Anyone who’s visited Las Vegas knows that the formula is fairly cut and dry. Walk up to a table with 60 or so dollars, briefly allow yourself to be tricked into having a good time, then about an hour later, walk away empty handed and slightly shell-shocked. I don’t even mean gambling. I’m talking about the world-renowned Vegas-style all-you-can-eat buffet.
Vegas didn’t invent the casino, and it certainly didn’t invent the buffet. But when Las Vegas’ own Herb Macdonald charged a single dollar for his adaptation of the European tradition of smörgåsbord dining, all-you-can-eat was born and pushed to its furthest, most American limits. While Europeans were perusing modest selections of breads, cheeses, cold fish, and desserts, Las Vegas diners were presented with ever-growing heaps of luxurious-sounding food.
The Las Vegas buffet was marketed as an idealist’s dream restaurant, a place where everyone could win. Dad could have three kinds of steak, the picky eater could have seven different shapes of buttered pasta, grandpa could have two courses of shrimp cocktail interrupted by a slice of triple chocolate cake – all at the same table. The idea is so convincing that families, complete with restless children, are willing to wait two, three, even four hours before spending upwards of $60 a head just to get a coveted table at buffets at the Bellagio or Caesar’s Palace. But remember: This is Vegas. Nobody wins. Reservations are not accepted, and you can’t leave your name and risk your lunch money on the roulette wheel while you wait. The long lines wind around the outskirts of the casino floor, allowing passersby to silently judge the fools wasting their afternoons just to get into a restaurant.
On a recent trip to Vegas with my brother, I, too, found myself mocking the endless swarms of gamblers, tourists, and general eaters queuing up for the buffets. But it didn’t take long before I joined them in line. There’s a mysterious allure to gambling an absurd amount of money on a meal that has little chance of actually being good, and I wouldn’t have been in Vegas if I wasn’t planning on doing some gambling.
Although I hold a Nevada drivers license, I rarely visit Las Vegas on my trips between where I live in Philadelphia and my parents’ homes near Reno, located nearly 500 miles north of Sin City. Nevada might be a one-city state in most people’s minds, but there’s more to the state than Las Vegas. Northern Nevada is home to the capital, Carson City, as well as Reno and half of Lake Tahoe (the cooler half). Nevada is big. Big enough that even a simple trip to the nearest grocery store from my family’s house involves nearly 45 minutes of freeway driving. Between all the driving and the multitude of physically taxing traditional Nevadan outdoor endeavors (read: ranching) it’s no surprise that residents have developed large appetites, and what better a way to satiate hungry Nevadans than endless buffets.
It could be said that the buffet is Nevada’s state cuisine. Sushi is rarely consumed à la carte, salad bars often contain extensive meat and seafood options, and while driving around my hometown in northern Nevada, it’s possible to get your bearings by how many “$2.99 Spaghetti Buffet” signs you can see. Apart from my soft spot for all-you-can-eat sushi (or “sushi,” as locals call it), I know to avoid the strangely busy Chinese buffet down the street, and I’m capable of assembling my own spaghetti buffet if I so desire. But the Vegas buffet scene is different. I’ve had crab legs, scalloped potatoes, pho, roast beef, and caviar before, but never all of them at once on a single, oversized plate.
After getting through the line and paying the exorbitant entrance fee to the Bellagio buffet, I immediately began to regret my decision. I had wondered why the interior of the restaurant was accessible only through a long, line-filled tunnel – out of place in a city where every flashy attraction is fully exposed to the world, lined with blinking lights and flashing arrows. Then, after being forced to look on as husband and wife sat in silence while slogging through plate after plate of crab legs, it all began to make sense. Had I witnessed this behavior while waiting in line, I might have had the good sense to walk away. The same could be said about observing the old lady waiting patiently beside the seafood station, jumping on each fresh delivery to find the choicest parts in order to add them to her collection, or seeing tables stacked so high with half eaten plates that the diners no longer had room to set down the bounties of their latest scavenging runs.
The scene inside this Las Vegas buffet reminded me of the urban legends told in sushi buffets back home – tales of sneaky customers stashing balls of stomach-filling rice in their handbags or smashing them onto the undersides of the tables to ensure a steady flow of the more luxurious toppings. All-you-can-eat isn’t dining. It is calculated hunger warfare. Customers, perhaps subconsciously, are eating to win; eating until the balance sheet is in the black. There’s no time for savoring, discussing, or enjoying food – the threat of the strictly enforced two-hour time limit is always looming.
It was too late to back out, so my fellow diners and I set a plan to get through it. I had talked two friends into joining my brother and I on this food battlefield. The two of them were running late, but there was no time to waste – they might fall a few courses behind, but there are no friends in the game of buffets. We began with a first course of cheeses and olives – a step above the supermarket trays, but nothing to write to France about – followed by seafood course number one, consisting of shrimp and both Alaskan king and snow crab legs. We then moved onto a selection of deservedly unpopular soups and bisques, leading into the second seafood course: shrimp cocktail, caviar, and sushi.
Then, the food runs began to require venturing deeper into the cavernous room – heading to the farthest heat lamp stations to fetch prime rib, roast beef, potatoes, pastas, and roasted vegetables. After a final trip through the dessert section and ice cream bar, round one was complete.
A few bites into round two, I realized that I had hit the tipping point. I found myself sitting behind a plate of tired-looking roasted meat that had been labeled as Kobe beef. Perhaps it was the layers of shrimp, crab, assorted meats, and various appetizers sitting precariously in my stomach, or perhaps it was the realization that the beef before me had either been supremely wasted or criminally mislabeled, but this was to be my last plate.
Unsurprisingly, there’s little to say about the food apart from the breathtaking volume – and I mean that literally. I was breathing heavily after trying to slog through a third plate of crab. Everything was edible, nothing was exceptionally good or bad, and yet something about the blatant display of traditional American waste, gluttony, and culinary negligence made it difficult to finish a second plate of petit fours with a clean conscience.
Although it’s safe to assume that every American is within driving distance to some form of buffet, whether it is a chain like Golden Corral or a run down strip mall Chinese restaurant, Vegas will always be home to the biggest, most opulent, and most excessive buffets in the country. Buffets may never achieve the same recognition as the majestic Mountain Bluebird, Nevada’s state bird, or Engine No. 40, the official state locomotive, but the buffets of Vegas are sure to continue pushing the limits of the all-you-can-eat lifestyle for decades to come.