The All-American History Behind the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

iStock / iStock

It’s difficult to say when exactly people began assembling meals from large spreads of food. But that oh-so-American tradition of offering it all together at a low-low price? That started in Vegas, naturally.

First, a helping of history: Sweden and France were the first countries to formalize the buffet concept. The Swedish smorgasbord originated as a way to feed hungry out-of-town visitors who’d pop in unexpectedly. Starting with just bread and butter—the term translates as “buttered bread board”—the smorgasbord display grew to include several sequential courses, beginning with salted fish, eggs and boiled vegetables, then moving on to cold cuts, warm entrees and salads, and ending finally with dessert and coffee. The French offered a more refined model, filling their lavish “buffet” tables as a sign of prominence, and as a way to focus on entertaining rather than cooking. In 1939, the Swedes brought the smorgasbord to America at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, offering a sizable selection atop a rotating platform inside the Three Crowns restaurant. The Swedish creation would go on to inspire buffet-style restaurants in the ‘50s, albeit ones that were less structured than the Nordic model (also: way less pickled herring).

The man credited with creating the first all-you-can-eat buffet, though, didn’t have the smorgasbord in mind. He was just trying to keep his gambling customers happy. Born in Alberta, Canada in 1919, Herb McDonald made his way south to Las Vegas, where he worked as a publicist at one of the first hotels on the Strip: the El Rancho Vegas. The story goes that late one night in the mid 1940s, he wandered back into the kitchen, brought out some cold cuts, cheese and bread, and spread them out along the bar for hungry customers. The late-night selection was a hit, and McDonald eventually evolved the menu into a 24-hour all-you-can-eat “Buckaroo Buffet.” For just $1, people could choose from a selection of cold cuts, salad, and seafood—“every possible variety of hot and cold entrees to appease the howling coyote in your innards,” according to a flyer.

El Rancho lost money on its Buckaroo Buffet, but gained it back by promoting customer loyalty and roping in new patrons. Pretty soon, other establishments along the Strip were copying the idea, until nearly every hotel had their own version of the “midnight buffet.” These all-hours establishments are still a big draw throughout Vegas, and they range from the dirt-cheap to the incredibly lavish. In addition to revolutionizing the Sin City dining landscape, Herb McDonald’s creation, together with the smorgasbord trend, spawned a buffet bonanza across the U.S., with restaurants like Sizzler, Hometown Buffet, Golden Corral and numerous others modeled after the concept.

So if you’re ever in Vegas helping yourself to one of the now-ubiquitous hotel buffets after a long date with a slot machine, just think: You're stuffing yourself at the original American buffet.