Las Vegas has become America's hottest restaurant market. Each new megaresort brings its own multiple dining options, with celebrity chefs and clones of famous signature restaurants now added to the usual mix of buffets, coffee shops, and steak houses. This flock of truly worthwhile new restaurants has radically changed the Las Vegas dining experience. Status-conscious hotel-casinos now compete for star chefs and create lavish, built-to-order spaces for well-known restaurant tenants that rise above the dull standards of the past. These new establishments rival the upscale restaurants of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York in quality, and although they are geared to satisfying high rollers, their prices are often lower than those at their big-city counterparts. But even low rollers with thin wallets have plenty of dining options. Despite the influx of upscale restaurants, you can still find a complete T-bone steak dinner for only $7.95, a 99¢ shrimp cocktail, a $4.99 prime rib dinner, and a $2.49 breakfast special. And of course, the ever-popular buffet is found in nearly every casino in town.
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The all-you-can-eat buffet is as much of a must-do on a trip to Las Vegas as dropping a few coins in a slot machine or attending a hit show. It's an institution - and you'd be hard-pressed to find so much good food for so little money anywhere else.
The first Las Vegas buffet was introduced at the El Rancho Vegas Hotel in the 1940s. To tempt show-goers and gamblers into sticking around a little later, the hotel-casino dreamed up the idea of a midnight "all you can eat for $1" chuck-wagon buffet. The owners figured the added gaming income would more than make up for losses in the restaurant - and they were right. Today there are more than 60 buffets in the LasVegas-Clark County area.
Every major Las Vegas hotel-casino has a buffet. Circus Circus has one of the least expensive buffets in town - $4.99 for breakfast, $5.99 for lunch, and $7.49 for dinner. Buffets at the Gold Coast, Sahara, Riviera, and many other hotels continue to put out predictable, quantity-over-quality American smorgasbords with average prices of about $3-$5 for breakfast, $5-$7 for lunch, and $8-$10 for dinner. Some of the buffets are gigantic. The Excalibur's buffet seats 1,500, and more than 10,000 people are served each day at the Circus Circus buffet.
In recent years, as the quality of Las Vegas's non-buffet dining has improved, many buffets have worked to deliver better food and ambience. The more popular ones have installed "cooking stations" serving diverse cuisines to customers who wander from post to post and watch their meal being prepared right before their eyes. Serving stations or no, Las Vegans and savvy tourists have been flocking to improved buffets such as those at Fiesta, Rio, Texas Station, and Bellagio. Prices have risen ($7-$10 for lunch, $9-$23 for dinner), but the food is a far cry from the uninspired, institutional presentations of the recent past. Main Street Station's Garden Court Buffet, one of the best in town, features nine action stations serving American, southwestern, Pacific Rim, Chinese, and Mexican foods, plus pasta, rotisserie, designer pizza, and a dessert bar.
Many buffets serve $10-$20 Sunday champagne brunches, which usually include a bottomless glass of champagne or unlimited mimosas. At $53, the Sterling Brunch at Bally's Casino Resort is the most expensive and extensive Sunday brunch in town. Fine French champagne flows freely in the resort's stunning steak house, where artful displays of caviar, shellfish, and other delights look almost too good to eat. Mandalay Bay's Houseof Blues complex stirs the soul with a gospel brunch ($34.60) that serves up an all-you-can-eat Southern-style buffet - andouille hash, creole chicken jambalaya, turnip greens, Georgia peach cobbler - to the sounds of gospel music.
Keep a few things in mind when dining at Las Vegas buffets. Be ready for long lines, especially in peak season, at peak hours, and at the cheaper buffets. Only eat at one buffet a day or you'll stuff yourself. Avoid the breakfast buffets, which usually consist of fatty, warmed-over items - save room for the tastier lunch or brunch. If you do have a craving for scrambled eggs and bacon, pay the cheaper breakfast price and slip in before breakfast ends, then linger while lunch gets under way. Alternately, if you can wait for lunch or brunch, go after 1 PM to avoid the crowds. And whenever you go, don't forget to tip your server-bus person - it's customary to leave $1 or $2 per table.