Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams Buffet-Style

Vegas shows the world how to do high-style dining with a line.


Oct. 20, 2007 Special to &#151; -- When Wolfgang von Wieser first visited Las Vegas as a 21-year-old budding chef, he looked down his nose--and the sneeze guard--at the city's iconic buffets.

"I saw those chunks of ham and roast beef and it was all such bad quality, I thought 'I could never work as a chef in Las Vegas,'" recalls von Wieser.

Now 49, von Wieser is the executive chef at the Bellagio, where he oversees all the hotel and casino's culinary operations, including its legendary buffet, which feeds 4,000 people a day.

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The Austrian native doesn't know which is more surprising: That he is very much a Las Vegas chef, or that those oft-maligned buffets are finally getting some respect--and deservedly so.

"The buffets here have become so much more sophisticated," says von Wieser. "It's the whole culinary landscape in Vegas that has changed."

Indeed, much of the food news coming out of Las Vegas in recent years has been about the star-studded chefs who've ridden into the desert--from Guy Savoy to Joel Robuchon to that "other" Wolfgang.

Meanwhile, the buffets have been quietly working hard to shed their image as feeding troughs for the gluttonous and palate-challenged, offering dishes like coq au Vin (at the Village Buffet at the Paris) and top-shelf sushi–now featured at just about every buffet worth its salt. They've traded their cafeteria look for something that looks and feels a lot more like a casual eatery.

Christina Clifton, vice president of food and beverage at the Mirage, says rather than chase the buffets out of town, these big name restaurants have forced buffets "to elevate themselves into being a real dining experience."

So when the Mirage decided to update its buffet, Cravings, they tapped none other than designer Adam Tihany, better known for such stunning destination restaurants as Per Se and Le Cirque 2000.

"We wanted the buffet to have a little more style," Clifton says. "We have a lot of international business guests, and we didn't want them to feel as though they were coming to a lesser restaurant."

At Cravings and some of the other finer buffets in town, such as those at Wynn Las Vegas and Treasure Island, those giant "hot boxes" where pre-prepared food once sat for hours have been replaced with "live-action serving stations" where chefs whip up dishes "a la minute" before their guests.

As the food has gotten better, so have the beverage offerings. At Cravings, you can splurge on a bottle of Billecart-Salmon to go with your $23.50 all-you-can-eat dinner. And the menu changes daily--on a two-week rotation--so repeat guests don't get bored with the dish offerings.

Clifton says Cravings feels so much more like a restaurant than a buffet that they had hoped to get rid of the word altogether, so fraught it is with images of sneeze guards and unsightly chafing pans. "But people couldn't find it in the hotel and they kept getting lost," says Clifton. "We finally had to put 'buffet' back on the wall."

Some buffets, which are no longer operating at a loss for most casinos, even have separate VIP entrances for guests who can't be bothered to wait the standard hour to get in the door.

We set out to find Sin City's top 10 buffets both on and off the Strip. Most feature an international cuisine and are connected to hotels, which makes sense, since they were originally created to feed frenzied gamblers who couldn't take the time out to eat at a full-service restaurant.

According to local lore, the buffet took hold in Vegas in the 1940s, after local publicist Herb McDonald, working late at the El Rancho Vegas one night, asked the chef to prepare him a plate of cold meats and cheeses. He sat and ate it at the casino bar--and hungry gamblers took note. McDonald got permission to set up tables with cold food in the casino for hungry gamblers too absorbed in their play to really dine. (McDonald's $ 1 "Buckaroo Buffet" was an instant hit).

Vegas' buffets have improved so much in recent years that they are becoming a popular alternative for bridal parties. Some have even started taking reservations. Good luck scoring a table at the Sundays-only Sterling Brunch at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, where for $65, you can load up on caviar while a chef prepares your smoked salmon omelet from scratch and a tuxedoed waiter happily keeps that champagne flute full.

Thom Wise, editor of Las Vegas Life magazine, says among locals, "there's less of a stigma" attached to dining at a buffet these days. Though he has ample opportunity to dine at the top tier restaurants, when dining with groups of friends, he says, they often gravitate toward buffets for their unbeatable value and convenience.

The most expensive dinner buffet in town is the weekend buffet at the Wynn Las Vegas for $37.95. You could easily gobble up $40 worth of tuna at the sushi station alone–and there are 15 more to graze from.

"It's hard to find a restaurant that will please everyone like only a buffet can," says Wise. What's more, since guests pay individually ahead of time, there isn't that awkwardness when the check comes, he says.

Wise sees it as his duty to visit and compare every buffet in town, because any visitor who comes to Sin City begs for the ultimate buffet experience.

"The buffet is a true Las Vegas icon," says Wise. "People--Americans especially--love to overindulge. When you see those snake lines of people trying to get in, you realize these buffets will never go away…at least not in Vegas."

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