Historically, communal celebrations have set the stage for the most flagrant eating habits of human beings—think medieval feasts, Roman bacchanals, and Thanksgiving with your relatives. Somehow, gathering a crew legitimizes abject greed, while indulging alone is reserved for sad sacks who cry during reruns of Dawson’s Creek. Rarely is there room in this world for a real party of one.
However, there are those special places where a solo guest can easily join in communal jubilation. Drive to Martin Picard’s sugar shack during a Montreal spring and you’ll be swept up into the maple syrup-drenched gorge-fest. Hit the bar at Rao’s in East Harlem, and you’ll have a sliver of a chance to taste a meatball and raise a glass with strangers.
At first glance, you might include Las Vegas buffets in this category, but you’d be wrong. While it’s true that the Vegas buffet is a stronghold of gluttony, it offers a unique challenge for solo dining. Firstly, one must face the question of bang for buck. Without the benefit of conversation to draw out the meal, can you soldier through enough choices and pack away enough calories to warrant the price of admission? And if so, can you do it without losing every shred of self-dignity you have left?
Buffets represent the essence of Vegas: Days with no perceptible beginning or end, fueled by bright lights and a lack of self-restraint
Buffets entered the Vegas fray in the 1940s. The first, El Rancho Vegas’ “chuck wagon,” catered to late-night gamblers. Herb McDonald, an enterprising publicity man, pushed the Vegas buffet forward with pioneering idea: all-you-can-eat. The AYCE buffet debuted on the Strip in 1956; following the the El Rancho tradition, it was—initially—a midnight affair. Over time, the concept became a city hallmark with longer hours, and longer lines.
Today, even as Vegas casinos have become a blank canvas for celebrity chefs playing out their most over-the-top mook fantasies, the buffet still has a special allure. These spaces represent the essence of Vegas: Days with no perceptible beginning or end, fueled by bright lights and lack of a self-restraint.
The buffet is part of the Sin City experience, but can it satisfy the solo diner? To find out, I hit the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace recently. Here’s how it went down.
1:48pm: I arrive in line at Bacchanal Buffet, Caesars’ award-winning assembly of nine distinct restaurants under one roof. I am hyped. The line is long.
2:08pm: I remain in the same line position I entered 20 minutes ago.
2:09pm: A party of five Australians in front of me bows out. “Fuck them,” I think. “These Aussies don’t know what they’re going to miss.” I congratulate myself for having more resolve than other tourists. (To be fair, I have nothing else to do.)
2:21pm: Reaching the pay station, I hand over a credit card and say, “Just one.” I’m handed a receipt and told to stand in another line. There are no rewards for rolling solo in Vegas.
2:25pm: A hostess approaches and I tell her I am a party of one. She makes a sad face.
2:31pm: From my position in line, I can see the raw bar. One man in a Raiders jersey piles 52 shrimp on a plate. He fucking knows how to feast.
2:33pm: I reach the front of the line. I turn to high five someone and realize, crushingly, that solo buffet missions have some fatal flaws.
2:36pm: I HAVE A SEAT. It has only taken 48 minutes.
2:39pm: First plate. Yeah, three minutes in—I’m the king of buffet tactic. Except, not. I’ve opted for the station with the shortest line and started with kung pao chicken and dim sum. For the first time in my life, I can actually see sodium.
2:47pm: Second serving. Meatballs, rigatoni, and a slice of pizza. Light work.
2:50pm: The table next to me offers a lesson: The elderly members of the group have dispatched the youth to collect plates from all stations of the restaurant. Their haul is magnificent—towers of raw seafood (crab legs, oysters, shrimp), bowls full of noodles, a few plates of brisket. They position everything family-style. They are winning.
2:53pm: I’m losing. Two plates in, I order a cup of coffee. Beside me, a couple eats with less purpose. She has an egg white omelet. He’s got a basket of fried chicken and fries. They’ve got cocktails. They are eating at Bacchanal not because they are disgusting gluttons like me, but because they want to experience Vegas and be spoiled for choice.
2:55pm: I concede that I’ve spoiled my appetite. I walk immediately to the BBQ area.
3:00pm: Brisket, burger, ribs. Keeping portions small, I figure I can get a sense of the Bacchanal’s core competencies by tasting (almost) everything. The brisket is mildly successful. The ribs remind me of bush dogs pulling meat off a carcass. Given my general disdain for sliders, the Wagyu burger fails to impress.
3:05pm: Having eaten that haul in five minutes (I am disgusting), I look at the sushi. I look long. I look hard. I convince myself eating it is a bad decision.
3:13pm: Taco line. A spinning griddle captivates my hazy vision. I’ve been sober for half a decade, but in roughly half an hour, I’ve consumed enough salt to mimic a hangover. I grab a fresh mango juice from a cooler. It’s refreshing and genuinely good. I balance the drink with two steak tacos.
3:18pm: Standing next to a massive machine that dispenses clarified butter, a guy says to me, “This is delicious. This is the best buffet I’ve ever had.”
3:20pm: The trip to the raw bar has resulted in uncharacteristic (for this room) restraint. Following a man who plated roughly a bushel of mollusks—because, free oysters—I select two. The natural inclination at an AYCE is to grab the foods perceived as most expensive. You grab a shit load of them. You are getting over on the suckers that run this place. Sadly, though, the oysters would be better fried and in a sandwich. Fifteen minutes ago, I wisely skipped on sushi. Now, I’m struggling to swallow an oyster at a buffet.
3:25pm: The dessert section at Bacchanal comes with free insulin shots. It has everything: Ice cream, pies, puddings, macaroons. No surprises, really. Except…CREPES. Fresh crepes are the tits. I get one. I douse it with strawberry sauce and cream and a sense of victory. This is how you finish a meal at a buffet! This is how you get one over on idiots holding ice cream cones! A scan of the dining room reveals two things: Nobody else is eating a crepe, and I can’t remember where my table is. The crepe tastes like loneliness.