Over the 19 years that billionaire Warren Buffett has been auctioning off a lunch to benefit charity, the winning bids have skyrocketed.
Pete Budlong, a San Francisco technology entrepreneur, was the first to ever win an auction to dine with Buffett in 2000. At that time, he paid only $25,000. In 2017, the winner paid almost $2.7 million . For 2018, the winner bid $3.3 million. The proceeds of the auction benefit Glide, an anti-poverty organization in San Francisco that Buffett became involved with through his late wife, Susie.
But as the bids soar, what Buffett eats for lunch has remained largely the same — right in line with his traditional and simple style.
Smith & Wollensky in New York City
His go-to restaurant to host the lunch is Smith & Wollensky in New York, a steakhouse that's been open since 1977.
Smith & Wollensky has been hosting the luncheons for Buffett since 2004 and donates at least $10,000 to Glide each year.
Winners can bring seven of their friends to lunch and order anything they'd like from the a la carte menu. Dishes range from a $59 cold water lobster tail to a $49 sirloin.
Buffett orders "a medium-rare steak with hash browns and a cherry coke," according to a 2007 winner of the auction . Smith & Wollensky confirmed the order to CNBC Make It, and added that Buffett's favorite steak is a sirloin.
When it was time for dessert that year, Buffett reportedly told the waiter, "Just bring a couple of spoons, and I'll have a little of everyone's."
"It is a very exciting day for the restaurant," Smith & Wollensky general manager Roger Morlock says. "The servers that we have, have been waiting on him for quite some years, and our executive chef has been here for over three decades, so for them it's business as usual. But of course we pay special attention to that table."
Last year's lunch fell on Buffett's birthday, so the steakhouse crafted a "birthday cake extravaganza" of his favorite desserts.
Piccolo's in Omaha
Some auction winners don't like the publicity of New York steaks. In that case, Buffett heads to Piccolo's, an Italian steakhouse in Omaha, Nebraska.
Buffett was a frequent guest at Piccolo's for years before it closed in 2016 , Scott Sheehan, formerly the general manager at Piccolo's tells CNBC Make It. The steakhouse had been open for 81 years.
"Warren enjoyed our veal with lemon and we always served him a root beer float at the end of his meal," Sheehan says.
Piccolo's was the location for two of Buffett's charity auction meals in 2010 and 2011, both won by a hedge fund manager named Ted Weschler , who was living in Charlottesville, Virginia. His winning bid in 2010 was $2,626,311, and he upped it by $100 in 2011 to $2,626,411.
"After I won, Warren called," Weschler tells The Omaha World Herald. "He was happy to come to Charlottesville," adding that Buffett also offered to meet in New York for steaks. But Weschler wanted to remain private.
"I suggested, no, actually, it would be better for me if it would work for me to come out to Omaha, see the office, and instead of lunch make it dinner," Weschler explains. "When we actually got together, the only condition was that we not do it in a public forum."
So, they went to Piccolo's.
Local residents have frequently spotted Buffett eating at Piccolo's — sometimes with famous friends. Ryan Basye, a Nebraska real estate agent once captured a selfie with Buffett and Bill Gates eating there several years ago.
"I live in Omaha so you see him around town," Basye tells CNBC Make It. "We were just so close that I decided to do it, we weren't going to bother them or anything."
Today, Sheehan is running a food truck inspired by the restaurant called Anthony Piccolo's. Buffett hasn't eaten from the truck yet, Sheehan adds, but he has come by for a tour.
Stars in San Francisco
The very first charity luncheon wasn't held in New York or Omaha, but in San Francisco.
In 2000, Budlong won the chance to share dinner with Buffett for $25,000 at Stars restaurant in San Francisco .
Opened by chef Jeremiah Tower, Stars was known for popularizing California cuisine and serving A-list celebrities. A 1994 menu from Stars resurfaced by the San Francisco Chronicle featured dishes like a $22 seared Hawaiian Ahi tuna with green chile sauce, and a $28.50 dry aged rib eye steak with grated horseradish.
Although it was 18 years ago, Budlong recalls Buffett ordering a steak at the charity meal, he tells CNBC Make It. The restaurant changed hands to new owners in 1999 before later closing, but Budlong remembers the food as fresh and American.
"It was a conversational, pretty chill lunch," Budlong tells The New York Times . Buffett, he says, was "folksy, down to earth and legitimately funny."
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This is an updated version of a previously published article.
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