Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past

It sure looks like the casino buffet will never be the same. New England’s Casino buffets stay closed. I feel lucky to have them all – from Maine to Connecticut and the latest buffet at Encore Boston Harbor. Unfortunately, Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past.

To survive, they must renovate with COVID-19 safety protocols or never be open again. But they’ll never be the same.

The Casino Buffet Begins With Cattle Drives

The casino buffet’s beginnings can be traced back to the wild west, specifically, the chuck wagon.  As America pushed west, the chuckwagon became the means of keeping cowboys fed and energized for days to come. Yes, the cook, usually called “Cookie,” was one of the most important cattle drive members – the first “Celebrity Chefs” of the wild west.

Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past
Hey Cookie, whats for lunch?

Las Vegas and the First Casino Buffets

In the 1930s and ’40s, Las Vegas became a destination with legalized gambling and easy divorce laws. New casinos quickly sprouted up. The Last Frontier, Thunderbird, El Cortez, and El Rancho Vegas sprang up around Fremont Street and the Strip. And with them came the infamous “chuckwagon,” or buffet.

According to VitalLasVegas.com, “The Wagon Wheel Tavern was one of the first [buffets] inside the El Rancho Vegas.”

Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past

What Were The First Buffets Like?

The Wagon Wheel Tavern was a good example of what all-you-can-eat places were like in the early 20th century:

  • They beckoned “wranglers,” enticing them with thick cowboy jargon: “double-barreled value of the year!” and “lasso a fresh, crisp salad!”
  • The food was basic − cold cuts, salads, and a selection of “hot entrées.
  • The prices ($1) and the hours of operation (24/7) were a huge draw.

The fixed-price all-you-can-eat midnight feast proved to be a roaring success. Casino operators quickly adopted the model all over town. Thus, the famous Las Vegas Buffet was born.

Last Fifty Years

From the 1970s, the chuckwagon smorgasbord evolved quickly. Las Vegas Advisor reports that “Well into the ’70s, inflation was still unknown on the buffet scene. The most opulent spreads at Caesars Palace and the Dunes cost $2.75 and $4, respectively. The vaunted Silver Slipper dinner smorgasbord charged just $1.98.”

Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past
Las Vegas Strip, late 60s

But the ’80s and ’90s ramped up the quality, the number of food options, and unfortunately, the price. The casino buffet had finally begun to materialize as the main attraction.

Personal Experience

I started visiting Las Vegas in the ’90s. I remember great dinner buffets under $10 all around town. 2-for-1 coupons were available in newspapers, coupon books, and hotel guest sheets. Our favorite became Main St. Station, opened by Boyd Gaming in 1996. Now, it sits closed.

Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past
Garden Court Buffet, Main Street Station

COVID Closes Them Down

Across the country, casino gambling has expanded to over 1000 casinos. The old “chuck wagon” presence was always a strong piece of the culinary offerings.

But, COVID-19 restrictions have cut deeply into the tradition of casino buffets. Out of nine casinos in New England, five had buffets. All are closed as properties decide what to do. Redoing their menu, paying more staff to attend to customers, ensuring safe capacity number and social distancing, and trying to partner with delivery services to boost takeout sales are all future considerations.

Will the Casino Buffet Survive?

Are Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past? While the Rainmaker Buffet is closed at Foxwoods, the VIP lounge still offers a small buffet, as expected. It could be what a future buffet may look like. But it was moved to a larger space, plexiglass separate servers from guests, and social distancing is a must.

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“The competition for takeout and off-premise food is very high. Buffets just aren’t designed to be that convenient.” 

Darren Tristano, the CEO, and founder of Food Service Results

Darren Tristano, the CEO, and founder of Food Service Results, said this crisis doesn’t necessarily spell the buffet’s end as a concept. Still, he foresees many of these restaurants closing.

Casino Buffets Are a Thing of the Past

While buffets may stay closed, we are still grateful for the memories. From those special family get-togethers to the quick break of good food before the next gambling session, buffets have been an important part of the American food landscape. Thanks for the memories,

3 comments

  1. These buffets were amazing, but you’re right. I think they’re history. I don’t think we’ll ever find a better selection for a better price 🙁

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