…stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit’ll come home with you.
Such is the advice of Doug’s future father-in-law in The Hangover, and it’s advice my friends and I should have taken when we found ourselves at the Bellagio Buffet this past week. We didn’t take home herpes, mind you. Even the calories we took in will eventually go away. But we will never shake the knowledge that we are disgusting, insatiable pigs.
Before you walk into the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, prepare yourself to feel the full brunt of the AAA Five Diamond Award experience. It means you’ll be greeted by a golden fountain and light show set to some Sinatra out front. It means the lobby skylight will dapple you with a colorful glass sculpture by renowned artist Dale Chihuly. It means you’ll turn the corner to find a waterfall of five different kinds of chocolate, and going to “the pool” actually means going to a pool complex that includes five different pools, personal cabanas and plenty of hot tubs.
It also means that, unless your father is Bill Gates or you enjoy the salary bracket that allows you to actually indulge in the Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Prada outlets in the nearby City Center, you can forget about affording to eat at any of the Bellagio’s three prestigious fountainside restaurants. Even if you did have the money, the restaurants are booked up months in advance, and you can bet your Target polo and Old Navy shorts that you won’t pass the dress code.
So where are the groundlings supposed to eat? The word “complimentary” does not exist in the Bellagio lexicon, so there’s no hope for stealing a bunch of peanut butter and jelly from the breakfast line. Room service is always a possibility, but $9 still seems like a heck of a lot for two pieces of french toast. So the only other possibility that remains is…the buffet.
Discovering the buffet – or the BUFFET, as it’s overbearingly labeled – nestled in among the slot machine forest is like driving past a Chuck E. Cheese on the highway. Quaint, gaudy, a little embarrassing, but also a source of comfort and nostalgia. The simple complex that is the Bellagio Buffet, standing out in stark contrast to the grandeur around it, offers breakfast for $16, lunch for $20 and dinner for $30 on weekdays. The prices for Friday and Saturday dinner and Sunday brunch are a little higher, but not much.
So when my friends and I found ourselves hungry in Vegas on a Monday, we got into the lunch line, not sure what to expect. The line seemed to take forever, and we tried not to meet the eyes of too many other groundlings as we waited. A few too many “gonna have to loosen your pants” jokes and awkward all-I-want-to-be-doing-is-eating right now silences later, we paid our way in, found a table and set ourselves loose in that stainless steel cafeteria jungle.
As I picked up a tray and began to peruse the Bellagio offerings, I couldn’t help being transported back to my high school lunchroom. It was all the same – a home base table in the center with my friends, nerdy guy sitting by himself in the corner, lunchroom overseers whirring about, flank steak – wait, flank steak?
Yes, flank steak.
Sitting right there on a small white plate of its own glorious juices. Pink in the middle, brown around the outside with a beautiful bit of char. I had to admit, this was a step above congealed Turkey A La King that used to grace my high school lunch tray at least once a week. Right, then. I’ll take that.
I cast my eyes about to see what else this little lunch room from heaven had to offer, and landed on fresh shrimp and cocktail sauce. Definitely going to have to have some of that. And right next to it? St. Louis barbecue ribs? Don’t mind if I – wait. Three proteins in one meal. Wasn’t that a little much?
I paused for a moment, then told myself I was on vacation and I could eat whatever the heck I wanted. Besides, how often do you get to eat at a five diamond buffet?
From there on out, it was a free-for-all.
My first plate maintained a bit of coherence as I tried to balance the meat out with a few pastas and vegetables. But the amount of food I had to try just did not compute with usual dinner decorum, and my second, third and fourth plates got lost in the melee.
Tortellini in pesto sauce with mushrooms, smoked trout, beef ravioli in a cream sauce, barbecue salmon, buttery orzo, roasted red pepper hummus with sesame crackers, fettuccine with sun dried tomatoes and seafood ceviche all found their way onto my plate. Those silvery counters delivered an endless avalanche of fresh, quality food.
I became determined to try it all.
Each time my friends and I would return to the table, we would try the food, discuss the food and try each other’s food. It was determined that the pesto was the most delicious pasta, the ravioli was kind of bland, the flank steak was possibly the best item available and the cheese empanada was simply not worth its weight in calories. After that, it was always the same question.
“You going up again?”
“I don’t know…”
“I’m kind of full…”
Then finally one person would sigh and stand up. The rest of us would follow.
California rolls, hamburger sliders, watermelon, caesar salad, crab legs, cantaloupe, pepperoni pizza, bowtie pasta in marinara sauce, herb chicken, fried rice, prime rib…I began to put food on my plate that I didn’t even understand or care about. When a friend finally asked what I was eating and I realized I didn’t even know, I knew that was the end of the road.
I could eat no more. I had gotten my money’s worth. I had thrown in the napkin, so to speak.
Then I saw the cheesecake.
Strawberry shortcake, bread pudding, decadent little squares of dark chocolate, flan – those little plates of sweet perfection rained down upon us like manna from some sort of heaven-hell. We ate. We paused. We sighed. We looked at each other in vain. We ate some more.
Sometimes another lunch dish would catch our eye, and we would come back to the table with unlikely and embarrassingly gluttonous combinations of pizza and cheesecake or tiramisu and shrimp. We knew we were leaning heavily on one of the seven sins at this point, but we just didn’t care. It was all so good.
But you can only stretch anatomical possibilities so far, and around my second bowl of bread pudding, I hit a wall. I looked around at my friends’ faces, and I could see they were there, too. Our taste buds said yes, but the buttons on our pants said no. We didn’t have much to say to each other as we sat around the table in that after-Thanksgiving food haze, digesting and feeling full.
That is, until one friend looked up with a guilty and mischievous glint in his eye.
“You know,” he said, “they’re starting to bring out the dinner stuff.”
“What is it?”
We groaned. We hung our heads. We paused just briefly enough to not allow reality to hit, then we stood up to get another plate.
Photo courtesy of nmgastronome.com