Welcome to the new buffet, which isn’t a buffet anymore

Before every stranger and every set of communal salad tongs became a threat to our existence, the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace was the ultimate grazing land for herds of wandering tourists in Las Vegas. It served more than 3,000 people a day across nine stations, featuring hundreds of items including nigiri sushi, dim sum, rotisserie chicken, bone marrow, 12-hour roasted American wagyu, paella, lobster bisque, snow crab legs, chicken and waffles, gnocchi, pizza, deviled eggs, pho, miso soup (pause for breath), panang curry, cheeseburger sliders, soba noodles, poke, foie gras PB&J, oysters on the half-shell, shrimp and grits, street tacos, pozole, mapo tofu, General Tsos chicken, avocado toast, peppercorn-crusted prime rib and I havent even touched upon the dessert options yet.

If you had a hankering for some dish in the world, the odds were good you could find it on the Bacchanal Buffet, prepared by one of nearly 50 cooks employed to set (and reset and reset again) the daily feast.

You know what happened next. Buffets — along with salad bars, hot bars, continental breakfasts, condiment stations and anything else that allowed customers to serve themselves — were one of the earliest victims of the pandemic. The Bacchananal Buffet was no exception. The federal government has recommended restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and the like discontinue any operations that “require customers to use common utensils or dispensers.” Journalists started writing the buffets obituary, sometimes with a heavy heart. They wondered if the pandemic would permanently padlock the gate at the Golden Corral.

If anything, the coronavirus outbreak has simply reminded us of the risks already inherent in buffets. To be clear, buffets, in and of themselves, are not a problem. Ive enjoyed many and still drool at the thought of the rainbow swirl of chaats, curries and dosas available on the buffet at Woodlands, the south Indian restaurant in Langley Park, Md.

No, the problem is people, in all our glorious and maddening unpredictability.

The buffet has always been in the business of fantasy fulfillment: They promise “all you can eat.” They allow you to serve yourself, accountable only to your appetite and your conscience, not some server who may have the temerity to ask, “Is this all for you?” They offer public gluttony at affordable prices.

The carving station at the Bacchanal Buffet inside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in 2019. (Wade Vandervort/Las Vegas Sun/AP)

But buffets also require vigilance, from people on both sides of the line. Cooks and managers must monitor the food to make sure hot dishes stay hot and cold dishes stay cold. They must switch out common utensils on the regular to keep them clean and sanitized. They must toss food that has sat for two hours or longer at room temperature.

But even with careful management, a buffet is only as sanitary as its customers, and this is where the horror stories multiply faster than bacteria on room-temperature tilapia. Such as: The kid who licked a serving spoon and stuck it back in the mac and cheese tray. The guy who took bites of pizza and dipped his slice into a communal wonton soup bowl. The 1999 New York Times analysis of seven food and salad bars in Manhattan, which found “high levels of bacteria, yeasts or molds in most samples, indicating that the food had been kept at improper temperatures and for too long, and that much of it was either spoiled or on the verge of spoiling.” The recent Japanese experiment that showed how easily contaminants can transfer from one “infected” diner to a roomful of them.

And I haven’t even touched upon hand-washing, arguably the single most important behavior to prevent the spread of germs and viruses. As recently as January, only 58 percent of Americans said they always wash their hands after going to the bathroom, though presumably that number has increased since the pandemic and the constant messaging about keeping our mitts clean.

“Youd have to say the risk would go up just because the number of touches are higher” at a buffet, says Ruth Petran, a senior corporate scientist for food safety and public health at Ecolab. “There are viruses that can get on those surfaces and then be picked up by the next person coming along. But it still has to get from that person’s hand into their body.” This is where, she adds, 20-second hand-washing becomes your best friend.

The coronavirus and its associated disease, which has killed at least 131,000 in the United States, have put all these concerns back under the microscope, which is why so many buffets remain closed. The buffets common surfaces — counters, utensils, salad dressing bottles, dispensers, condiment stations — are viewed as potential sources of transmission, though that fear may be more perception than reality. Petran says its possible to contract the virus from surfaces, but the risk is pretty low. Whats more, theres no evidence whatsoever to suggest you can get the coronavirus from food, which goes through our digestive system, not our respiratory system, where the virus attacks.

The main transmission route remains person-to-person contact, Petran says, which is why she recommends that buffet managers adopt the usual protocols: social distancing, mask wearing for staff and customers, and regular hand-washing, before and after visiting the buffet. She has also noticed that some owners have transformed their buffets into cafeteria-style operations, with employees plating food instead of the customer. Theyve come up with other solutions, too, such as preportioned servings, ready for pickup, or even “endless entrees” delivered to your table. (How fun for servers looking to limit their interactions.)

Sumita Mehta at the lunch buffet at Woodlands in Langley Park in 2000. (Tom Allen/The Washington Post)

“All of our restaurants are reopening with new curbside pickup service, and many of them partner with local delivery companies,” says Lance Trenary, the president and chief executive of Golden Corral, in a video on the chains website.

The Bacchanal Buffet will adopt a few similar policies when it reopens in late August after a multimillion-dollar renovation. In an email, a spokeswoman for Caesars Entertainment says diners will no longer share tongs, and the buffet “will offer more miniature composed dishes than ever before and all-new tableside delivery of popular and innovative items like lobster bisque, Cajun seafood boil, foie gras PB&J and cheeseburger bao buns.” The menu remains in flux, but it will continue to have hundreds of options, the spokeswoman adds.

All of these are smart survival tactics, but you know what they arent? Theyre not the same as a buffet. Curbside pickup is not a buffet. Mini-composed plates are not a buffet. Cafeteria-style service is not a buffet. A buffet is one of the last places where adults can feel like a kid again, overwhelmed and delighted by all the options. But more than that, its a place where accidents happen. Where the food on your plate knows no boundaries, as sauces, meats and vegetables tumble and collide into involuntary mash-ups, some more delightful than others. I mean, that obnoxious dude mentioned above had to somehow learn that he liked his pizza dunked in wonton soup. He loved it enough, in fact, to risk public shaming.

The current format wont foster such accidental fusions. Nor will it foster much interaction between diners, which, to me, is an integral part of the buffet experience. Ive learned a lot about Philippine, Brazilian, Indian and Pakistani fare while standing in a buffet line. Those days appear to be gone for now, which is why, aside from the sheer risk involved in dining out, I wont be staking out a buffet anytime soon. Not until I can recognize it as one, and not until I can talk to my buffet neighbors freely without spreading anything more than information.

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