We were just wrapping up our fourth buffet of the day when the guy came over and asked Pitt if he was OK. Pitt, sometime after his thirteenth plate of food in about 10 hours, was having a rather obvious dip in morale: he looked pale, kept leaving our table to go into the men’s restroom only to return 10 minutes later to announce that he hadn’t thrown up, and alternated slouching in his chair and resting his head on the table. I slowly ate small bites of only light things like tabbouleh salad. We were hitting a significant wall.
For almost two years, I had mentioned the idea to people. “They have this thing in Vegas called ‘The Buffet of Buffets,” I would say. “A 24-hour pass to five buffets.” If they didn’t wrinkle their nose at this fact, I would explain while feeling them out for potential interest. Pitt was the only person I thought would a) actually show up and b) dig deep when it came to actually performing. He did.
The Buffet of Buffets is this: Five buffets (Flavors at Harrah’s, the Paradise Garden at the Flamingo, Le Village at Paris, Spice Market at Planet Hollywood, and Carnival World at the Rio), theoretically 24 hours to eat at all of them (they’re not open 24 hours; the earliest ones opens at 7 a.m. and the latest ones close at 11 p.m.). It’s advertised at $54.99 with an asterisk—if you show up on a weekend and don’t have a Total Rewards card, it’s closer to $80. So it’s not exactly a screaming deal, although you do get a discount on the High Roller, Vegas’s new 55-story ferris wheel, with your purchase. Which kind of seems like a bad idea after, or in the middle of, a day of sport eating.
We met at 7:30 a.m. in front of the Flamingo, where at least six people exited the front door in five minutes to take photos of the sun after they’d been out all night, emerging with a slightly drunken glee of discovery. One woman asked us, “Have you been out all night too?” No ma’am, but your pursuit is just as noble as ours.
Over piles of runny eggs at a table next to the Flamingo’s koi pond, we decided general rules: The goal was to simply live in buffets for the entire day. We would each eat three plates at each buffet, plus dessert. Each person got one “mulligan plate”: if you filled a plate and the food was subpar, you didn’t have to eat it. We would take a photo of each plate of food before eating it. A woman in a very short, tight, cocktail dress bent over to reach the bacon on the buffet, giving most of the dining room patrons a full-value view of everything. Ten minutes later, she stood on the bridge over the koi pond, taking a selfie with a green cardboard disposable Fuji camera. We finished our food and moved on to Harrah’s, a small step up.
After Harrah’s, I had eaten something like nine scrambled eggs, two slices of French toast, two pancakes, about three cups of breakfast potatoes, a cheese danish, a red velvet cupcake, two slices of watermelon, approximately one cup of grits, a half-order of eggs florentine, a cup of yogurt and granola, a slice of zucchini bread, a salad, three pieces of vegetarian sushi, a tablespoon of wasabi, one croissant, four cups of coffee and a scoop of chocolate ice cream. This was easily enough food for a day and a half. We walked a mile off the strip to the Rio, grateful for the exercise and break from eating.
As an outdooorsperson, I am aware that I am not supposed to like Las Vegas. I recycle, conserve water, try to live simply, and I am supposed to be repulsed by the Strip, where I should shudder at the coal required to power the orgy of neon lights and the beam-into-space projecting from the top of the Luxor, or be appalled at the idea of supplying the showers of more than 150,000 hotel rooms with water in the middle of a desert.
I like Vegas, though. Not because it’s the closest major airport to the climbing at Red Rocks, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and Zion National Park (although it is), but because it contains such a paradox of dreams and desperation, parts we hate about ourselves but can’t help indulging, fake joy and beauty but also real pain and hideousness. One Saturday at about midnight, I saw a guy in a black trenchcoat standing on the jersey barrier between Las Vegas Boulevard and the sidewalk holding a cardboard sign reading “KICK ME IN THE BALLS AS HARD AS YOU CAN: $20.”
Plus there’s a special, bizarre feeling you get when you see people who have traveled halfway around the world taking photos of an Eiffel Tower that’s not the real one. My friend Will grew up in Las Vegas and described the Strip as “a city designed by a five-year-old.” Let’s see, over here, we’ll have a pyramid with a Sphinx in front of it, and over here we’ll have a hotel made up of replicas of New York skyscrapers, and then a giant fountain with jets that synchronize to “Luck Be a Lady” and a dozen other songs, and then a half-size Eiffel Tower …
When people say they hate Las Vegas, I believe they don’t understand America, or they like to think America is only the parts they like to see. Hunter S. Thompson subtitled Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas “A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream,” but never quite spelled out what it was or what he thought it was, aside from a burned-down nightclub on Paradise Road in Vegas.
I believe the American Dream, for many people, is day-drinking from an enormous yard glass on Las Vegas Boulevard. Those people might not realize it, but it is. The last time I flew out of McCarran, a guy in line in front of me actually sent a yard glass in the shape of the A Christmas Story leg lamp through the TSA scanner. Lots of them come with a lanyard so you can hang it from your neck when your hands get tired of holding 50 fluid ounces of strawberry daiquiri.
At the Carnival World Buffet at the Rio, I began to seek out more fruits and vegetables, hoping they would digest more quickly or easier. Or something. I felt subtle, bubbly pains in my stomach, wondering if my body would just up and decide to reject all the food any second. I continued to eat, now slowly. Pitt and I watched as other patrons sat down, ate a couple plates of food, and then left, and we continued to plod forward. This would not be a sprint, not Takeru Kobayashi eating 110 hot dogs in 10 minutes. It would be an ultramarathon, shuffling onward, the Badwater 135 of eating. Completed by a couple of amateurs.
I have eaten at Vegas buffets before, mostly the Bellagio and Wynn, two of the more upscale gluttony arenas on the Strip. I have eaten to severe discomfort next to dressed-up couples getting their money’s worth in seafood and steak before they went to a show, and women in swimsuit cover-ups starting their day at 5 p.m. with prime rib and sushi. I have watched casino guests pile dozens of crab legs on their plates, strip the meat from each one and inhale it as if it contained a small piece of eternal salvation. I have seen a 450-pound man carry four plates of food back to his table and not get up until they were clean. I have seen a five-year-old kid vomit on the patterned carpet in the middle of the dining room at the Wynn and watched everyone around him keep right on eating.
I have felt a bit strange about all this excess, in a country where our expanding waistlines might make you think we actually have “too much” food, and some of us were reminded as kids that there were starving children in other countries who would love to finish our dinner for us. Maybe, I wonder, if the idea of eating this much isn’t just a little bit gross. And then, like everyone who comes to Vegas, I forget about all that and just do it. I have plowed through buffets on the Strip after climbing all day during the Red Rock Rendezvous, and immediately following two Rim-to-Rim Grand Canyon trips and a 28-day Colorado River raft trip. When people say “I could never eat enough to get my money’s worth at a buffet,” I remind them it’s about tasting all the food you can, not beating the house. Obviously the house is winning in Vegas in the long run, in all respects. The businesspeople that can build a hotel like Caesar’s Palace aren’t worried about you eating enough prime rib to beat their buffet algorithm.
After the Rio, we walked back to the Strip and limped down the stairs at Planet Hollywood to the buffet. I remembered something in the Buffet of Buffets literature about the Mediterranean selection there. I stood, plate in hand, staring at the hummus and naan, thinking, This would be really good if I were hungry right now. I gave the whole thing a hundred-yard stare for about 30 seconds, then spooned some tabbouleh onto my plate and sat down across from Pitt. We were two sleepy six-year-olds eating green beans that their mother told them to eat or they couldn’t leave the table. After plate #2, Pitt began to look ill. In his words:
I bonked. I guess the opposite of bonk. I over-consumed and under-burned. Two plates in I found myself face down on the table wishing the demon inside of my gut would crawl out and end my suffering.
It did not. My third plate was a single slice of cheese pizza, and I skipped dessert.
Thirteen hours after we started, we ended at Le Village at Paris, where three separate wedding parties passed by in the span of an hour. I ate one plate of food and went straight to the dessert bar, where I found the first really memorable food of the entire day: the chocolate macarons.
The Buffet of Buffets, like probably everything in Vegas, falls a tiny bit short of your wildest dreams. The food is good at some restaurants, adequate in others, and it’s impossible to eat as much as you fantasize you could. It’s the eating equivalent of spending $600 on an exotic dancer and realizing that at the end, she doesn’t really like you, or walking away from a blackjack table up $750 but remembering you spent $800 on flights, hotel rooms, and meals for the weekend.
Pitt would later review his photos of every plate of food and text me that he estimated he ate 13,500 calories. I asked if he had remembered to include the Coca-Cola he drank at the Rio. He had.
Although Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is probably the most well-known and often-quoted piece of literature about Sin City, I think J.R. Moehringer captured the city better in his essay for Smithsonian in 2010:
“Though people enjoy coming to Vegas, what they really love is leaving. Every other passenger waiting to board a flight out of Vegas wears that same telltale look of fatigue, remorse, heatstroke and get-me-out-of-here-ness. I spent two months reading Dante in college, but I didn’t really understand Purgatory until I spent five minutes at McCarran International Airport.”