The 20th century "all you can eat" buffet has been ascribed to Herb Macdonald, a Las Vegas hotel manager who introduced the idea in 1946. A novel from that year describes the first Las Vegas buffet:
At midnight every self-respecting casino premières its $1.50 buffet—the eighth wonder of the world, the one true art form this androgynous harlot of cities has delivered herself of.... We marvel at the Great Pyramids, but they were built over decades; the midnight buffet is built daily. Crushed-ice castles and grottoes chill the shrimp and lobster. Sculptured aspic is scrolled with Paisley arabesques. There are, laid out with reverent artistry: hors d'oeuvres, relish, salads, and sauces; crab, herring oyster, sturgeon, octopus, and salmon; turkey, ham, roast beef, casseroles, fondues, and curries; cheeses, fruits and pastries. How many times you go through the line is a private matter between you and your capacity, and then between your capacity and the chef's evil eye (William Pearson).
While serving oneself at a meal has a long history, the modern buffet was developed in France in the 18th century, soon spreading throughout sideboard where the food was served, but eventually became applied to the form. The buffet became popular in the English-speaking world in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The 16th-century French term buffet applied both to the display itself and to the furniture on which it was mounted, often draped with rich textiles, but more often as the century advanced an elaborately carved cupboard surmounted by tiers of shelves. In England such a buffet was called a court cupboard. Prodigal displays of plate were probably first revived at the fashionable court of Burgundy and adopted in France. The Baroque displays of silver and gold that were affected by Louis XIV of France were immortalized in paintings by Alexandre-François Desportes and others, before Louis' plate and his silver furniture had to be sent to the mint to pay for the wars at the end of his reign.
During the 18th century more subtle demonstrations of solvency were preferred. A buffet was revived in England and France at the end of the century, when new ideals of privacy made a modicum of self-service at breakfast-time appealing, even among those who could have had a footman behind each chair. In The Cabinet Dictionary of 1803 Thomas Sheraton gave a neoclassical design and observed that "a buffet may, with some propriety, be restored to modern use, and prove ornamental to a modern breakfast-room, answering as the repository of a tea equipage".
Today, one form of buffet is to have a line of food serving stalls and foods and customers take food they require as they walk along and pay at the end. This form is most commonly seen in cafeterias. Another form known as the "all you can eat" buffet has a set fee and customers can help themselves to as much food as they wish to eat. This form is found often in restaurants, especially in hotels; virtually every casino in North America includes one. Another form is the Swedish Smorgasbord. In North America, buffets specializing in Chinese and Indian cuisine are common. Buffets are effective for serving large numbers of people. They are also popular in that they give customers a great deal of choice and the ability to closely inspect food before selecting it. Since a buffet involves people serving themselves, it is generally viewed as a less elegant form of dining.
Wikipedia contributors, "Buffet," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Buffet&oldid=48763491 (accessed April 30, 2006).