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Chris Jones

Las Vegas Buffets: Step Up to the Plate

6 February 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Few things evoke Las Vegas' vintage charms quite like an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Despite the growing prominence of celebrity chefs and their froufrou Zagat ratings, self-serve gorgefests have been big business at local hotel-casinos for nearly six decades.

And they're still going strong, from downtown grind joints to the Strip's glitziest properties.

"The buffet is one of the iconic features of the Las Vegas experience," Bellagio President Bill McBeath said. "Like the city, it's whatever you want, and all you can handle."

How ubiquitous is the buffet in Las Vegas?

Consider this: When the $2.7 billion Wynn Las Vegas and $600 million South Coast opened last year, each had buffet stations at the ready.

On the opposite end of the life cycle, the Boardwalk's Surf Buffet served breakfast on Jan. 9, the very morning owner MGM Mirage shuttered the Strip property to make room for new development.

Bellagio, which has a restaurant lineup boasting two AAA Five Diamond Award winners, draws more than 1.5 million buffet patrons each year. Many pay $34.95 for weekend dinners featuring sushi and Alaskan king crab.

Across the street, Bally's suggests reservations for its Sterling Brunch, a $65 (plus tax) indulgence of champagne, caviar and broiled Maine lobster served exclusively on Sundays.

"Even in Nebraska, we know about Vegas buffets. I saw this place on The Travel Channel," said Scott Herzog, a tourist who recently chowed down with five family members at the Rio's Carnival World Buffet.

"Some of us like Chinese, some like seafood," Sharon Herzog, who is Scott's mother, added from a table lined with crab legs, barbecue ribs and half-eaten salads.

"I think we're going to have to walk this off" when finished eating, she joked.

The caliber of food atop the Herzog's table also spoke volumes. The days of large silver trays topped with leftovers from hotel kitchens are history, sources said.

"The quality of food at buffets today is every bit as good, if not better, than most midlevel casual restaurants," said Jeff DiVito, vice president of food and beverage development for Station Casinos.

Station operates eight Las Vegas Valley buffets. The company recently spent millions renovating the Feast Buffet at Sunset Station in Henderson, and will add a ninth buffet when Red Rock Resort opens in Summerlin on April 18.

Likewise, MGM Mirage just bolstered buffets at two of its 10 Strip properties.

In November 2004, the Las Vegas-based company opened Treasure Island's Dishes, and quickly followed with Cravings at The Mirage in January 2005. Based on their success, a major upgrade to MGM Grand's buffet could soon follow.

"They're anchor tenants," McBeath said. "Restaurants typically drive the nighttime experience ... But buffets have breakfast, lunch and dinner. They're driving traffic 18 hours a day."

Buffets bring new guests to their host hotel-casinos, and prevent existing visitors from going elsewhere to dine.

While their profit margins are typically less than restaurants, every MGM Mirage buffet is profitable. And they attract customers who spend money elsewhere on property, from slot machines to stores to shows.

"When you close down the buffet, you realize its effect on the business model," said McBeath, who set up a temporary buffet in one of The Mirage's ballrooms rather than lose revenue when Cravings went through its 5 1/2-month renovation.

Buffets have long been popular with value-conscience locals, DiVito said. In recent years, the emergence of live action cooking stations such as Station's Feast and Rio's Carnival World Buffet upgraded food quality by emphasizing smaller portions cooked as guests wait plate in hand.

"With those improvements, the demand for buffets has become even greater," DiVito said.

Profits at Station's buffets are on par with the company's cafe-style restaurants or coffee shops. "They're not the loss leader they used to be," DiVito said.

As prices rise at Las Vegas restaurants, buffet lovers are willing to pay more, too, DiVito said. That's enabled buffet operators to offer a better product than their $1.99 predecessors of yore.

Fixed prices, no matter how much food one consumes, also aid buffets' appeal. So does their "something for everyone" selection.

"People want variety, and they want choices. They may sound the same, but they're not," McBeath said.

Coffee shop menus offer a variety of items, he said, but people don't order four entrees in one sitting, for example. But choosing multiple foods is encouraged at buffets.

"It's hard to pick one? Well you don't have to," McBeath said.

Newer buffets are placing a premium on appearance. Dishes' look came from Jeffrey Beers, who created the Tab? Ultra Lounge at MGM Grand. Cravings was designed by Adam Tihany, who styled hotels in Rome and Hong Kong as well as Mandalay Bay's Aureole restaurant.

The decor of Sunset Station's buffet cost as much per square foot as Hank's, an upscale steakhouse at Green Valley Ranch Resort, DiVito said. Red Rock Resort's buffet will be even more elaborate, he promised.

"People want better and greater, and we're answering that call," he said.

Harrah's Entertainment two years ago spent $8 million refurbishing the decor of Rio's Carnival World Buffet, said Joe Grimaldi, the resort's executive director of food and beverage.

"You'll no longer see labels on glass sneeze guards that look so tacky. Now we light up the food; it's much more sophisticated," Grimaldi said. "There's also much more thought put into seating arrangements. (Buffets are) not a cafeteria any more."

The buffet's origin is unknown, though the practice of serving many people from a common table dates back to numerous ancient and medieval cultures, according to The Food Timeline, an online reference tool. The name itself is French in origin, having first appeared in print in 1792, the Oxford English Dictionary reports.

The concept's Las Vegas introduction is widely credited to the late publicist Herb McDonald, who legend says accidentally stumbled onto their local potential approximately 60 years ago.

Working late one night at El Rancho Vegas, McDonald had a chef prepare a plate of cold meats and cheeses. As he snacked on the food at a casino bar, nearby gamblers took notice.

Ever the promoter, McDonald quickly obtained permission to set up tables with cold food. The service, he suspected, would appeal to gamblers who were hungry but too absorbed in their games to eat at a restaurant.

McDonald's $1 "Buckaroo Buffet" was a hit, and his all-you-can-eat concept remains a Las Vegas staple.

"I can't say I was inventive. I was just hungry in the right place at the right time," McDonald, who died in 2002, told the Review-Journal in 1988.