Buffets have long been as much a part of a casino as 25-cent slot machines, a cheap way to keep late-night gamblers nourished, but all-you-can eat events — and restaurants designed for them — have fallen by the wayside since the pandemic hit. A few stalwarts have returned, including the popular casino restaurant, and diners are back for the fried and baked chicken, the rolled sushi and chilled shrimp, the mashed potatoes and collards, and so much more.
The scene at Assembly Line appeared relatively normal on a recent weekend as guests filed past the tables, piling their plates.
“I missed the buffet,” James Meyers of Sterling Heights said last weekend, as he headed straight for the carving station, where a line of people waited for a sliver of ham or a slice of beef. “I used to be a regular here and I like the Mexican nights.”
The buffet reopened last month, but Mexican Night, German Infusion Night, Seafood Night, and the other themed occasions aren’t back yet, the casino says. And, for now, the restaurant closes at 10 p.m.
Things were a bit quieter on the weekend dining scene at the MGM Grand Detroit Casino & Hotel, where the Palette Dining Studio, which housed its buffet pre-pandemic remains closed. The casino launched a new weekend buffet at the Tap sports pub about a month ago. Inside, a few tables were set up with stainless chafing dishes of sliced cinnamon and vanilla bean French toast, spinach-and-mushroom frittata, chicken sausage links, and a few more items for $22. The eight offerings on the menu were a far cry from the pre-pandemic bonanza at the much-more spacious Palette across the gambling floor. And the buffet and self-serve waffle iron are on only at breakfast.
Last weekend, dining staff members circulated often, vigorously wiping down tables, chairs, and most visible surfaces every few minutes, but one diner said the COVID protocols weren’t enough for her.
“They need to be sanitizing these tongs,” said Dorothy Allen of Southfield, grabbing the serving utensils to pile fried potatoes onto her plate. “Also, the tables need to be spaced out so that people aren’t on top of each other,” she said, waiting for another diner to hand over the spoon to scoop up the scrambled eggs. She said the coronavirus made her nervous, yet she filled her plate as others waited behind her.
Things also are different from the original business model at Golden Corral, the self-described “nation’s largest grill-buffet chain,” although offerings are varied based on location. At some spots, the buffet is served cafeteria-style. At Westland and Clinton Township, gloves are available at nearly all stations and serving utensils are replaced every 20 minutes. Craving something specific? Call ahead to check for availability. To-go and delivery are now available, which obviously isn’t all-you-can-eat. Instead, individual meals of pot roast or meatloaf include generous portions, with two sides and a yeast roll.
In the dining room, the chain has cordoned off the famous chocolate fountains for the first time, and workers dip fruit for diners to avoid crowding and improve sanitation.
Golden Corral may have reopened but across the metro area, buffet-style restaurants were among the first to close permanently and not reopen as salad bars and shared serving spoons might be a hard sell during a pandemic. China Buffet in Southfield and Fortune Buffet in Livonia have closed and there have been cutbacks at the China Palace in Ypsilanti. The soft-serve machine has been swapped with a freezer of individual ice-cream cups, dim sum is ordered off a menu instead of lifted from a cart now, and the hibachi has been scrapped.
In Sterling Heights, Hibachi Buffet’s 10 tables, including the ice-cream station, are open for dine-in buffets but keep in mind, the restaurant is temporarily closed on Tuesdays. When asked what else besides the hours have changed at the buffet since the pandemic, a worker replied “nothing.”
All you can eat
China Palace Pan-Asian buffet for Cantonese and Japanese fare also offers dim sum. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Monday. 2905 Washtenaw Ave., Ypsilanti.
Hibachi Buffet’s dinner menu includes prime rib, crawfish, frog legs, New York strip steak, calamari, salmon, and shrimp. Open six days. 33431 Van Dyke Avenue, Sterling Heights.
Tap Sports Bar at the MGM Grand Detroit offers a weekend breakfast buffet that includes French toast, a waffle station, sausage, bacon, fresh fruit, and spinach and mushroom frittata. 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.