I have eaten some expensive meals in my day, but nothing compares to the $51,000 buffet at PhiladelphiaPark Casino in Bensalem.

Technically, the price is $13.95 per person. But clearly the folks who run the casino believe the all-you-can-stomach experience is worth much, much more.

That explains why, after Feasterville retiree Stephen Wilkinson was disrespectfully denied the $102,000 jackpot a Wheel of Fortune slot machine said he won last week, casino brass offered him two buffet comps as a consolation prize.

I consider The Inquirer's food critic, Craig LaBan, an expert and a friend, and that's not just because he has taken me along on eating adventures.

So I ask him: "Craig, in all your culinary travels, have you ever heard of a $51,000 casino buffet?"

Nope, but he does remind me of the $1,000 chocolate hazelnut brownie at Brulee, in the Quarter in Atlantic City, served with "this exquisitely old vintage port they spritz."

Craig cringes when I tell him that PhiladelphiaPark priced iceberg lettuce and cold cuts at $51,000.

He says the fanciest casino buffet in America is at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, where he had wild boar and champagne.

"But that," Craig reminds me, "was still only $25 a person."

Digging in

I dropped by PhiladelphiaPark on Thursday for a late lunch. I began at the carving station, where a nice man in a tall white chef's hat sliced me a piece of brutally overcooked roast beef.

None of the entrees was marked, which explains why an agitated eater wearing an Eagles sweatshirt and a fanny pack kept yelling, "Hey, buddy, what is this?" to the man in the tall white hat.

The potato-crusted cod was passable, but I gave up on the slab of dry baked salmon after biting into a bone.

The screamer scowled at a tray of coagulated cheese tortellini, mumbling something about his sister's making him lasagna that night. So I followed his lead and sidled up to a sad little salad bar.

For $51,000, you'd think they could toss in frisee, or least some bacon bits.

My server, Suzy, was a delight. The ice-cold Diet Pepsi she brought me was everything I had imagined. She even put a lemon wedge in it without my having to ask.

Eavesdropping on Suzy and a couple at the next table, I learned that, for reasons unexplained, the buffet staff doubles as the dessert police.

Unlike the entrees, pie can't be piled high on a plate. They keep the sweets in back, behind closed doors, delivering them to diners piece by piece.

The wheel of misfortune

Down on the casino floor, it seems everyone is talking about Wilkinson's raw deal.

"It makes you skeptical," says Philadelphia retiree Irene Mueller, watching her sister-in-law lose quarters at one of the Wheel of (Mis)Fortune slots. "If the machine says you won, you won."

Except when it does and you didn't.

The casino blames an employee who was testing a computerized prize-announcement system for sending that errant jackpot Wilkinson's way.

Legally, PhiladelphiaPark is probably in the right, says industry expert I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in California.

But if casinos rely on getting superstitious bodies in the door so they'll stay, pay and play, could PhiladelphiaPark's hard line hurt its bottom line? Image is everything, even in a business where customers are more likely to go home poor than to get rich quick.

Rose worked on a case years ago in which a 19-year-old won $1 million from Caesars in Las Vegas only to be denied his prize because he wasn't 21.

Casino officials wouldn't budge, even after Rose reminded them that they didn't seem concerned with the young man's age when he was stuffing money into the machine and losing.

"They never paid," Rose recalled. "It was a terrible public-relations mistake."

Stephen Wilkinson may not have gone home with the hundred grand, but at least he kept his wits. He wisely turned down the comped buffet. And he hasn't been back inside the casino since that fateful day.

Contact Monica Yant Kinney at 856-779-3914 or myant@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/yantkinney.