The two great equalizers, death and taxes, have now been joined by a third, unlikely member of the club: the Las Vegas gourmet buffet.
Yes, gourmet dining, historically out of reach for the budget and midscale Vegas visitor, is now widely available in an all-you-can-eat format. The former quantity-over-quality model is still ubiquitous here, but upscale buffets featuring chef-driven menu items have multiplied commensurate with the rise in fine-dining restaurants.
When I first surveyed this category for Travel Weekly in 2004, only a handful of buffets qualified. Much has changed since then, with exotic meats, quality shellfish, innovative sides, small-batch preparation and sophisticated desserts all combining to push these eight spreads into 2013's gourmet zone:
The Buffet (Bellagio Las Vegas):Upon its debut in 1998, the Bellagio reset the bar for luxury and elegance in accommodations, dining and entertainment in Las Vegas. The Buffet at Bellagio pioneered the gourmet buffet movement and is still the standard by which others are judged. Quality provisions, expert preparation and attention to detail typify this still-classy spread. On a recent weeknight visit, chefs were carving perfectly rare beef sirloin for appreciative diners. The price notches up 6 bucks on weekends, along with the offerings, which typically include rack of lamb, beef Wellington and pork belly. Dinner is $31.99, $37.99 on weekends. Visit www.bellagio.com.
Le Village Buffet (Paris Las Vegas): In one of the Strip's few remaining, heavily themed casino-resorts, a Francophile's dream come true awaits those craving classic French cuisine. Amid subdued lighting in faux village surroundings, patrons dip crusty French bread into steaming bowls of bouillabaisse, while others enjoy the spot-on authentic beef Bourguignon, roast duck and coq au vin. But it's the made-to-order crepe station, featuring a variety of luscious toppings and fillings, that's the star of this show. Waits can be long here, but c'est la vie! Dinner is $30.99, $33.99 on weekends. Visit www.parislasvegas.com.
Studio B Buffet (The M Resort Spa Casino Las Vegas): Studio B may be off-Strip, but it's on target with varied ethnic cuisine, quality preparation, reasonable prices, a can-do staff and a noteworthy hook: the inclusion of unlimited beer and wine with lunch and dinner. Although off-Strip casino-hotels like M work harder to pull in patrons, they also have the luxury of larger geographic footprints than their Strip-dwelling competitors. The extra space here enables the weekend seafood selection to go on virtually forever, with favorites like snow crab legs, oysters on the half shell, steamed clams and mussels and lobster bisque making appearances. Top-notch mini-desserts by the talented pastry team cap off the meal in this buffet-in-the-round. Dinner is $23.99, $39.99 on weekends. Visit www.themresort.com.
Wicked Spoon (The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas): Small plates predominate at this hip, high-concept buffet, and their eye-pleasing presentation beats all. Diners enjoy innovative dishes at this popular, mid-Strip feast set in a comfortably lit, spacious room. I particularly appreciated the pork belly banh mi sandwich (a modern take on the French colonial-influenced Vietnamese classic). Other dishes of note on my visit included braised lamb shoulder, veal sweetbreads, dirty rice, duck confit ravioli and roasted bone marrow. The individual portioning here seems to allow for more sampling and less waste, thus creating a win-win for both the house and guests. Dinner is $36, $38 on weekends. Visit www.cosmopolitanlasvegas.com.
The Buffet (Aria Resort & Casino Las Vegas):The Aria's buffet is all about quality, variety and the comfort of its patrons. Recently reopened after an extensive redesign, the open and inviting room exudes the modern luxury vibe of its host property while ensconcing diners in comfortable, spacious and relatively quiet surroundings. It boasts an Indian tandoor oven, and the new fish market features cooking right at the station. Dinner is $31.99, $39.99 on weekends. Visit www.arialasvegas.com.
Bacchanal Buffet (Caesars Palace Las Vegas): The Roman penchant for excess is nowhere more evident than at Caesars' new Bacchanal Buffet, a massive $17 million extravaganza that requires a pre-dining research survey. A Roman emperor and his court could have easily been sated by this culinary orgy, which features nine working kitchens and more than 580 food items (across three daily meals). The Chinese station excels with dim sum, roast duck and barbecue pork, while the carvery features up to nine meats, including the popular steamship round of veal, in-house smoked brisket, lamb chops and a rarely seen, bone-in tomahawk rib eye. Capably helmed by two former Celebrity Cruises chefs, Scott Green and Michael van Staden, this megabuffet offers the rare combination of quantity and quality. Diners should save room for the made-to-order souffles and the decadent chocolate and cheesecake "lollipops" at the dessert station. Dinner is $44.99, $49.99 on weekends. Visit www.caesarspalace.com.
The Buffet (Wynn Las Vegas): Consistently rated as one of the top buffets in the city, the Buffet at Wynn dazzles diners from the minute they walk through the stunning atrium entryway. More eye candy awaits as guests discover and then feast on exquisitely presented and prepared dishes like braised veal short ribs and the Italian delicacy porchetta. The dried-fruit and cheese station is a pleasant diversion on the way to a bountiful dessert selection. Dinner is $36.99, $39.99 on weekends. Visit www.wynnlasvegas.com.
Sterling Brunch (Bally's Las Vegas): This little-known, Sunday-only brunch is a throwback to the Rat Pack era. At one of the last remaining vestiges of old Vegas, guests feast on selections like lobster and caviar while imbibing free-flowing Perrier-Jouet champagne. Servers diligently attend to every guest need at this intimate affair held in Bally's Steakhouse. Its $85 price is about double that of any other feast on this list, but the compact space, with its high-value culinary targets and premium champagne, is a special-occasion splurge that isn't soon forgotten. Visit www.ballyslasvegas.com.