Cheap food funded by casino revenues helped put Las Vegas on the culinary map as a locale where the cost of food was never a serious consideration. Shrimp cocktail for $.99 and "all-you-can eat" breakfast buffets for $2.49 are still standards in Las Vegas, but as times (and prices) have changed, the city that food connoisseurs once looked down upon now hosts truly elaborate gourmet buffets alongside the cheaper alternatives.
Credit for the birth of the Vegas buffet goes to the operators of the now-defunct El Rancho Vegas in 1947. Seeking a way to keep customers around to gamble after late-night headliner shows, they began rolling out "chuck wagons" at midnight in hope of fueling patrons for all-night gambling sessions. Patrons paid a dollar each to partake of the wagons laden with food. Other casinos quickly duplicated the idea with their own versions, eventually expanding the concept to breakfast and later lunch chuck wagon meals. They complemented headliner dinner shows where a steak dinner might cost between $2.50 and $3.00 each, and the chuck wagons flourished through the 1950s and 60s.
Meanwhile, many hotels offered gourmet dining rooms with meals "comped" (complimentary, or paid for by the casino) for high-rollers—and off-Strip independent eateries such as The Golden Steer, Andre's, The Tillerman, and Piero's drew recommendations for those seeking a respite from the clatter and clang of bustling casinos.
In 1969, the state legislature changed licensing laws through passage of the Corporate Gaming Act, making it possible for publicly traded corporations to own casinos. This led to major changes in all phases of casino operations, including food service. Casinos abandoned portable chuck wagons in favor of stand-alone buffets where an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet might cost $1.95 and lunches and dinners would be a couple of dollars more. A steak dinner at a headliner show now fetched closer to $20 per person. Formal dinner shows were phased out—the Las Vegas Flamingo Hilton hosted them until 2000—as the popularity of buffets grew.
While all-you-can-eat buffets continue to be "loss leaders" due to comps and high food costs, they remain an iconic part of the hotel-casino scene, a Nevada casino calling-card that continues to grow as tourists flock to Las Vegas and Reno-Tahoe resorts. And as casinos have evolved to cater to a changing clientele, buffets now offer more than cafeteria-styled eateries where food is presented on steam-tables with the emphasis on quantity, not quality.
In the late 1980s, the Rio Suite hotel-casino was among the first to unveil the "food station" concept featuring various cuisines such as American, Mexican, Italian, Japanese, and stir-fried Mongolian barbeque at stations with chefs preparing fresh food to order. The Rio's Carnival World Buffet ($12.99 lunch; $14.99 dinner) today draws up to 10,000 customers a day. Its nearby Village Seafood Buffet's $34.99 dinner sessions don't deter waits of up to two hours for fresh lobster and other seafood delights. Holding tanks of live seafood located beneath the buffet refute the adage "don't order seafood in the desert," and patrons consume up to 5,000 pounds of shrimp and crab legs each month.
Other resorts followed suit with live-action food stations and raised the stakes with more elaborately designed eating spaces featuring private dining alcoves and design elements that reduced the cattle-call atmosphere of the past buffets. For example, Le Village Buffet at the Paris hotel-casino features quaint French houses that create a sense of exclusivity for diners. Le Village's hideaways surround a central serving area where French regional dishes such as bouillabaisse are prepared at not-so-modest dinner prices of $17.95 weekdays, $24.95 on Sundays.
"Super-buffets" debuted in 1994 when the Mirage spent $12.5 million to renovate its buffet and began offering specialty foods such as cold strawberry soup and chocolate bread pudding in addition to generous cuts of roast beef, ham, and other meats. Prices range from $17.50 to $22.50 during dinner hours. The Bellagio produced a super buffet noted for unlimited king crab legs and a spectacular array of desserts; dinner sessions were priced from $26.95 to $34.95. Improved food quality and specialty marketing, such as weekend champagne brunches, have resulted in more demanding clientele and increased competition between resorts to outdo each other on the all-you-can-eat dining front. The city's most elaborate—and expensive—Sunday brunch is the Bally's Sterling Brunch, where the $62 per person tab includes unlimited pourings of Mumm Cordon Rouge champagne along with braised Maine lobster, Thai-marinated rack of lamb, oysters, sushi, and roast salmon in phyllo dough.
Not surprisingly, the "Entertainment Capital of the World" also incorporates entertainment at some of its buffets, most notably the House of Blues' Sunday Gospel Brunch at Mandalay Bay which features Southern-style fare along with live gospel groups to aid digestion at $41.95 per adult. It's a long way from the portable chuck wagon's two eggs, ham, and toast for $.99.
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