The all-you-can-eat buffet was one of the first hospitality-related victims of the pandemic. Its absence is lingering and its widespread return remains in doubt.
Only a couple of the several dozens that operated at multiple price points before the pandemic have resumed. Both have implemented cafeteria-style service with employees placing food on guests' trays at the food line rather than guests serving themselves, among other health and safety protocols.
The midtier Garden Buffet at South Point Hotel & Casino is just south of the main Strip corridor. With six stations for Asian, Mexican, Italian, barbecue, Chinese and seafood dishes, Garden Buffet serves prime rib every night and presents more seafood options on Fridays.
The higher-end Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas features twists on familiar dishes, including fried chicken and mac and cheese. Duck wings with soy caramel glaze tempt guests, who can also enjoy even more complex items as bone narrow topped with braised short ribs.
Several buffets experimented with more individual portions and multiple cooking stations before Wicked Spoon became the first buffet in Las Vegas to routinely use a small-plates model when it opened in 2011. That style will likely become more common because of the pandemic.
"Throughout the pandemic, we've had to alter how we operate due to capacity restrictions and health and safety mandates," said Bryan Fyler, executive chef at Cosmopolitan. "We've weathered the storm well. One thing we haven't altered is our tapas-style approach to the buffet experience."
Among pandemic-related changes, Wicked Spoon encourages reservations and highlights the menu through a QR code guests can access before they enter. Guests peruse offerings at six live-action stations and are served in single portions. There are no shared serving utensils.
"While this may not be the traditional buffet model guests are used to, it certainly feels more like an all-you-can-eat experience versus a sit-down, a la carte restaurant, which is very important to guests who are specifically seeking to dine at a Las Vegas buffet," Fyler said.
Cheaply priced buffets, synonymous with Las Vegas since its start, historically were designed to retain gamblers on property and cater to late-night crowds. The demand for an "all-you-can-eat, set-price" dining option grew, and they became staples in almost every casino.
"You had a plethora of foods," said Craig Taylor, director of culinary operations and executive chef at Treasure Island Resort & Casino (TI). "You have so many different styles of food, and you can pick what you wanted. So it was a great option for [guests]. You could have Chinese, you could have Italian, you could have German, you could have American hot dog -- something for everybody."
The rise in popularity of the Food Network and the whole celebrity chef phenomenon prompted people to demand more quality when they ate out, even at buffets, Taylor says. "In the beginning, it was just pans of food out, lots of food, and all kinds of food. It's not that it was not correctly prepared or good -- it just wasn't as sophisticated as people's palates. People really became foodies, so they became, I won't say, snobs for the buffet, but their palates were more refined. So I think buffets have started to evolve."
What began as loss leaders for the Vegas hotel-casinos became increasingly upscale with attendant price increases, special meat or seafood dishes on certain nights and add-on alcoholic beverage options. With more a la carte cooking instead of batch cooking, there were more labor costs and more food costs.
"As time went on, operators learned how to make them profitable, and we now have what we call 'destination buffets,' meaning that people who come to Las Vegas seek out the best buffets to try on their visits," Fyler said.
Another buffet that helped define the genre, Bacchanal at Caesars Palace, is planning to resume soon. It began a multimillion-dollar renovation a year ago and is updating its menu with more miniature, composed dishes.
"With the renovation nearing completion, the robust rollout of vaccinations and the lessening of restrictions, we look forward to the debut of the new Bacchanal in the near future," a Caesars Entertainment spokesperson said.
Even before Covid-19 though, many resorts began to rethink their culinary offerings as the Strip became a foodie destination. The number of buffets, which had been an essential part of the Vegas experience for so long, waned. One property that dispensed with its buffet was TI.
Taylor, who has been with TI since 1999, created the well-regarded Dishes buffet in the early 2000s and launched a buffet in 2018. It closed right before the pandemic, and the space is now used for the property's sports book and sports bar.
"I came up with some great concepts and some innovative approaches to doing it," Taylor said. "But with the expenses that are involved in running a buffet, it just wasn't viable so we came to this decision."
Like others across the Strip, the TI's busy employee dining room mirrors what front-of-house buffets will look like amid the pandemic, Taylor says. Employees approach the food line, point and are served food by cooks wearing masks and gloves. The system has an unintended benefit, he says.
"People tend to heap up their plate when they're doing it, and then they get to the table, they take a couple bites, push it to the side and go get more. When someone's serving you, I think you have a better portion control," Taylor said.
Both Taylor and Cosmopolitan's Fyler said they believe buffets will have a place in Las Vegas but must continue to innovate, rotate dishes and evolve to meet guests' rising expectations.
"You don't want the buffet to become stagnant," Taylor said. "Years ago, everything was sriracha. So [it's important to pay] attention to things that are coming up and try to be ahead of the curve, to anticipate what the guests want."
"Buffets were hit hard last year, and the pandemic certainly hasn't been kind to this type of dining," Fyler said. "I believe there will always be a demand for buffets in Las Vegas, but you have to deliver on the value and experience for the price paid, in addition to prioritizing health and safety, if you want to stay in the game."