"There is a strong customer base that is looking for value and wants basic home cooking, foods they recognize and find comfortable," said Jay Chesterton, vice president for food and beverages at the Taj Mahal.
That's what attracted Evelyn Jessup, of Wilmington.
"I came with a friend, and folks we met down in the casino told us how great the buffet is," said Jessup, a 45-year-old homemaker, as she piled another crab leg cluster on top of her salad. "This is great."
Excess became more affordable for us common folk in the early 1940s after El Rancho Vegas, the first hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, began using a midnight meal - an all-you-can-eat $1 Chuck Wagon Buffet - to keep gamblers on the property at night.
What can we say? The concept caught on.
When casino hotels opened in Atlantic City in the 1970s, buffets followed. They are the mass-appeal part of a food formula that demands a steak house (he-man dining), a Chinese-Japanese eatery (Asians are a key customer group), and a coffee shop-cafe (open 24/7) at each hotel. Italian gourmet and deli fare are musts, too.
Selection, speed and price give buffets an edge when families and groups dine together, so long as family-style, steam-table foods are acceptable. (Though, as more buffet prices near the $20 psychological barrier, you may opt to pay less for a filling meal at other casual casino-dining venues.)
But for those who like variety and wholesome, not-too-fancy fare, buffets are ideal.
On the other hand, if setting is as important to you as sustenance, don't even consider any but the higher-rated buffets on our lists.
Except at breakfast, the typical casino buffet offers 40 or more choices: soups, salads and antipasti, a meat-carving station, and assorted American, Italian and Chinese entrees and accompaniments, plus an array of desserts. Last year, stuffed cabbage and knockwurst were on most menus. This year, lobster ravioli is popular. Comfort foods - mac and cheese, meat loaf and such - are staples. And a few buffets have specialties such as crawfish at Harrah's Fantasea Buffet and steaks at the Taj Mahal and at Bally's Virginia City Buffet.
Most buffets are priced under $20. And discount coupons in casino ads in daily newspapers and freebie publications, and special deals at some casinos - the Taj Mahal lets its 50+ Club members dine two-for-one on Thursdays and Fridays - bring the base cost as low as $7.95.
Or eat free, or nearly free, thanks to deals offering cash back and dinner vouchers when you buy a tour-bus ticket to Atlantic City.
At any price, it's disheartening to watch diners pile plates high with food and leave much of it uneaten. Waste is to be expected, of course, if the shrimp are mushy, a roast is tough, or melons are tasteless.
Everyone acknowledges that buffets exist not for profit, but to draw in customers. "A buffet in any Atlantic City property is a driver of business," Chesterton said.
High end or low, a casino's buffet and other dining venues are geared more to players than to tourists.
In Atlantic City, more than half of all casino meals are comped - complimentary (yes, that means free).
Comps accounted for 18.3 million, or 56 percent, of the 32.7 million casino meals served in Atlantic City in 2001, according to Gaming Industry Observer, a Northfield, N.J.-based trade newsletter.
Still, the numbers are shifting at the Taj Mahal. Since its upgrade, Chesterton said, what had been close to a 50-50 split between comps and cash customers at the buffet is now about 55 percent cash business.
"The buffet has greater perceived value and has become a destination restaurant," Chesterton said. "It's still a marketing tool for players, but we actually make a small profit."
All of which brings us to brunch.
Within the realm of buffets, the Sunday casino brunch is unique. Whereas dinner buffets are the balm of day-trippers (also known in the trade as "the bus people"), Sunday brunches target high rollers. They're handy, too, for impressing bigwigs and weekend hotel guests, who pay more for their rooms than do midweek visitors.
Brunch is where you'll find the lobster and caviar, the racks of baby lamb chops and chunks of king crab, and the bottomless glasses of champagne. Raspberries, blueberries and papayas turn up in place of orange and grapefruit sections. The foods at brunch are usually fresher, bigger and better.
Still, it's hard for most of us to justify a $50 midday meal.
The Claridge, now part of the Park Place clan (along with Bally's, Caesars and the Hilton), offers a buffet only on Sunday. Served at Luna, a gourmet Italian restaurant, for $22.95, it was a deal and so civilized. Brunch moved last weekend to the Twenties steak house. Now $25, it has the same staff, an expanded menu and room for more guests.
One can dine with an ocean view on whopper chopped crab legs and claws at Roberto's at Trump Plaza ($31.95) or at Harbor View at Trump Marina ($32) - both with champagne included.
The 11 casino operations in Atlantic City offer 21 public buffets, the best of which are described and rated here.
The Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the 2,000-room luxury resort opening this summer in the marina area, stirred competition before ground was broken in September 2000.
Of 11 planned restaurants, five will be leased to celebrity chefs - among them Philadelphia's Susanna Foo (Suilan restaurant) and chef Luke Palladino (Specchio and Ombra). Palladino, a New Jersey native, was formerly with the Mirage in Las Vegas and Olives in Aspen.
With the bar raised, Atlantic City's casinos are renovating, upgrading and adding some new chef-driven, destination restaurants of their own to the mix. Tropicana is due to open restaurants with renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Philadelphia restaurateur Neil Stein (who owns Striped Bass and Rouge, among other venues) next year.
And buffet quality must rise with that tide. At Borgata, food and beverage director Victor Tiffany is planning a daily buffet with some seasonal game meats, specially grown local produce, small-batch food preparation, and more cook-to-order food stations.
"We're not in the middle of a desert or a Connecticut forest," he observed. "We're an hour from Philadelphia, two hours from New York and Washington. We must compete with restaurants in those markets."
Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or email@example.com.