual, compact, quick-service restaurants. “The food court is the new buffet,” he says. “Oh, excuse me, food hall.”

Some of these conversions have occurred in the tourism corridor. David Strow, Boyd Gaming’s vice president of corporate communications, says the old buffet at the company’s Fremont Street location was converted to casino space, with a food hall opening in December in newly constructed space behind that. The restaurants there, he says, include national chains such as Steak ’n Shake and Dunkin’, and local restaurants including Craft Kitchen and Tomo Noodles.

”They’re restaurants where you can eat quickly, but they’re going to be high-quality dining experiences,” says Strow, adding the company identified that as a need downtown. So far, the company is “extremely pleased with the buzz we’ve gotten and the results” through increased traffic, he says.

In late December, Proper Eats food hall opened in the former buffet space at MGM Resort’s International’s Aria on the Strip — a place Erdem says had not long before been updated to the tune of several million dollars.

Jason McLeod, culinary director of Proper Eats, which is operated by Clique Hospitality, says diversity was foremost when the space’s restaurants were selected.

“If there was a group of six or eight people — families or bachelor or bachelorette parties — how did we eliminate the ‘no’ vote?” he says. “That was the biggest thing we talked about in the very early stages. Overall, all of the stalls fell into place where we thought they would.”

Like Boyd’s Strow, McLeod says the response so far has been strong.

“We predicted that Temaki (Bar), Egghead, and Lola’s Burgers would be our top three,” he says. “But Laughing Buddha has really taken off.” Other options include Wexler’s Deli, Shalom Y’all, and Pizzaoki.

While Aria has been an exception to the bigger resorts maintaining and improving their buffets, Erdem notes, MGM also owns the next-door Cosmopolitan, whose Wicked Spoon is renowned.

McLeod says he’s spoken to some longtime Aria guests who were excited by “the freshness of the food hall.”

Curtis, though, says lots of Las Vegas Advisor readers have expressed dismay at the shift. “‘Very disappointed’; we get that all the time,” he says. “‘When are the buffets going to come back?’”

He says to stay tuned. “The term we’re all so sick of hearing is ‘pent-up demand,’” he says, but it’s a valid point. Because of the COVID closure and stimulus money, people have been flocking back to town — no matter what. “It’s not sustainable,” he adds. “We’re getting to the end of that. We’ll see what happens. These halcyon days, I think, are coming to an end.”

And maybe further changes are on the horizon. “Absolutely, they’ll adapt,” Curtis says, referring to casino companies. “If there’s some bottom-line pressure, then of course they will. That’s my advice to these customers: If you want to see things going back to the way they were, vote with your feet and don’t patronize what’s in its place.”