The Last Supper: “Buzio’s,” WSOP’s Favorite Restaurant Closes After 25 Years at Rio
Our fondest memories are of people and places.
For many, Buzio’s at the Rio in Las Vegas was one of the fondest of places because it was full of so many good people. It was more than just a casual restaurant. Buzio’s was a cradle of friendship and bastion of happiness. It was a boardroom of wheeling and dealing. It was a place to gossip, to drown our sorrows, and to celebrate. If the World Series of Poker, held at the Rio each summer since 2005 had an office, a break room, a social club, a watering hole, and a place of reprieve and relaxation — it was most certainly the public alcove in the form of a once-popular seafood restaurant along the so-called “bad beat hallway” leading back to the main casino.
Buzio’s served its final meal on Saturday night — December 12, 2015. After 25 years, the restaurant closed its doors for the last time, in order to make way for a new eatery which will eventually open on the spot where where poker players clamored each night for dinner reservations, where strategy was furiously rehashed and debated, where millions in poker deals were made over shrimp cocktails, where disappointments were doused and gradually forgotten, where tournament survival was toasted, and where innumerable lasting friendships were founded. Hostilities on hold, competitors who tried to outfox each other during the WSOP competing for their livelihoods often dined out together at Buzio’s. Poker doesn’t have many places around like this anymore. Sadly now, it has one less such place.
Marieta and I were the final customers of the night, the last two diners in history to be served, which was entirely my intention. When we learned Buzio’s was to close some time ago, dining out one last time in the dawn of so many wonderful memories seemed a fitting tribute. Buzio’s was owed that debt and deserved our gratitude. We came to pay our respects to a memorable place and some special people — one last time.
We requested Darcy Gouveia, and were surprised to learn he was scheduled to work the final shift. Perhaps Darcy too, wanted to be there at the very end, like an all-too-proud captain going down with a glorious ship.
Darcy has hosted tens of thousands of poker players over the years, including many of you who are reading this now. He’s served me and my guests well over 100 times. I knew Darcy was originally from Hawaii. What I didn’t realize until the final dinner was that Darcy was one of the original employees of Buzio’s when the restaurant first opened up in 1990. In fact, Buzio’s opened on the night January 15, 1990 along with the Rio, which was the first “local’s casinos” in Las Vegas. Hard to imagine, but Buzio’s has been around as long as the casino that’s housed it. That meant Darcy had worked here for almost 26 years. If there’s anything that exemplifies professionalism and loyalty, I’d say Darcy pretty much defines it.
Peggy McIntyre was the other employee who had been at Buzio’s since opening day. She came by to share some of her favorite memories. Another waiter, named Scott, was also on the floor. But he’d only been working here for the past 24 years. There were other employees too in the 20+ year club, including a few of the cooks. No question, this wasn’t just a workplace. It was a family.
Not many people know about Buzio’s unique role in poker history. Aside from all the business dealings and friendships that were made at the tables, the counter, and certainly the bar, it was a favorite hangout of staff and media.
My first meal at Buzio’s was back in 2004. Matt Savage was the WSOP tournament director at the time. ESPN had begun covering the WSOP during the previous year, when Chris Moneymaker ignited the fuse on the poker boom. ESPN’s 441 Productions, headed by Matt Maranz and David Schwartz, joined Savage and I together at Buzio’s, where we ironed out some of the rules and procedures that would be part of the series standards and practices for the next decade, some still in place to this day. The irony of meeting at Buzio’s was that in 2004, the WSOP was held the final year at Binion’s Horseshoe (which would soon change it’s name to Binion’s, shortly thereafter). None of us had any idea the WSOP would move over to the Rio, and right down the hall, the following year, since it had just been bought by Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesars Entertainment).
One of the biggest controversies at the time was the aggressive marketing of online poker sites, willing to spend upwards of five- and six-figures patching up players at the final tables of televised events. This drove some of the executives at Harrah’s ape-shit crazy. Here was a WSOP final table on national television, and all the players would be patched up with Ultimate Bet, PokerStars, PartyPoker, FullTilt, AbsolutePoker, and other sites. One exasperated WSOP executive screamed, “What the hell is this — the PokerStars Series of Poker!?”
Anyway, if the poker wars had an Appomattox, it was at Buzio’s. I came up with the compromise that satisfied all parties (WSOP, ESPN, online sponsors, players) — which was limiting players to one patch that could be no larger than 3″ x 5″ on any single item of clothing. Hence, players could still receive compensation for wearing logos on a shirt and a hat, but the branding wouldn’t be quite so pervasive. Later, at least one player got really creative and tattooed his hands, which appear frequently on camera in televised poker.
Speaking of online poker, Buzio’s was also a political meeting hall. Several years ago, a major press conference was held by the Poker Players Alliance, which was being formed to fight for the rights of poker players. The PPA rented out the entire restaurant, invited the press, featured several guest speakers, and pretty much created the first political rally of poker players I can recall.
As for other dinner occasions over the next 11 years — my guest list became a virtual Who’s Who of poker. I used to hold my annual “Poker Media Roundtable Dinner” at Buzio’s each year, where a dozen or so poker writers would sit around and basically do a state of the industry debate among ourselves. There were impromptu dinners that started out with perhaps 3 or 4 people, and two hours later, at least a dozen people would be cramped around tables talking, clanking glasses together, and even arguing among ourselves. The greatest poker writers have all sat at these tables at one time or another, some many times. Others, not enough times. The insider stories hearing about how some of the most celebrated poker narratives in history came about was worth the price of any dinner.
My only regret is not recording the very best conversations. Then again, there were so many. Besides, people often talk and tell stories when they know the details will remain totally in confidence. To that extent, Buzio’s was a confessional.
My favorite Buzio’s meal was always the trouts. Fresh rainbow trouts caught on a farm somewhere.
Every night, I ordered them blackened, Cajon style, accompanied with a zesty lemon blanc sauce. I estimate having 220 dinners at Buzio’s since 2004 (almost all during the WSOP). I ordered the rainbow trouts about 180 times. Then, I always ordered a side of double green beans, which were always fresh snapped and buttery — best in the city. And, of course, there was the wine. Oddly enough, even though I dined like a king, because I was consuming fish and green beans every night (instead of more fattening choices), I’d lose 10-15 pounds during the course of the six-week long WSOP. So, Buzio’s was healthy eating and delicious at the same time — aside from all the juicy gossip and great storytelling. Seemed like ample justification.
A few years ago, a scandal broke out and I threw a hissy fit when Buzio’s inexplicably removed the trouts off the menu. A few weeks before the 2014 WSOP was to begin, I called an emergency meeting with the management and insisted they bring back the trouts, just for me. What did they expect me to eat instead? Mahi Mahi? Worse, tilapia? Screw tilapia. I don’t eat tilapia.
Once again, illustrating extraordinary customer service, a special stock of trouts was delivered regularly, kept packed on ice just for me, and for my select guests who had my permission to place an order. Some pesky poachers found out about my secret trouts and raided the private stash a few nights, leaving me without my specialty on a few occasions. But I made it though those crisis and somehow survived another WSOP.
On this night, the trouts were 86ed due to the limited inventory. Entirely understandable. So, Marieta and I opted for the swordfishes instead, which were delicious. Darcy brought also over a complimentary appetizer of fresh seafood from the chef — king crabs, jumbo shrimps, and oysters on the half shell. The two-hour feast was every bit as good as so many occasions before, and when it was time for the bill, Darcy surprised us by announcing he wanted to pay the tab — a supreme act of generosity.
Of course, I did what was expected. I ordered another drink.
Seriously, Darcy was taken care of and we walked towards the exit for what would be the last time in our lives, and theirs, too. By my calculation, 25 years of dinners were served 364 nights a year, making this night the 9,099th and final shift.
Buzio’s wasn’t a great seafood restaurant. I don’t express that with malice. Just that Buzio’s was always good and reliable, sort of like the family car with 110,000 miles on it that always started up and got you where you needed to go.
Coming in its place, I’m told celebrity chef Guy Fieri will open some kind of new Mexican-themed restaurant. The opening date is scheduled for March 2016, which means Buzio’s will be airbrushed entirely from the Rio by the time the next WSOP rolls around, sometime in late May. One presumes the new place will do quite well, given the public’s penchant for trying out new things and our infatuation with the most dreaded of culinary forgeries — nouveau cuisine.
Sure, I’ll give it a try. But things will never quite be the same.
As for Darcy and Peggy, who have collectively put more than 50 years of their lives into what was once Buzio’s, I’m told they’ve both transferred to the Rio’s All-American Grill. They informed me they might transfer over to Guy Fieri’s new place eventually. That remains to be seen. It’s much too early to make those plans, right now. Given their history and loyalty, so rare nowadays, they most likely want to see if it’s the right fit for them. Let’s hope so.
Saturday night strolling out of Buzio’s one last time reminded me of all that came before — not just the fine wines and the cozy meals, but the people I’ve been privileged not just to know, but to know better, because we had a time and place to share thoughts and experiences.
I think we need more places like that our lives. We need more time. We need more places.
Goodnight, Buzio’s — and thank you. You will be sorely missed.