I didn’t intend to set up camp in a Las Vegas buffet. I am too antsy, too old, and too eager to explore; I am not cut out to park my ass through multiple meals in one big room, no matter how much crab and shrimp are on offer. I am far too politely Midwestern to irritate a wait staff by sitting for hours, filling a table as I gobble down plate after plate of custom omelettes, gelato, and sushi.
My mission was simply to go to the Vegas buffet, and see what happened as I sat there for as long as I could. I brought a book. I brought a battery pack for my phone. I bought the bottomless mimosa add-on. I was ready to be polite and unobtrusive, to pace myself food-wise, and to watch all the comings and goings of a Vegas institution in the days before Christmas. I wore pants with loads of room. I was in it for the long haul.
Readers, I made it four hours.
When you walk up to Bacchanal, the grand dame of Las Vegas buffets inside Caesars Palace, you see a long maze of velvet rope and several touchscreen terminals. Because I was there during the week before Christmas, I walked right in, but it’s easy to imagine the chaos and noise, especially once you’ve actually entered the dining room. (More on that later.) Before you actually take your seat, however, you’re confronted with the same polite reminder, splashed across signs, receipts, and the like: There’s a two-hour time limit, you see. Please remember the two-hour time limit. Have we mentioned the two-hour time limit? Here’s your table, enjoy your two hours, two-hour people.
What’s curious, though, is that the limit doesn’t really seem necessary. In the four hours that I sat in that pretty dining room, I saw almost no one make it past the two hours. I was not asked to leave. No one was asked to leave. But while comfortable and appealing, the dining room of Bacchanal Buffet seems engineered to make you want to leave as soon as possible.
Everything was beautiful at the buffet
This isn’t to say it wasn’t a positive experience. Before leaving for my trip, I asked friends and coworkers 1) if they’d ever done one of the more elaborate Vegas buffets, and 2) if so, which one. I also did a lot of Googling. (I’m a research traveler. I have planned many a trip I may never take.) The advice was close to universal: If you’re going to do it, go to Caesars Palace and do it right. There was also a lot of enthusiasm for Wicked Spoon, the buffet at The Cosmopolitan, but the concierge at our hotel (I am also an ask-questions traveler) said, “If you’re only going to do one, the Bacchanal is the one to do.” It sealed the deal.
Everything was as promised. Bacchanal Buffet, the result of a $100 million renovation in 2012, encourages gluttony in up to 600 people at a time. And all it’ll set you back is $54.99 before 3 p.m. and $64.99 after (for $98, you get a dedicated reservation time and something called a VIP seafood tower). As with most buffets, you’re seated and invited to get up and start grabbing treats as soon as you arrive. But a wait staff also makes the rounds, bringing coffee, water, and alcohol to tables and quickly spiriting away abandoned plates. There are plates everywhere—people pile them, one atop the other, on their tables, and there are orderly stacks tucked into shelves at the beginning and end of each segment in the buffet. It feels a bit like being in an enormous version of a kitchen in some celebrity’s home, all sun colors and decorative jars of pasta, with just a smidge of hotel lobby thrown in—comfortable, welcoming, but always with the feeling that you’re in transit; not a final destination.
And the food, my god, the food. I timed my visit with the hope that I’d get to sit through part of both breakfast and lunch, even if I couldn’t (or wasn’t permitted) to make it to dinner, and both were impressive. As you’d guess, the highlights were the foods that were either made or cut to order: omelettes, carving station, crepes, so on. Breakfast included several freshly squeezed juices, including watermelon, cucumber, and pomegranate. The sizable Asian food section showcased sushi, dim sum, and more through both meals, while the lineup of American comfort foods shifted from dishes such as chicken and waffles to sliders. (Mac and cheese was a constant for both.) In terms of quality, there was the great (bananas foster doughnuts), the good-but-not-insanely-good (the tacos, the frittatas, nearly all of the meat and seafood), the bad (on the day I was there, it would seem that no one on staff had ever eaten or even seen grits), and the questionable (the lobster bisque and clam chowder were probably great, but there was a surface-film situation that turned me the hell off).
At the end, the best dish I had (aside from a massive plate of shrimp) was a crepe with Nutella. Read into that what you will, about both me and Bacchanal.
The changing of the meals
Because this outing was also anthropological in nature, I tried to make my trips to get food as quick as I could, doing only one or two sections at a time, depending on how excited I was about the sections in question. (Both seafood and desserts received solo trips, and I went back to both afterward.) That meant more trips, and quick ones. My intention was to spend as much time at the table as possible, so I could drink it all in. But the result was that I saw each section several times, if only while walking by, and the speed with which things are turned over and replaced is staggering. If a space was empty when I walked by, it was full when I returned, and often what filled that space was something entirely new. One example: I spotted one lonely dish of pozole, and as I had a touch of a hangover (this was Vegas, of course I did), I determined to come back to grab some on the next round. By the time I returned, that space was filled with doughnuts.
The impression this gives is equal parts impressive and discouraging. I’m one of those completist people who needs to unlock all the achievements in video games, and who feels the need to watch every episode of a given television show long after I’ve stopped caring, so I wanted a taste of everything I could get. I doubt I’d pull that off even if the menu was fixed—there’s so much food, up to and including 10 or so flavors of ice cream and gelato—but as the lineup is ever-changing, it wouldn’t be possible even if you had a bottomless void or bag of holding for a stomach.
That also makes the fact that some of the food was lukewarm so weird. Things didn’t last long, so I assume anything I got with a film or a less-than-appealing temperature wasn’t particularly popular, and that’s why it sat so long. I contacted Caesars to ask about how often the food is turned over and what, if anything, happens to the uneaten food that gets pulled back, but the company’s representative declined to comment for this story.
The most uncomfortable comfortable place on earth
So if the selection is constantly changing and the drinks bottomless, why didn’t I make it longer than four hours? Because Reader, and I say this with affection, I simply Could Not Fucking Take It Anymore.
I have absolutely no proof beyond my experience that Caesars Palace turns over its tables through a combination of sensory overload and a quiet war of attrition, but that sure as hell seems like the strategy. By the time my partner and I neared the 90-minute mark, we were tired and thirsty, and our server had essentially disappeared. Our plates still vanished, mostly when we were away from the table, but the well for coffee, water, and my poor old mimosas had run dry. It’s not as though we felt actively ignored, like the staff was visiting other tables but not ours, but they were in and out so quickly that even catching the eye of the very nice woman who was helping us was impossible. I drank a lot of pomegranate juice in lieu of water. I would have done just about anything for a glass of water.
At a certain point, I inadvertently (honestly) spilled my coffee, and then someone materialized within seconds. The coffee was gone (and replaced) in a flash, and then I got a chance to ask for water, which I then received. But this was during hour three, and so the damage was already done. I felt gross, and I needed a nap.
That’s not all that makes Bacchanal a nice place to visit and an unpleasant place to linger. There are lots of lights, yet it’s all pretty dim. The pop soundtrack was mixed in such a way that it contributed to the constant noise—chatter, dishes, kitchen sounds, occasional rounds of “Happy Birthday”—but you could never hear the lyrics and only sometimes catch the melody, so it was just kind of a wash. The room wasn’t too hot or too cold, but was a little bit clammy or claustrophobic. The seating was nice, but not super nice.
I would bet money that the place is engineered to keep you a little squirmy and uncomfortable at all times. No one ever came close to asking me to leave, but my eagerness to leave was sparked before the two-hour mark, and by the time I hit three and a half hours, I was desperate to get out of there. Only the fact that four hours sounded more dramatic kept me from fleeing.
I asked a few people on the staff what happens when people stay longer than two hours (as I did). The responses varied, but nearly all were a variation on “we politely ask them to leave.” One, however, said this: “We’d ask them to leave, but we never have to. People almost never make it that long.”
Some closing thoughts
- Don’t do this experiment. It’s not worth it. The people-watching was good, and so was the food, but it’s Las Vegas, so there’s no shortage of either. I’d have had more fun eating a doughnut at a slot machine. (I’d have gotten more drinks, too.) I’m glad I went, but as you can tell, this isn’t a place that’s built for lingering. Get in, get shrimp, get full, get out.
- If you’re into the whole buffet thing, Bacchanal is a good one, but be smart about it. Heading in for a late breakfast will get you the greatest variety in food options, but trying everything isn’t a great tactic—I’d go after the things that look delicious (especially if they’re new to you) and then get seconds if you’re still hungry. Leave room for things you’re curious about, but don’t attempt to unlock the “tried a little of everything” achievement badge. That’s room you could leave for shrimp.
- Skip the unlimited drinks package (a $15 up-charge) unless your goal is to consume as much forgettable wine as possible. You won’t see your server often enough to make it worthwhile. If I did it again (and I won’t), I’d order a Bellini off the menu and call it a day.
- Ask for water at every chance you get.
- Finally: Unless you want to eat lots of different things and several plates of shrimp, maybe just go to a restaurant?