Whenever I have the opportunity to travel, there’s a 99% chance I’ve done formidable research on where to eat. There are Apple Notes lists. Google Maps with corresponding Google Doc itineraries. Reservations made weeks in advance. But the meal I’m always most excited for as I plan my trip? The hotel breakfast buffet.
I love it all: the silver chafing dishes, the artfully plated pats of butter, the fancy tongs that aren’t particularly effective at picking up food but at least look nice, the omelet station with a very friendly cook, the array of fresh fruit, the hunt for the crispiest bacon in the tray, the smoked salmon roses, the various mini-muffin offerings, the crispy-gone-soggy potatoes, the mishmash of items that might not technically “go together” on one plate yet somehow do.
A good hotel breakfast is a powerful tool for getting to know a region, especially internationally—and one I hope doesn’t vanish 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 U.S.) and develop an appreciation of various food traditions (soup for breakfast), all amid the familiarity of blue-flamed sternos and freshly squeezed juice.
While hotel breakfast buffets are probably not the first image that comes to mind when thinking about the food culture of a given place—there’s no nonna rolling pasta dough in her Tuscan kitchen or Pueblan street vendor carving al pastor tacos the same way he’s done it for 17 years—it’s a legitimate and delicious avenue to explore local food culture. Good hotels want you to love their city’s food (you’ll come back, pay more money, and stay longer!), so it’s in their interest to make you happy and serve something delicious and emblematic of the region. Plus, breakfast is one of the first access points to familiarize yourself with a new place; a breakfast buffet just feels especially welcoming after slowly waking up from a long travel day.
Not all travelers—okay, probably very few—come armed with the level of restaurant research I do; maybe they are traveling for business and don’t have time to explore that heady aroma coming from down the block. Or they are visiting family and have a packed schedule. Maybe they—gasp—don’t care about planning every meal. Buffets allow hotel guests a low barrier to entry: They can try new-to-them foods without the concern of ordering something they may not like. It’s all just sitting there for the taking. Without the guesswork of actually figuring out where and what to eat, breakfast buffets offer a great way to experience flavors visitors may have totally missed out on otherwise.
I’ve learned so much about various food cultures because of breakfast buffets I’ve visited over the years:
The small mountains of labneh and copious amounts of tomatoes and cucumbers at multiple hotel breakfast buffets on a college trip to Israel formed the bedrock of how I often cook now. There I internalized the greatness of a savory breakfast, as well as the power of less-is-more cooking. Good pita, good dairy, in-season produce, za’atar: not complicated, yet incredibly eye-opening. I must have had other great meals during the trip, but 17 years later all I remember vividly are the breakfast buffets. And, well, hummus.