Las Vegas

Inside Look: Why Vegas Buffets Are Closing Amid COVID-19 Fears

The pandemic has serious implications for Vegas' dining scene.

The Buffet at Aria
The Buffet at Aria
The Buffet at Aria

The coronavirus has only infected a few people in Southern Nevada, but in a major sign of the pandemic hitting home, MGM Resorts International announced it will temporarily close buffets at the Aria, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Mirage, Luxor, and Excalibur on Sunday, March 15. If that wasn’t worrisome enough, Mandalay Bay (an MGM Resorts property) is temporarily closing three restaurants — Fleur, Aureole, and Mizuya — on Monday, March 16. Once that happens, the possibility of them reopening will be evaluated on a weekly basis; but since the WHO has officially called COVID-19 a pandemic, that might happen later rather than sooner.

Until now, coronavirus hysteria has mostly affected a few business conferences — most notably so far, the National Association of Broadcasters Show — but closing buffets seems uniquely personal. Yes, trade shows juice the local economy, but going to a buffet is a common activity to cross off a tourist bucket list — although not ours. (It’s always a better idea to skip them altogether and book a table at one of our amazing restaurants instead).

On Tuesday night at 5pm, the lines at Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace were nonexistent, although a standalone Purell dispenser was noticeably present at the front of the queue. Two women were paying the cashier at the entrance, one of whom was wearing a face mask. By the time 7:45pm rolled around, about a dozen people were in line and the Purell dispenser was nearly empty.

Rob Kachelriess
Rob Kachelriess
Rob Kachelriess

“Caesars buffets remain open,” confirmed a Caesars Entertainment spokesperson who says the company is following CDC hygiene directives. “With regard to our buffets, some of these initiatives include changing out self-serve utensils on an hourly basis, cleaning service and prep areas on an hourly basis, and placing numerous additional hand sanitizer stations in both guest and team member areas.”

The company also says it’s encouraging employees and guests to wash their hands more frequently, supplying additional hand sanitizer across its properties, and increasing the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces, including elevators, fitness centers, and yes, restaurants and bars. International travel has been suspended for the company. Most interestingly, any employee who travels to another country for personal reasons will be required to stay home for three weeks upon return.

When asked if business has been slow lately, a cocktail server in the casino said “Absolutely,” without hesitation. She’s optimistic about March Madness, however, which is just days away and traditionally the busiest period for Vegas sportsbooks.

As of press time, MGM Resorts is the only Vegas resort company to suspend the operation of buffets. The Cosmopolitan and Venetian (which actually doesn’t have a buffet — something you don’t realize until you stop to think about it) provided similar statements about monitoring the situation and following the guidance of local and national health officials.

Barbara Kraft/The Buffet at Wynn
Barbara Kraft/The Buffet at Wynn
Barbara Kraft/The Buffet at Wynn

Wynn Resorts was more specific. The Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas now has hand sanitizer provided by the entrance and employees staffed at each station to serve food directly, eliminating the need for guests to touch utensils altogether. “All of our restaurants continue to maintain the highest possible standards of cleanliness,” said a company representative.
 
Coronavirus hysteria is being felt at restaurants off the Strip as well. Chinatown businesses were unfairly the first to see a drop in customers. (So make a point to visit and support the neighborhood’s wonderfully diverse dining spots.)

“Despite not one case of coronavirus in any Chinatown, anywhere in the country, there is a stigma surrounding these neighborhoods,” said Joe Muscaglione of Shanghai Taste, which recently opened in Chinatown. “We’ve been fortunate. Shanghai Taste remains busy and we’re often on a wait. We’re taking extra precautions and sanitizing door handles, computer screens, hard surfaces, and light switches on an hourly basis.”

Shiraz, a restaurant three miles west of the Strip that specializes in Halal-Indian and Mediterranean cuisine, just launched its own in-house delivery service in response to the coronavirus crisis. “No matter what’s going on in the world, we still have to eat, and should be able to continue to eat well,” said Executive Chef Jainine Jaffer. “This is something new for us to live and work through as a community, so I felt it was my duty to find a solution to accommodate my customers… even during times of uncertainty such as this.”

Another locals’ favorite, Lotus of Siam, which serves Thai dishes east of the Strip is doing its best to take precautions, starting with its own team. The restaurant is providing healthcare and sick day coverage for its employees if needed. “We’ll voluntarily quarantine anyone showing symptoms,” says General Manager Penny Chutima. “We hope that things will not get worse, but in the meantime we are doing everything possible to make sure everyone is protected.”

Meanwhile, Vegas continues to move forward with new events happening every week. While major large-scale gatherings like Coachella in Southern California and the Ultra Music Festival in Miami have been postponed, no announcements have been made on major spring events like the NFL Draft on the Strip or the Electric Daisy Carnival at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Cirque du Soleil, however, just finalized a decision to postpone its eighth annual One Night for One Drop charity show scheduled for March 27 at the Luxor.

Mayor Carolyn Goodman, who is on record opposing MGM Resorts’ decision to close its buffets, is urging perspective and rationality in facing the crisis. “Don’t let fear take over,” she posted on Twitter. “Wash your hands. Take all the precautions (the Southern Nevada Health District) recommends. If you follow these precautions, the vast majority of us will be safe and can live our lives.”Sign up here for our daily Vegas email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than six years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Modern Luxury, Leafly, and Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. He was using hand sanitizer before it was cool. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.

Las Vegas

A Fresh Take on Italian Dining Opens in Southwest Las Vegas

A first look at Basilico Ristorante Italiano.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

You can’t be all things to all people. Yet a new Italian restaurant strikes an intriguing balance between authenticity and inventive touches while helping to shape the identity of a new community in the booming Southwest Valley of Las Vegas.

Basilico Ristorante Italiano is now open at Evora, a master-planned apartment development still under construction that won’t be finished for at least five years. The 160-seat restaurant follows the vision of chef Francesco Di Caudo, a Sicily native who draws on his heritage and experience throughout Italy to build a compelling menu based on traditional techniques and modern ingenuity.

“I come from a country where farm-to-table is nothing new,” says Di Caudio, while emphasizing the importance of ingredient sourcing and simple, straightforward flavor combinations.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

Just look at the appetizers. Americans are used to eggplant parmesan that’s breaded and fried without restraint. Di Caudo sticks to a traditional Sicilian recipe with the vegetable sliced thin, sizzled in a pan, and layered with tomato and basil. No mozzarella. On the other hand, the Smoked Cigar is destined to be a signature showstopper. Duck, foie gras, and porcini mushrooms are packed inside a thin, cracker-like shell, presented in a box, and dipped into a glass ashtray. The “ash” in the centre is a black sesame and truffle mix. Don’t be shy about double dipping.

The risotto is bound to be another conversation piece. The recipe uses Carnaroli rice, a starchy grain from North Italy that produces a creamy texture, balancing the saltiness of a parmesan broth with a sweet splash of chestnut honey. The real surprise is the inclusion of Lavazza espresso, manipulated to crackle in your mouth like Pop Rocks candy.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

All pastas are made in-house, from a parsnip cavatelli to a lamb and thyme tortellini in a broth filtered from braised prosciutto. Some dishes have a subtle Asian influence, including a hamachi crudo with pomelo (similar to yuzu), Hokkaido scallops with oxtail, and a planned octopus braised in dashi. The flavours come to life inside a sharp, contemporary dining room with deep red chairs and stone, wood, and marble touches. The wine collection is dominated by Italian labels, with a few California and Oregon picks thrown in to round out the list. Bottles are on display near the front entrance and inside illuminated square shelves. “It looks like a fancy restaurant, but when you sit down, I want you to have fun,” adds Di Caudio.

Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano
Photo by Louiie Victa, courtesy of Basilico Ristorante Italiano

The bar is the heart of the restaurant, ready to serve up to 16 people inside and dozens more via accordion-style windows that open wide to a covered patio. The outdoor space, temperature-controlled with overhead fans and heaters, effectively extends Evora’s open-air plaza with dramatic water and fire features. It’s a natural spot for tastings and special events with a covered stage for live music. Evora is rolling out in four phases, with the first 342 apartments ready by fall. There could be as many as 1,400 when it’s all said and done. Rent begins at around $1,800 for studios and one-bedroom units and goes up to $4,000 for two-story top-floor residences with a loft and Strip views. The community will include swimming pools, pickleball courts, a putting green, a dog park, firepits, EV charging stations, and pavilions equipped with audio and video features.

“Basilico matches the demographic for our apartments,” says Danny Sorge of Digital Desert Development, the company behind the community. “The term ‘youthful sophistication’ has been thrown around about the restaurant and Evora as a whole. It brings something new to the area.”

Rendering courtesy of Evora
Rendering courtesy of Evora
Rendering courtesy of Evora

The development follows a deliberate strategy to have the commercial tenants in place before the first residents move in, occupying a stand-alone building that strikes a commanding presence on the corner of Patrick Lane and Buffalo Drive. Lemon Tree Cafe & Market is already open as a European-style grocery store with plenty of room to sit down with a sandwich and glass of wine. Keep your eyes peeled for Taps & Barrels (a self-service beer hall), Tachi Ramen, and EVOQ hair salon in the months ahead, with more businesses to come. The timing couldn’t be better. The Southwest Valley is on fire right now, with the Durango hotel and casino and UnCommons mixed-use development taking shape as new attractions in 2023. The Bend, a long-promised shopping and dining district, has been in a holding pattern for years but holds promise in an area where everything is getting bigger and better.

Meanwhile, the team behind Evora is staking a claim with Di Caudio running the kitchen at Basilico. The chef’s recent collaboration with Chef Oscar Amador helped Anima by EDO score a recent James Beard Award nomination and reputation as one of the best new restaurants in Las Vegas. Di Caudio first came to Las Vegas to work at Zeffirino at the Grand Canal Shoppes-a gig he expected to last about six months before returning home. Instead, he stuck around and continued to build his reputation at culinary destinations like Sinatra at the Wynn and Ferraro’s off the Strip.

Ultimately, Basilico will be a restaurant to keep an eye on as it develops under Di Caudio’s guidance. The menu will shift and evolve based on the chef’s preferences and the availability of seasonal ingredients. Di Caudio is also planning a smaller menu and social hour for the bar area and a reasonably priced tasting menu with around 10 dishes served family style.

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Rob Kachelriess¬†has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than nine years. In addition, his work has appeared in¬†Travel + Leisure, Leafly, Supercall, Modern Luxury, and¬†Luxury Estates International’s seasonal publication. Follow him on Twitter¬†@rkachelriess.

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