Atlantic City’s culinary scene is changing faster than a bus boy can clean dinner tables.

Celebrity chefs and gourmet restaurants have begun to overshadow the low-cost buffets as casinos continue to add glitzier new attractions aimed at more upscale customers.

Most recent casualty of this trend is the Virginia City Buffet at Bally’s Wild Wild West Casino. Caesars Entertainment Corp., parent company of Bally’s, said Thursday that Virginia City will close this month as part of the previously announced redevelopment of the Wild Wild West, the frontier town-themed casino.

“We have been in negotiations with several large, mixed-use developers and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to re-purpose the Wild Wild West space. Our goal is to transform the space into an entertainment destination featuring well-known brands and popular attractions,” said Don Marrandino, Eastern Division president of Caesars Entertainment.

Marrandino added that the company is not yet ready to announce any names while it preps the Wild Wild West for a mix of nationally known retailers and entertainment outlets to complement the gambling action.

“As we look to partner with these developers, Virginia City Buffet will close in mid-June in a move to right-size the operations at the Wild Wild West,” he said.

Caesars Entertainment also owns the Caesars, Harrah’s Resort and Showboat casinos in Atlantic City. The company plans to upgrade the La Piazza buffet at the neighboring Caesars casino to fill the void at Bally’s. Plans for the Caesars buffet include additional seating, an expanded menu and a refurbished decor.

Caesars Entertainment did not divulge how many jobs would be lost by Virginia City’s closing, but said it is committed to finding displaced employees new positions at Bally’s or with the company’s other casinos.

Virginia City’s closing means that another low-cost dining option will disappear for Atlantic City’s budget-conscious customers. Billboards into town once were cluttered with offers for $9.99 buffet specials. But celebrity chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Alain Allegretti now dominate the casino dining scene with a host of trendy, Las Vegas-style restaurants.

“It’s a different customer that the casinos are playing for now. If you look at Borgata and Revel, I would say that the customer is a little more upscale and is more entertainment-oriented,” Cory Morowitz, a casino analyst and chairman of Morowitz Gaming Advisors LLC, explained of the shift to more high-end dining.

Morowitz noted that buffets were more important when Atlantic City heavily relied on low-rolling slot players who would grab some cheap food while spending a few hours in town. Now that many of those daytrippers have been lured away by the Pennsylvania casinos, Atlantic City has begun targeting more affluent overnight guests who don’t mind paying for gourmet food.

“The key to the buffet is, Atlantic City is much less dependent on slot players now. So it would be natural to see some buffets downsize or close,” Morowitz said. “I think you’ll still have buffets in casinos. But the amount of buffet capacity has to be right-sized for the market.”

Michael Pollock, another casino analyst, said it was a “tantalizing possibility” that casino buffets would disappear altogether. However, he noted that they continue to appeal to a broad base of customers, so it is likely that at least some casinos in town will stick with buffets.

“Anyone who is going to write an epitaph for buffets will find it’s a bit premature because buffets can, and often do, extend beyond demographic groups,” said Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group. “They are not going away, but it may very well be, to some degree, that they are being replaced by different culinary attractions that reflect, potentially, a shifting demographic in the market.

“But buffets are universal in gaming,” he continued. “You’ll find them in large markets and small. They appeal to a wide variety of people and are not going away. Their market share may be shifting, but they’re not going away by any means.”

The rest of Atlantic City’s casinos have buffets, except for one — Revel, the new $2.4 billion luxury megaresort. Revel’s decision to open without a buffet underscores its marketing strategy geared toward wealthier customers.

Revel has made it clear that its edgy nightclubs, concert halls, upscale spa and its collection of posh restaurants operated by celebrity chefs will be just as important for generating business as the slot machines and table games.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258