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June 17, 2019

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Dive into that quintessentially Vegas dining option, the buffet

Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet

Wade Vandervort

Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet

The South has fried chicken, Texas has barbecue, Chicago has hot dogs, New York has pizza and Las Vegas has them all. That is to say, our regional cuisine is the buffet. The all-you-can-eat extravaganza is the epitome of Sin City self-indulgence. But how did buffets become synonymous with Las Vegas? How do they remain relevant in the ever-changing culinary landscape? And what are the latest #buffetlife trends? We're here with a veritable smorgasbord of answers.

Dollars and Sense

• Go at off-hours to avoid long lines, like late weekday mornings and early afternoons. Avoid holidays and weekends. Also, see if your buffet takes reservations.

• Make use of your loyalty card to get discounts and line passes. Also, loyalty card holders might receive occasional buffet coupons, so don’t forget to check your mail.

• Check discount websites such as Groupon to see if discounts are available. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

• Inquire about locals’ discounts. The Rio’s Carnival World Buffet, for example, offers free entry during a Nevadan’s birth month (caveat: the discount only applies to your meal).

• Try an all-day pass. Caesars Entertainment offers the most Vegas of day passes, the Buffet of Buffets. For as low as $60, diners have 24 hours to eat at up to five buffets.

• Bring a few extra dollars to tip the chef who makes your omelet to order. And don’t forget to tip the staffers who refill your drinks and clear your plates. Just because you ate like a beast doesn’t mean you should act like one.

Birth of the buffet

Fittingly enough, the first casino on the Strip also featured the first buffet. Opened in 1941, the El Rancho Vegas fed hungry gamblers at its chuck wagon-styled Buckaroo Buffet. For the low price of $1 (the equivalent of about $12-$17 today), diners enjoyed “every possible variety of hot and cold entrées to appease the howling coyote in your innards … everything you can eat and you’ll want it all,” according to a vintage advertisement. An online exhibit about Strip dining by UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research explains that the 24-hour buffet was “a big hit” that “changed casino dining forever,” and that by the 1950s, most Strip casinos followed the El Rancho’s lead with $1.50 “midnight chuck wagon buffets.” The menus might look familiar to modern diners: lobster, steak, shrimp, cold cuts and fish.

Second course

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Las Vegas was starting to become a culinary destination in its own right, with the opening of the Mirage and Wolfgang Puck’s Spago at Caesars Palace. To keep pace, the better Vegas buffets began expanding beyond traditional American fare to embrace multicultural cuisine. “Casinos created exciting new spaces by renovating their old, value-oriented mess halls into fashionable, even opulent, gastronomic temples,” according to the Center for Gaming Research, which cites Treasure Island’s Dishes buffet (now called Corner Market) as one such transformation. With its international focus, the Rio’s Carnival World Buffet, in particular, helped bring buffets into the modern era.

The latest flavors

Today, buffets are thriving, and there seem to be as many trends as there are food options. Unattached from the branding of celebrity chefs or even the commitment of printed menus, buffets are free to experiment with new dish ideas.

Eat smart

• Survey the scene. When you first arrive inside, take a moment to make note of everything that lies before you. We suggest spinning around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, as you mentally plan your impending food assault.

• Start with small portions. Bacchanal Executive Chef Leticia Nunez likes to say, “Take small bites; it’s a big buffet.” Starting small allows for maximum variety and prevents overeating and waste. If you love an item, you can always return for seconds … or thirds.

• Avoid filler foods. A smart buffeter usually skips breads, carbs and the like.

• Don’t go in traditional meal order (bread, salad, soup, main course, dessert). You’ll fill up too fast. Eat high-dollar foods first: seafood, meats, exotic cheeses and fancy fruits.

• Get experimental. For your second plate, try some foods you don’t normally consume.

• Do it up for dessert. If you still have room at this point, all bets are off. Just go for it! One fun game: Invent your own sweet creation by combining different items.

Buffets have begun offering a variety of luxury upgrades, often involving line passes and special gourmet add-ons. At the Excalibur buffet, for example, a $10 upgrade gets you lobster tail. Many buffets now offer a bottomless booze package, typically for roughly the price of one casino-bar cocktail. The Mirage’s Cravings Buffet even features a bar with stools and a TV.

The most popular upgrade—available at the Bellagio, Mirage and Caesars Palace—might be the Chef’s Table. This concept, borrowed from elite restaurants, offers guests an opportunity to sample special foods—some presented tableside—and connect with the executive chef. Live cooking stations are all the rage, allowing diners to sample made-to-order dishes while also enjoying a bit of a show. They’ve expanded from the classic omelette station to encompass French toast, crepes, pasta, hand-tossed pizza and more.

Value customers are enjoying recent innovations, too, like all-day wristbands (Luxor’s day pass costs $40-$45, for example) and Caesars Entertainment’s popular Buffet of Buffets pass, which grants access to the buffets at the Caesars Palace, Flamingo, Harrah’s, Paris, Planet Hollywood and the Rio within one 24-hour period ($70-$80; $25-$35 upgrade to include Bacchanal). And get this: at the Mirage, your buffet meal can continue even after you’ve left the premises thanks to the To-Go Container ($16-$20 on its own or as a buffet add-on).

Behind the scenes at Caesars Palace's wildly popular Bacchanal Buffet

Fresh-sliced wagyu beef and applewood smoked bacon. Cinnamon churros and chocolate champurrado. Truffled egg cocotte and bananas foster donuts. Watermelon juice and yogurt parfaits. Tempura shrimp udon and tonkotsu ramen. Maple-glazed sweet potato tots and egg sardou with lobster bearnaise. Smoked salmon, mussels, creole shrimp ’n’ grits, tuna poke and, of course, crab legs galore. Our list seems ridiculously long—without even including dessert—yet it barely scratches the surfaces at this gourmet garden of delights.

Plan ahead

• Call first. Author and Vegans, Baby website founder Diana Edelman recommends contacting a buffet in advance if you have dietary restrictions. Since buffets often rotate their menus, this will help you get the most up-to-date info on what foods will or won’t be available.

• Work with the staff. Edelman suggests letting the buffet host know if you’re vegan (or have a different dietary need) when you arrive. She emphasizes the importance of communicate, because some foods might not be marked. “If you’re unsure about items, ask for a chef to walk you through,” she says.

• Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to inquire about food preparations or cross-contamination, Edelman says.

Serving up to 4,000 people a day, the Bacchanal Buffet is the highest-grossing-revenue restaurant at Caesars Palace. It has achieved that distinction by being the best at two things: quality and quantity. More than a culinary triumph, Bacchanal is also a monumental achievement of engineering, planning and teamwork. Here’s how it works.

Farm to many tables

“Even when you’re cooking for thousands of people, I still want to do everything from scratch,” Executive Chef Leticia Nunez says. “Everything has to come in fresh, and we make it all here.”

Nunez hails from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she grew up eating her grandmother’s mole and barbacoa. She came up as a chef in Northern California’s Napa Valley, where she cemented her preference for farm-fresh ingredients and scratch-made dishes. “We had a huge garden, and we just went out there and picked all of our herbs and tomatoes,” Nunez says of her experience working at the restaurant at Robert Mondavi Winery under Chef Annie Roberts. (Over the years, she has also worked with other such greats as Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Rick Bayless.) “I just love the smell of basil growing or fresh tomatoes. That’s where a lot of my influences came early on.”

Impossible as transferring craft concepts to a buffet might seem, Nunez had a head start. Before taking the job at Bacchanal, she gained large-scale experience as the executive banquet chef at Rio. “I love the idea of doing this big, big, big baby. It had my heart from the beginning,” Nunez says about the job opportunity. “So it was easy is it to say yes.”

Bacchanal by the numbers

• $5.1 million: annual purchase price for 500,000 pounds of crab legs

• 25,000 square feet

• 600 guest seating capacity

• 1 million plus covers annually

• 2,774 covers per day on average

• 200 covers per hour

____

Food served in a year:

• 3.7 million shrimp

• 2 million pieces dim sum

• 700,000 oysters

• 500,000 whole eggs

• 500,000 sliders

• 131,000 pounds prime rib

• 87,000 pounds of clarified butter

• 40,000 nori sheets for sushi

• 30,000 pounds fresh salmon

• 24,000 gallons of gelato

• 20,000 pounds mozzarella cheese

• 18,480 pounds slice bacon

• 4,000 pounds gummy bears

• 1,065 pounds goat cheese

• 400 pounds fresh basil

Bacchanal is divided into nine show kitchens: Latin, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, American, seafood, pizza, deli and dessert. As diners go through the line, they see chefs assigned to each, tossing pizzas, scooping gelato and carefully constructing dishes. But these are just the finishing touches. The buffet kitchens aren’t large enough for the entire job, so Bacchanal makes use of a large production facility roughly a mile away, in the resort’s Octavius Tower.

In order to make everything from scratch, the first cooks arrive at the Octavius Kitchen at 3 a.m. They prepare sauces and smoke meats for hours. They send soup to Bacchanal in 140 gallon batches, which Nunez says go fast. And six runners deliver ingredients to the buffet via motorized carts daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. “We have to move fast,” Nunez says.

For her part, Nunez shows up on property between 3 and 5 a.m., depending on the day’s workload. She works until 7 p.m., typically taking her sustenance from three or four taste line taste-tests “to make sure that we’re staying on point with flavors.”

Team buffet

One of a buffet’s toughest obstacles is timing. Since guests aren’t ordering from a menu, there must be an even flow of food coming out at all times. Too little, and diners feel slighted. Too much, and food sits out too long. After about 10-15 minutes, dishes are discarded.

Bacchanal has determined that the optimum batch size is 12 servings, often plated individually for the most elegant presentation. Thus, a dish like risotto is always being made fresh, in batches small enough to serve a single family.

Even as chefs oversee daily tasks, they have an eye toward future menus, which change seasonally. Nunez and her team constantly search for fresh ideas, keeping an eye on the most desired dishes from around the globe to please an international tourist base. And the staff fastidiously monitors Yelp reviews to fix any problems as soon as they arise.

“We have to stay very much on top of every culinary trend … we have to keep our tools sharp,” Nunez says. “We can’t just come in and say that we’re on top the world. We have to stay motivated.”

Caesars Chef de Cuisine Richard Leggett credits the staff’s dedication and attention to detail for Bacchanal’s success. Still, he concedes that it can be challenging to get the buffet’s more than 300 employees on the same page at the same time. And it’s not just cooks and runners. The buffet also requires an engineering department to maintain the equipment, and a stewarding department to clean. There are hosts up the front and bussers removing empty plates from tables.

“It’s a lot of moving parts,” Leggett says. “The buffet needs a set number of people in order for it to operate.” Bacchanal keeps a steady flow of employees trained and ready in case regulars call in sick.

Like any sports team, different players have different skills and abilities. “You can’t put everybody on pizza, because it’s an acquired skill to be able to toss the dough, pour the dough and make a good pizza.” Similarly in the Octavius Kitchen, employees must have specific training to follow Nunez’s recipes. “We want certain people in certain positions, our aces in places, so to speak.

“We make it work by giving them something to believe in and giving them the support they need.”

Click to enlarge photo

Feast Buffet inside Palace Station serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, overnight, as seen here, Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018.

How to choose: Guiding you to a Vegas AYCE experience for every occasion and need

Vegetarian/Vegan: The Buffet at Wynn. Casino creator Steve Wynn famously went vegan nearly a decade ago, and Vegans, Baby founder Diana Edelman recommends the Wynn buffet for veg-minded diners. Her other picks include Palace Station, the Palms, M Resort and the all-vegan Govinda restaurant in the southeast Valley.

Meet the In-Laws: Veranda Weekend Breakfast Buffet at Four Seasons. If you hope to end your meal with a surprise wedding proposal, may we suggest hiding the ring in a cranberry and blood orange mimosa? With its rarefied country club feel, the Veranda is perfect for elegant occasions. Standouts include frittata bianca, avocado toast, house-smoked salmon and cold-pressed green juice. It happens 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, and is $39 per plate Another great option: The Jazz Brunch at Lakeside at Wynn.

Sound of the South: Gospel Brunch at House of Blues. This down-home buffet is packed with Southern delights, and the weekly brunch is also a sweet deal—in addition to the food, $55 gets you an energetic and inspiring live performance—“a nondenominational participative celebration of gospel music,” as HOB describes it.

Value for Veterans: Cravings Buffet at the Mirage. Few military discounts are as generous as this: 40 percent off for U.S. military ID holders (and up to four guests). Better yet, entry includes unlimited beer and wine, and champagne on the weekends.

Bring The Kids: Circus Buffet at Circus Circus. Children under 4 eat free, and the tariff is just $13 for those ages 4-10 (adults’ meals cost only $20-$21, by the way). Bonus: They can work up an appetite at the Adventuredome and/or Midway.

Mexican Fiesta: Brunch at Border Grill at Mandalay Bay. Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., enjoy unlimited small plates—Peruvian shrimp & grits, brisket mini tortas, bacon jalapeño PBJ sandwiches, churro tots and more—for $43. And $25 more gets you bottomless mimosas, micheladas and Bloody Marys.

Gourmet Dinner: The Buffet at Bellagio. On Friday and Saturday from 3-10 p.m., Bellagio’s buffet kicks it up a notch with its gourmet dinner service ($44), which includes luxurious finishes like ikura and tobiko caviar. For an extra dose of special, make reservations for the daily Chef’s Table (a $69 upgrade). Another great option: The gourmet dinner at the Buffet at Aria features Dungeness crab legs, snow crab legs and king crab legs.

Midnight Craving: Feast Buffet at Palace Station. This recently renovated spot features a rare Vegas buffet amenity: It’s open 24/7. With overnight (midnight to 8 a.m.) buffet prices as low as $8 with a casino loyalty card, it’s also quite the deal. In a twist on the traditional buffet organization, the Feast is laid out by cooking technique (hearth, wok, grill, cravery, healthy and desserts), rather than cultural origin.