How $1.99 All-You-Can-Eat Buffets Went Extinct

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Traditionally, cheap buffets in Las Vegas have served as loss leaders: Their purpose wasn’t to be profitable but instead to draw in diners—who hopefully would stick around to gamble. Lately, the idea of a $1.99 all-you-can-eat meal makes less sense than ever, which is why Sin City’s cheap buffets have all but disappeared.

In late summer, the Riviera’s R Buffet closed down. “We don’t know the official answer as to why (although we can, as we’re sure you can as well, guess),” a Vegas Chatter post noted. The buffet was considered low quality — so low, in fact, that it struggled to attract crowds despite cheap prices under $15 a head.

At the time, the R was the cheapest buffet on the Strip. A recent Vegas Inc story portrays its closure as the end of an era. For several years now, the overwhelming trend is that “the price tag for food and quality of buffets on the Strip has skyrocketed,” the story explains.

In the mid-00s, according to one travel guide, top resorts like the Rio boasted buffets starting under $10. Today, the Rio’s buffet prices start at over $20. While there are still a few sub-$10 buffets in downtown Las Vegas, the pattern of higher prices and higher quality fare is one that’s largely repeated throughout Sin City. This is especially the case, in and around the Strip, where $20 to $25 is fairly standard for breakfast and dinner buffets featuring crab legs, prime rib, and such run $40 and up.

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Part of the reason why the old cheap buffet formula no longer works is that the foodie trend has gone mass market. Just as diners have increasingly been choosing fast casual (think: Chipotle) over fast food, the theory is that Vegas tourists want food that’s good, not merely cheap, and they’re willing to pay for better quality.

Perhaps more importantly from the business side of things, Las Vegas has been suffering what’s been dubbed the “low roller” invasion. Tourists just aren’t gambling as much as they used to, perhaps because there are now casinos within easy reach of the vast majority of Americans. And since casinos have been making less money from their usual bread and butter (gambling), they’ve had figure out other ways to juice profits.

A heightened focus on shopping is one trend. Heading upscale in the food department is, of course, another.

Some old-timers may grumble about the disappearance of their favorite cheap buffets. But the success of options like the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace, which costs $26 for breakfast, up to $50 for weekend dinner, indicates the upscale foodie trend is likely here to stay. “More than 3,000 people visit the Bacchanal buffet every day,” the Vegas Inc story reports. “The line often snakes more than two hours long.”

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In some ways, food and gambling are flip-flopping their roles in Las Vegas. Soon after the Riviera dropped its cheap buffet, it introduced $1 blackjack tables. The thinking seems to be: If low-priced food doesn’t bring in the crowds, perhaps low-stakes gambling options will.