Hotel buffet breakfast is an underrated way to get to know a city
Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, there’s a 99% chance I’ve done some terrific research on where to eat. There are Apple Notes lists. Google Maps with corresponding Google Doc directions. Reservations made weeks in advance. But the meal that always excites me the most when planning my trip? The hotel’s breakfast buffet.
I like everything: the silver stoves, the cleverly plated butternuts, the fancy tongs that aren’t particularly good at picking up food but at least look good, the omelette station with a very friendly cook , the array of fresh fruit, the hunt for the crispiest bacon on the platter, the smoked salmon roses, the various mini muffin offerings, the crispy, soggy potatoes, the hodgepodge of items that technically couldn’t not “go together” on a plate but somehow do.
A good hotel breakfast is a powerful tool for experiencing a region, especially internationally, and I hope it will not disappear due to the lasting effects of the pandemic. You can try new flavors for the first time (so many amazing cheeses in Europe that aren’t exported to the US) and develop an appreciation for various food traditions (breakfast soup), all in the middle of the familiarity of sternos with blue flame and freshly squeezed juice.
Although hotel breakfast buffets are probably not the first image that comes to mind when thinking of the food culture of a given place, there is no nonna rolling in the pasta dough in his Tuscan kitchen or Pueblan street vendor slicing pastor’s tacos the same way he did for 17 years — it’s a legit and delicious avenue to explore local food culture. Good hotels want you to love their city’s cuisine (you’ll come back, pay more, and stay longer!), so it’s in their interest to treat you and serve you something delicious and iconic of the region. Moreover, breakfast is one of the first access points to getting acquainted with a new place; a buffet breakfast feels especially inviting after a slow awakening from a long day of travel.
Not all travelers – okay, probably very few – come armed with the level of restaurant research I do; maybe they’re on a business trip and don’t have time to explore that heady aroma that comes from around the corner. Or they are visiting family and have a busy schedule. Maybe they – gasp – don’t care to plan every meal. Buffets offer hotel guests a low barrier to entry: they can try new foods without worrying about ordering something they don’t like. It’s all just sitting there for the taking. Without having to guess where and what to eat, breakfast buffets offer a great way to experience flavors that visitors would have otherwise totally missed.
I’ve learned a lot about different food cultures from the breakfast buffets I’ve visited over the years:
The small mountains of labneh and copious amounts of tomatoes and cucumbers in several hotel breakfast buffets during a college trip to Israel formed the foundation of how I often cook now. There, I internalized the greatness of a tasty breakfast, as well as the power of cooking less is more. Good pita, good dairy products, seasonal products, za’atar: not complicated, but incredibly revealing. I must have had other great meals on the trip, but 17 years later all I remember vividly are the breakfast buffets. Well, hummus.
I have three fond culinary memories of Hoi An when I visited Vietnam on my honeymoon six years ago: excellent steamed clams with ginger and scallions eaten while on a moped tour , banh mi from the place Anthony Bourdain made famous and my daily bowl of cháo from our hotel breakfast buffet. Every morning I looked forward to creating a bowl of rice porridge with various toppings (scallions), condiments (fish sauce) and fresh herbs (cilantro). What can I say ? I’m a sucker for a DIY item, and topping bars are fun everywhere.
In 2017, my husband and I were excited to visit Kerala, India. But it turned out that I was weeks away from needing small bowel surgery (thanks, Crohn’s disease) and my body had other plans for my vacation. I spent much of it curled up in the fetal position in intense pain. In Kochi, we bailed out our budget hotel in a great location to find somewhere a little more comfortable for me to stay in bed all day. not eat in all the restaurants I had mapped out. There, in a drab, corporate area of town, I dragged myself downstairs to the buffet one morning and rallied in pain in my stomach because, well, I wanted to try the food. I went through many bites of idli, various chutneys, wonderfully spiced potatoes and other flavors that I would have otherwise missed because I was sick. I spent the rest of the trip in bed, but this buffet breakfast remains for me one of the best meals I have ever had.
While I wholeheartedly endorse going out to local breakfasts, on days when you’re not quite ready to start the day, the hotel buffet has you covered. I am grateful for the excellent chilaquiles I ate last spring in Mexico City after arriving at my hotel at 2 am; I still remember the cleverly rolled omelet I ate jet-lagged in Seoul in 2013; I would love another slice of Quiche Lorraine from a recent conference I attended in West Virginia. While these breakfasts don’t necessarily outshine the restaurant, cheese shop, and farmer’s market visits I plan months in advance, they’ve also earned permanent places in my travel itineraries. Going on vacation is giving yourself a break, and there’s something really special about starting the day with a decision already made for you. All you have to do is grab a (often comically large) plate and hope the tongs are somewhat efficient at their job.
Originally appeared on Bon Appétit