LAS VEGAS – It's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday inside Circus Circus, and the sounds of a former world are bouncing through the buffet.
Clattering dishes, silverware and coffee cups.
Clinking glasses of orange juice.
Conversation over pancakes.
Almost 18 months after the COVID-19 pandemic made casino buffets obsolete, people without masks are walking up to trays piled high with eggs and bacon, fried chicken and mashed potatoes, cake and pie slices, and serving themselves.
The bustling Circus Buffet – and the fully stocked menu – may seem like a sign that things are back to normal. But the Las Vegas buffet scene is still a shell of what it was.
Before the pandemic, the city had nearly 60 buffets open and buzzing with hungry patrons every day. Today, there are five.
Here's what you need to know.
Which Las Vegas buffets are open?
After a multimillion-dollar renovation during the shutdown, Bacchanal opened in May. The upscale buffet's seafood, carving, American and Latin kitchens have been upgraded, but all the staple dishes – crab legs, prime rib, street tacos – remain. More than 30 dishes have been added to the menu, including foie gras PB&J and turmeric grilled baby octopus with chili jam.
Need reservations? Yes. The buffet is in high demand, meaning you'll want to book your table online before your trip. Tables for two are easier to find than a table for one.
Hours: Sunday-Monday, Thursday-Saturday, 4-10 p.m.
MGM Grand Buffet offers a "robust" menu for breakfast, lunch and weekend brunch. Everything from made-to-order omelets to fresh pasta, seafood and barbecue ribs to cookies, donuts and cheesecake.
Need reservations? No.
Price: $25.99 (breakfast, lunch), $29.99 (brunch)
Hours: Breakfast, Monday, Thursday-Friday, 7-10:15 a.m. Brunch, Saturday-Sunday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Lunch, Monday, Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
A classic, affordable option on the Strip, Circus Buffet is a throwback to Old Vegas. A cheap, easy, fully stocked menu with no frills. A few steps away from the casino, this buffet is a reliable stop on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard.
Need reservations? No.
Price: $19.99 (Brunch), $25.99 (Dinner)
Hours: Brunch, Sunday-Monday, Saturday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner, Sunday-Monday, Saturday, 4:30-10 p.m.
One of the most innovative buffets in Las Vegas, Wicked Spoon is back with its trailblazing small-plates approach. Wicked Spoon boats a multiethnic spread of top-quality dishes, including crepe monsieur, pork Birria tacos and paneer tikka masala.
Need reservations? Yes.
Price: $38 (breakfast), $45 (lunch).
Hours: Breakfast, Thursday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Lunch, Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
For a while during the pandemic, South Point's Garden Buffet was the only buffet open in Las Vegas. Guests had to tell servers what food they wanted piled onto their plates. As of June 1, the South Las Vegas Boulevard eatery flipped to self-serve.
Need reservations? No.
Price: $13.95 (breakfast), $22.95 (prime rib brunch), $16.95 (lunch), $33.95 (prime rib dinner and shrimp).
Hours: Breakfast, Monday-Friday, 7-10 a.m. Prime Rib Brunch, Saturday-Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Prime Rib Dinner and Shrimp, Saturday-Thursday, 4-8 p.m.
What's next for Las Vegas buffets?
Will there ever again be as robust a selection of buffets in Las Vegas as in pre-COVID-19 days?
Tony Curtis, founder of Las Vegas Advisor, said it's going to take a while.
"We're a long way away," Curtis said. "Vegas was the buffet capital without question. It was a big part of our identity."
Buffets began as greasy spoons where gamblers piled mountains of food on plates. Resorts such as Caesars Palace and Wynn evolved buffets into pricier experiences built on top-shelf menus. Gone was the grease, and in came the glitz.
Buffets have long been the part of casino operations that cost more than they make, yet companies keep them to drive people to other parts of the resort. Social distancing and health guidelines in the age of COVID-19 made buffets obsolete almost overnight.
Curtis' Vegas-centric newsletter reaches about 15,000 people from all 50 states and overseas, informing readers every month about the best deals and values along Las Vegas Boulevard. When tourists aren't happy, he hears about it.
"Buffets are really missed by a lot of customers," he said. "The worry among people who are for buffets, who like buffets, who make buffets a big part of their experience, is that buffets are going to go away."
Those worries may be warranted in some corners of the Las Vegas resort scene.
'We will not have a buffet'
Frank Fertitta, CEO of Station Casinos, the operator of 20 properties in southern Nevada, said in an earnings call last month that his company would invest only in amenities that make money.
"It’s going to be a focus on slot machines and table games, our primary business. We’ll have several restaurant options," he said. "We will not have a buffet. And I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves on it."
CFO Stephen Cootey's take on the future of buffets at Station Casinos may disappoint Old Vegas enthusiasts.
"I’m going to say ex-buffet," he said, "because obviously (revenue) would be down year-over-year because of the buffet, which I think we can fairly say will never return."
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA TODAY Network.
This article originally appeared on Reno Gazette Journal: Las Vegas buffets reopen: What to know about casino, resort self-serve