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If casino vacations celebrate excess, then the casino buffet is perhaps the most hallowed tradition of excess to the max. Any buffet is an invitation to gorge, but these temples of very conspicuous consumption are built to satisfy even the most discriminating (and enthusiastic) glutton. Traditionally used to lure gamblers, most of these buffets hover around the break-even point financially. Though it’s not a good way to make lots of money in and of itself, a buffet does allow a casino to serve a variety of food to a great many people simultaneously. And that means it has the best overall chance of tempting people to stay inside the casino rather than foraging elsewhere for a meal.

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But even casino-bound buffet prowlers have gotten more discriminating. It’s no longer enough to offer a few pans of meat, pasta, rolls and Caesar salad. Now you’re just as likely to see crab legs, spanikopita or sushi as sirloin steak and shrimp cocktail. Still, the cornucopia of choice doesn’t mean you’re getting better food, or a better deal. Just as with the eternally replenished steam tables of yore, more quantity doesn’t necessarily mean more quality.

So what’s a hungry gambler to do? Believe me, hitting several buffets in a few days can have serious consequences for your waistline (or worse). Just keep a few simple tips in mind, and you’ll be happily chowing down in no time. And timing, it turns out, is almost everything.

Breakfast is Breakfast is Breakfast  — The most important meal of the day is, unfortunately, often the least interesting at casino buffets. There’s little variation in menu choices from place to place, and even the best of chefs can only scramble a thousand eggs at once just so well. Big-time eating at this time of day will usually just put you right back to sleep anyway (though that could be an advantage if you’re coming off an all-nighter). And since it’s also the cheapest meal of the day, there’s even less incentive to bargain-hunt and go elsewhere. Bottom line: If you want a breakfast buffet, chances are the one closest to you is not significantly better or worse than any other.

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The Brunch Munch — An exception to the breakfast rule is brunch, which is often when some of the best menus are offered (as well as the highest prices). Appearing almost exclusively on weekends, the brunch buffet — sometimes including champagne or other libations — combines savory breakfast fare with more adventurous lunch or supper choices. The addition of alcohol boots the cost up considerably; many of these brunches are more expensive than their home buffets’ dinner, and several have gourmet aspirations. The reservation-encouraged champagne brunch at Sterling in Bally’s is opulent, and it ought to be for $58! But if you can stand the price tag — most are between $20 and $30 — brunch can be the most all-around satisfying buffet meal available. Some even have entertainment, like the jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace in the Aladdin or the rambunctious gospel brunch at House of Blues in Mandalay Bay.

Lunch vs. Dinner — For most buffets, the dinner menu is just an expanded version of lunch. A few food stations closed at lunch will open at dinner, offering more choices and cuisines. Some perishables like soups and salads will rotate to new selections, and fresh batches of everything will be on hand. The main difference, of course, is price. Dinner is always a few bucks more, and in some places it’s a lot more. Bellagio’s buffet is excellent, but you pay for the privilege: Breakfast starts at $12.95, which is already higher than many inexpensive dinner buffets. Lunch climbs to $15.95, then jumps to $24.95 for dinner — even barreling all the way to $31.95 if you opt for the “gourmet dinner” on weekend nights. So, unless there’s something specific you want on the dinner menu, lunch is almost always the best value.

Avoid the Rush — Now that you know what meal you want, go on off-days, and go early or late. Crowds not only cause long lines at the entry and congestion inside, but they descend on the buffet like a swarm of locusts — meaning the kitchen may have a tough time keeping all stations resupplied. Sunday through Thursday are the best buffet days, and if you anticipate a crowd, go at opening or during the last hour or two of the meal. Some people even resort to the sneaky tactic of entering in late afternoon and paying for lunch, then loitering in the dining room until the dinner items are served. If this works, congratulations; if it doesn’t, you didn’t hear it from me …

Check Out the Choices — One thing that many casino tourists don’t do is simply walk into a buffet and look it over. I’ve never had a host refuse me a quick look, so don’t be intimidated. If you don’t like what you see, keep wandering. The Las Vegas Advisor maintains a staggeringly comprehensive Vegas buffet database, which lists prices, times and customer reviews. Check out hotel brochures local magazines for specials and coupons whenever possible, and get ready to loosen that belt.

Chris Mohney is a contributor to "The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas."

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