June 21, 2024


Travel Adventure

The New Food Haul | Ella Quittner

10 min read

The steamed crab legs drop at 1 p.m. sharp at the Bacchanal Buffet in Caesars Palace. “Everyone knows that,” a hostess told me a few weeks ago before hurrying off to tend to the hordes of eager diners. She was right: the line for the legs began to form well before the spindly appendages materialized. As soon as they did, an unspoken acknowledgement rippled through the room.

Soon, every table seemed to have at least one mound of legs towering over tureens of “Grandma’s” meatballs and griddled-to-order quesabirria tacos, stroganoff and shrimp har gow, Caviar Vol au Vent bites and Sonoran Street Dogs topped with jalapeño. A man named Shervin, in town from Utah, told me he was drunk and “hungry as hell,” specifically for the crab, which retails for $30 a pound where he lives. At $79.99 for as many pounds as he could inhale in ninety minutes, the Bacchanal buffet was a steal.

Indeed, there was little evidence the all-you-can-eat buffet may be moribund in Sin City, the place of its birth. But since Covid-19 hit, ten of the Strip’s eighteen buffets have closed, and more may soon follow as hotels fix their sights on the next great thing: the curated food hall. The Las Vegas food hall represents an aesthetic shift as much as an economic and cultural one, toward a new form of excess, engineered for virality. It promises high returns for the house—but uncertain odds for workers.

The all-you-can-eat buffet dates back to 1940s, when El Rancho Vegas opened its midnight Buckaroo Buffet. Casinos all over town followed suit with similarly inexpensive late-night offerings, not only “to appease the howling coyote in your innards,” as one Buckaroo Buffet flier read, but also to keep gamblers from dozing off at the slots. As omelet bars and sneeze guards spread up and down the Strip, competition intensified. There were ice sculptures. Prime rib. Lamb chops. Steve Wynn’s mother’s recipe for bread pudding. A preponderance of “sub-buffets” highlighting different regional cuisines, as at Rio’s Carnival World Buffet, which opened in 1993.

The Las Vegas buffet became emblematic of a distinctly American approach to dining: pluralistic, bountiful, and reasonably accessible. In 1998, reporting from the Main Street Station hotel buffet for the New York Times, Frank Bruni suggested that the phrase “for fast and cheap, you can’t beat a buffet” could be the motto for Las Vegas, which he called the “nation’s capital of gorging as well as gambling.” The smorgasbords had become integral to the culture of the city, to the shared vision of the Strip as a hedonic paradise of unlimited intake. “The buffet was indigenous to Las Vegas,” says local historian David Schwartz. When, for example, his daughter made honor roll in middle school, she and fellow high achievers were taken to the Green Valley Ranch Feast Buffet to celebrate in style. One man even shot himself in a buffet parking lot when his all-you-can-eat privileges were revoked.

The old all-you-can-eat model was about value; the new à la carte system, designed to be photographed and shared online, is about discernment.

Near the end of the twentieth century, as the buffet race heated up, hotels and casinos began drafting celebrity chefs. Within the buffets, out came the lobster tails, and up went the cover charges. “When Vegas revolutionized itself [in the 1990s], everyone felt like they had to upgrade themselves,” John Curtas, local food critic and author of Eating Las Vegas told me. “The better hotels got on board; they wanted to feature their buffet as this big, fancy thing.” When The Cosmopolitan opened Wicked Spoon in 2010, serving troughs were exchanged for individual serving plates. Two years later, the Bacchanal Buffet opened at Caesars, with weekend dinner priced at $39.99. In late 2015, The Wynn renovated and reopened its buffet with more than one hundred new items, including, on some nights, a whole roasted pig. “The persistence of buffets as a cornerstone of the hotel/casino experience suggests that the lure of foodways persists—even thrives—among even the most rapid changes,” wrote Elizabeth Adams in All Those Mounds of Shrimp: Las Vegas Buffets Considered.

No longer, it would seem. Today, the blinking signs hanging off of hotels increasingly advertise majestic gallerias where visitors can sample dozens of brand-name culinary specimens more or less all at once: curated food halls. These halls of grub promise a buzzy experiential junket designed with social media in mind, where, unlike at venerable buffets, the food is invariably photogenic. “You come to Vegas and you want an experience every minute of every day,” Patric Yumul, CEO of TableOne Hospitality, the group behind The Sundry, a stunning new food hall off the Strip, told me.

Consumers still want to consume—but now that consumption must make a statement. The old all-you-can-eat model was about value; the new à la carte system, designed to be photographed and shared online, is about discernment.  Both rely on a dizzying array of options, but only one considers which variety of cheese will look the absolute gooiest in a boomerang video clip. Only at Proper Eats food hall at the Aria Resort & Casino can you get a $28 Wexler’s “Moe Greene” bagel sandwich with paddlefish caviar and gold leaf.

On a recent Monday, Block 16 Urban Food Hall at The Cosmopolitan—the first of its kind to open on the Strip—was host to hundreds of starving customers, dressed in funky tees and linen shorts. They ordered torched-to-order cinnamon rolls with cream cheese glaze at District: Donuts, a New Orleans import, and lunched on sushi handroll sets—the “threesome,” the “foursome,” or the “high roller”—at Tekka Bar. If you squinted, it could’ve been Brooklyn. Or Los Angeles or Miami or Philadelphia. As the man who checked me in at the NoMad Las Vegas told me, the food hall is “a vibe.” It is a worldly assemblage of transplanted “concepts”—not unlike the Strip itself, where kitschy, scaled-down replicas of Paris, Egypt, New York, and Venice are all right at home. It recalls Calvin Trillin’s distaste for what he called “La Maison de la Casa House” cuisine: ritzy restaurants that peddled generically upscale “continental” fare. It also looks a lot like one’s For You page.

The food hall can be a lot of things—loosely themed around a single region, or host to a Steve Aoki pizza place, a Korean soul food spot, and a Mediterranean outpost called Shalom Y’all—but the one thing it is not is a food court. It has nothing to do with the malls of the late twentieth century. It is aspirational in a way that warming trays of fried rice and steamed broccoli and mashed potatoes are not. Like its counterparts in major cities across the country, Las Vegas’s variation on the form is built for the internet; it trades in “ruthlessly bold” cuisine and Instagram likes. Customers can move quickly through them, or they can brave the perpetually long line to score a wagyu tri-tip steak-and-egg sandwich at the Block 16 eggslut, or they can linger in a booth until they’re hungry for the next thing.

In the five years since Block 16 opened at the Cosmopolitan, the city has seen the arrival of an Eataly at the Park MGM, the twenty-four-thousand-square-foot Famous Food Street Eats at Resorts World, and Proper Eats at the Aria, which opened late last year in the space that used to house its buffet. “It’s a tectonic shift in how people are eating; they’re paying more for a smaller caliber fashion of eating,” says Curtas. No one goes to a food hall to crack open as many crab legs as they can stomach; they go to throw down for the “Super Ninja sushi roll” with caviar, truffle, toro, and blue crab, and $14 pints of Brookies ’n Cream ice cream. It’s a shift away from the traditional Las Vegas excess of all-you-can-stomach toward The New Excess: a gratuitous display of less, for more. 

The decline of the Las Vegas buffet has created a familiar story for laborers.

This food hall works to the house’s advantage; whereas buffets are perennial loss-leaders, the food hall has the potential to be a veritable jackpot. The classic buffet model, with its high labor costs and food loss, is about as exciting to shareholders as bankrolling someone else’s birthday dinner at Caviar Kaspia. “Hotels never liked doing food,” says Curtas. “Buffets are hugely expensive to run, between the infrastructure, the employees, the moving parts. It’s like invading Normandy on D-day, to feed those thousands of people each day.”

The food hall, however, is set up to make money. They adopt a variety of models, some with a shared commissary kitchen for prep, many with shared labor between disparate stalls, some with QR codes or ATM-like kiosks for ordering (requiring fewer workers), and some with a smaller footprint than a buffet might occupy, which enables a hotel to open up another revenue-producing business in the same space that might’ve previously housed just one all-you-can-eatery. Faud Roshan, director of restaurants at Resorts World, says the food hall model regularly racks up “more than double” the daily transactions as a traditional large buffet; they’re achieving close to a 20 percent profit margin.

Although a recent report in the New York Times indicates the buffet is roaring back across the country, many sources I spoke to said that in modern Vegas, inflation isn’t driving consumers to search out value in the same way it might at a Golden Corral in Indiana. For Americans who can afford to visit Sin City, Vegas represents a temporary escape from the financial realities of everyday life. In this post-value Vegas, signifiers of luxury are the unabashed focus.

The decline of the Las Vegas buffet has created a familiar story for laborers. A few hundred miles from where writers and actors are picketing major studios, another negotiation is taking place, between the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the major hotels and casinos. Ted Pappageorge, secretary treasurer for the union, estimates that some two hundred servers and runners who were laid off from buffets during the pandemic have, despite many protective measures in place, been unable to find new full-time jobs. “It was a jolt for folks coming out of the pandemic to see that the buffets were not going to be reopened,” he says. Delia Granillo, a former buffet server of several decades, was able to find full-time employment at a restaurant after she was laid off from a now-shuttered buffet during the pandemic, but notes that some of her friends haven’t been so lucky. “Everything is on call; now they’re working two to three jobs,” she says.

Union leaders are working to hammer out a new contract for its sixty thousand workers (including those at all buffets and certain food halls on the Strip) after it expired earlier this year, with a focus on fighting back against labor reductions. Another piece of the negotiation hinges on technology that has potential to displace human workers, like the QR code and kiosk ordering systems employed by a number of food halls. “These companies have gotten fat off of cutting workers and adding more work,” Pappageorge told me. “We think there are going to be big strikes here in Las Vegas.”

Even if the shift toward the food hall has been driven by the house’s hunger for higher margins, diners don’t seem to mind. Curtas speculates that the Las Vegas consumer’s desires have been greatly influenced by what he calls “TikTok brain.” “Everything’s gotta be good for the ’gram now; buffets don’t really capture that well. You’re just lining up for a long time along a trough to get fed,” he says. “And no one comes here to gamble anymore. It’s about Area 51, Meow Wolf, and Las Vegas Raiders games—it has to be one bone-jarring, mind-blowing experience after the next.”

The thrill of piling crab legs on a plate may no longer cut it. But perhaps, like free drinks and smoking on the casino floor, certain high-end buffets like Bacchanal and Wicked Spoon will probably endure. (When I reached out to Caesars Entertainment Group, the director of public relations wrote that all Caesars entities would “politely decline in participating in the story.” Steve Gotham, executive chef for The Cosmopolitan’s Wicked Spoon—as well as for Block 16—wrote that the buffet continues to “see revenue growth [year over year],” with consistent profitability.) Or maybe the Las Vegas buffet will reinvent itself yet again, capitalizing on nostalgia for a vanished Vegas. Granillo told me she has at least three sets of old buffet regulars from her last job who come to visit her at the restaurant where she works now when they’re in town, to lament the lack of Vegas buffet selection. “The buffet is an idea that worked for so long, someone will probably try to revive it at some point,” says Schwartz. “It’s up to the customers. What do they want?”

They seem perfectly content with “Beeria” Grilled Cheese sandwiches at Lardo and contactless ordered slices of “Pursuit of Happiness” at Pizzaoki. More such offerings are on the way: In April, Rio’s Carnival World Buffet was walled off so that construction of a food hall could commence. A few months later, The Sundry opened off the Strip at the UnCommons, a mixed-used development space. Eat Your Heart Out food hall will open at the Durango Resort in the fall. The Fontainebleau is allegedly set to open its own take on the food hall by year’s end. For now, those who prefer the all-you-can-eat buffet in all its anachronistic abundance may continue to experience some form of it for $79.99. On Father’s Day in June, scores of visitors waited in line for over an hour to enter Bacchanal. Those toward the front craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the thick slices of beef steamship and the Barbie-pink “Strawberry Giggly” Jell-O. Inside, smoked salmon mousse in jaunty puff pastry cups mingled on plates with “Bloody Mary Deviled Eggs” and miniature gyros and crustacean limbs. Nobody but me had their phone out.


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