You can’t help but stare at the 80-pound American Wagyu steamship, a gargantuan slab of meat with a crackly, glistening crust. The beef clings to what I can only imagine is a dinosaur bone sticking straight out of the top. This is the crown jewel of the Caesars Palace Bacchanal Buffet American carving station, a sea of deep browns and char that beckons under golden heat lamps.
At 4 p.m. May 20, the buffet reopened for the first time since the pandemic shut it down in March 2020. (Clark County allowed traditional buffets to reopen on May 1.) While other local buffets, including the Cosmopolitan's Wicked Spoon and the Garden Buffet at South Point, reopened as staff-service operations last year, Caesars Palace waited until guests could serve themselves again.
The buffet sold out for the evening with more than 1,100 diners.
"We decided to hold out and wait until the restrictions were lifted so that our guests could have the full buffet experience," Caesars Palace executive chef Jennifer Murphy said.
That afternoon, diners got the full buffet experience, and the scene appeared shockingly normal. People lined up at the carving station, waiting for a sliver of Wagyu, a hunk of prime rib and a slice of brisket. They scooped up individually plated, split rods of bone marrow waiting to be slurped. The space between the guests was less than six feet.
Nearby, mountains of crushed ice were sheathed in dozens of pounds of stacked crab legs, shrimp, oysters and scallops on the half shell, lobster claws and snow crab.
The Latin station housed a whole suckling pig. In another room there was Roman pizza; enough cheese, salami and prosciutto roses to make the grandest of charcuterie and cheese boards; assorted nigiri; build-your-own congee bowls; bang bang shrimp; banchan; and beet hummus with pita.
“We have a little over 220 dishes,” Murphy said. “We have a total of 36 desserts, not including our 11 new gelato and sorbet flavors.”
Murphy estimated that diners would go through 800 pounds of crab legs and 18 to 20 prime ribs.
The buffet takes most of the ingrained fears and behaviors of the pandemic and turns them on their heads. So much of the last year and a half has revolved around survival and attaining the bare minimum. Go grocery shopping once every two weeks and make it count. Grow scallions on your window sill. Bake bread with those rotting bananas. Be sustainable. Thou shalt not waste is mantra. Don’t touch anything anyone else has ever touched, ever, without sanitizing. Don’t get too close.
The trip to the Bacchanal was my first visit to a buffet in more than two years, and things were different this time. Weeks before I arrived, I made a reservation online (the buffet is reservation-only at the moment for non-Caesars Rewards Seven Star guests, and more than 10,000 reservations were made in the first 48 hours for the coming weeks). Sanitizer dispensers, placed between food stations, held the promise of a balm for our ingrained fear of germs. Dim sum carts touted tableside lobster bisque and American Wagyu hot dogs. Some of the chefs behind the sneeze guards wore masks. The woman who took my payment at the front let me know there was a 90-minute time limit on the table.
The American buffet is the epitome of excess, but it wasn’t always the free-for-all associated with buffets today. The word evolved from "bufet," which refers to a sideboard or something that you can serve from. And the concept comes from the Swedish "smorgasbord" — "smor" (butter), "gas" (lump of butter) and "bord" (table). Originally, in the 14th century, the term referred to a pre-dinner feast of bread, butter and cheese that you ate with friends and family on a side table.
Las Vegas, of course, has a decades-long love affair with the buffet. David Schwartz, associate vice provost for faculty affairs and former director of gaming research at UNLV, says the El Rancho casino opened the first Las Vegas buffet in the 1940s.
“They wanted to give gamblers a place to eat where they wouldn’t have to take too much time and fill themselves up and get back to the tables,” he said.
With the success of El Rancho's buffet, the concept spread throughout Las Vegas, and people started to associate the city with both gambling and all-you-can-eat restaurants. In 2019, Eater Las Vegas estimated there were 70 buffets in the area.
When the pandemic hit, health experts warned of the germs lingering on every serving spoon, and fans of the all-you-can-eat experience lamented the possibility of its death. But some casinos refused to let the buffet die. With tourism accounting for nearly $60 billion and more than four out of 10 jobs in southern Nevada in 2017, according to a report by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the city could not afford to be shut down for long. Most major casinos reopened in June after 78 days.
The Cosmopolitan reopened its Wicked Spoon buffet last summer as a staff-service operation. People could walk up to the buffet line and make their selections, which a staff member served them. The setup required about 12 more servers per day but Cosmopolitan general manager Patrick Nichols says the extra labor was well worth it.
After restrictions on self-service operations were lifted in Las Vegas, the Wicked Spoon returned to the traditional model. The buffet is open only for breakfast and brunch Thursday through Sunday, but Nichols said the casino is contemplating bringing back dinner.
“It’s one of those indicators that Vegas is back," Nichols said.
The Garden Buffet at the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa, located about a 10-minute drive south of the Strip, has been open since July. But a few weeks before the pandemic shutdown last March, Food Director Michael Kennedy said, the casino switched both its buffet and staff meal cafeteria to a staff-service model.
The thought of having someone else serve you at a buffet prompted questions of food shaming. Without the freedom to serve yourself, I wondered how one might go about filling up a plate with abandon.
“We’re going to put a serving on your plate,” Kennedy said. “If you then tell us, 'Can we get some more,' we will keep going until you say stop. There is no shame in the buffet. If you want to have two plates in your hand, good for you.”
When the buffet reopened last summer, Kennedy increased the buffet staff from 90 to about 120. In addition to the people serving the food, new line attendants ensure people are wearing their masks while up and about and that there aren’t too many people in one area.
The casino also made the decision to open the buffet during previously closed periods in between meal times to accommodate more guests and keep the line moving.
“We’re serving around 2,500 people a day during the week and closing in on about 3,000 a day on the weekends,” Kennedy said.
Though the buffet could return to a self-service model after May 1, South Point decided to keep the operation as is, at least for now.
“We feel like we raised the bar with our staff-serve buffet, and we’ve had a lot of great compliments on it,” Kennedy said.
Caesars Palace is the latest buffet to open on the Strip. MGM announced it would reopen its self-service buffet May 26.
"The time is right; the time is right now," Murphy said. "After the Strip was shut down, a lot of people were saying that buffets would never come back. And as you can see, we’re back and bigger and better than ever."
Those first steps inside the Bacchanal Buffet overwhelmed my senses and sent me into a rapid-fire tailspin of panicked questions: How many people are in this room? Are they using the sanitizer? What if someone stands right behind me while I'm getting my crab legs? How many people are going to touch those tongs before I get to them? Did that guy just cough near me? If I sanitize after each station, how much lotion will I need to apply later to rejuvenate my desert-dry cracked hands?
But as I eyed the different stations and took in the scene, I eventually calmed down. My questions turned to ones of buffet strategy. Should I get crab legs before the American Wagyu? Will I have enough room for dessert if I get a bowl of congee?
Despite my many pandemic-related concerns, in a buffet setting, your worries become obsolete as you’re swallowed by the collective excitement at the prospect of eating whatever you want for the next couple of hours.
I still cringed at the oversimplification of the "Latin" station. I felt pangs of guilt watching the sharply dressed servers clear half-full plates of food from tables. But such is the buffet life. We're in the roaring ’20s again, and the Vegas buffet seems as good a place as any to start the party.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.