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The Evolution of Casino Cuisine

The Early Years

The first gambling halls of Nevada's modern commercial casino era were typically rough affairs. Bingo halls, card clubs, and slot parlors proliferated in downtown Reno and Las Vegas. But in the 1940s, a new creation--the casino resort--brought a measure of elegance to the state's gambling.

Located south of Las Vegas city limits on a stretch of roadway the would become the Las Vegas Strip, the first casino resorts featured gambling, entertainment, dining, and all the amenities of a tourist vacation.

The first restaurants, though, were not overly luxurious. Most casinos had a "gourmet" dinner theater, where the dinner usually took second place to the theater. Coffee shop were a popular informal option. And the El Rancho Vegas, the Strip's first resort, pioneered a Vegas tradition, the "chuck wagon," which would evolve into the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Similar to legal and illegal casinos and gambling halls throughout the Western world, early Strip resorts used food and beverage as a loss leader. Enticing patrons with cheap steaks and free-flowing liquor was seen as the best way to encourage them to gamble. With this in mind, quantity was usually emphasized over quality.

Though they were rarely fancy, these culinary trailblazers satisfied their guests' palates, and started many Vegas traditions.

El Rancho

The first Strip casino resort, the El Rancho Vegas, opened in 1941. Its casual western theme carried over into its dining establishments. This is the menu for the Round-Up Room, the El Rancho Vegas's--and the Las Vegas Strip's--first dinner theater.

At first look, it's the prices that stand out most. A $5 filet mignon isn't in the cards in Las Vegas, or anywhere else, today. But the items on the menu are just as telling. Steaks and sandwiches were the main fare--this was basic American cuisine.

More images: Menu Interior


El Rancho Vegas Promotional and Public Relations File

As unadventurous as the menu at its dinner theater might seem today, the El Rancho Vegas blazed itself into Las Vegas culinary history with a humble innovation--the casino buffet.

Today, casino buffets often have gourmet-quality food (though they often have rib-sticking filler, as well). The original El Rancho Vegas buffet was simply a "chuck wagon" assortment of cold cuts, with a few hot dishes thrown in for variety.

The buffet filled a need for the casino, which wanted to keep its late night gamblers happy, but didn't want the expense of keeping a full restaurant open all night. Knowing that the hungry gamblers would be happy with good, plentiful meats and snacks, the El Rancho Vegas's managers created the all-night chuck wagon. It may have seemed like no big deal at the time, but the casino buffet would become a Las Vegas signature restaurant.


El Rancho Vegas Promotional and Public Relations File


The El Rancho Vegas "Buckaroo Buffet" was a big hit, and it changed casino dining forever. Though most casinos today have 24-hour coffee shops and close their buffets after dinner hours (usually around 10 PM), the Buckaroo Buffet was a true pioneer.

The main idea behind the Buckaroo was that patrons would spend a dollar and stuff their gullets--you can see this in the picture, where the cowpoke's stomach is glowing with contentment.

Opera House

El Rancho Vegas Promotional and Public Relations File

As the El Rancho Vegas--and the rest of the Las Vegas resort industry--became more established, it shifted from the early Wild West theme to a more polished one. The dinner theater was still undoubtedly set in the American West, but it was a more cosmopolitan West.

Towards this end, the resort's restaurant was re-named the Opera House, and the menu changed accordingly. The fireside singalong was replaced by the doors to the Opera House. Instead of focusing on the resort's isolation ("stop at the sign of the windmill"), the menu now touts the numerous stars who have appeared there.

The Opera House set the template for what would become the early Strip's dominant restaurant type.

The focus is clearly more on the stage than on the dining itself, something that is borne out by an examination of the menus. While no one went home hungry, it's obvious that no one would have come to Las Vegas simply to try the sirloin steak.

More images: Menu Interior

Last Frontier

The second Strip resort, the Last Frontier, had an entire themed attraction called the Last Frontier Village. The Village's restaurant was another Strip casino perennial, the coffee shop.

Casino coffee shops were not that much different from coffee shops found around the country. They had basic menus heavy on comfort food for quick, easy dining. Like most casino coffee shops, the Last Frontier's was open 24 hours, and had late-night specials for nocturnal gamblers.

More images: Menu Interior


The "Fabulous" Flamingo opened in 1946, but this menu dates from sometime after 1953, when the casino was thoroughly remodeled and the champange tower was added.

Despite the glitz of the remodeled casino, the restaurant's fare was business as usual, with steaks, sandwiches, and standard entrees abounding.

More images: Menu Interior


The El Rancho Vegas's "Buckaroo Buffet" opened the door for scores of imitators. By the early 1950s, most Strip casinos had midnight "Chuck Wagon" buffets for $1.50. Many of them featured lobster, steak, and shrimp, but cold cuts and fish dishes predominated.

This is an undated photograph of the Flamingo's midnight chuck wagon buffet.

Caravan Room

Among the many favorite casino coffee shops of the early years was the Sahara's Caravan Room. It opened in 1952, and is still in the same location today, with the same name, making it the Strip's longest-lived casino restaurant.



More images: Menu page 1 | Menu page 2 | Menu page 3 | Menu page 4 | Menu page 5

NEXT: Classic Cool

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Last modified Tuesday, 10-Feb-2009 22:44:00 UTC