Breaking bread with strangers in a strange land
Recently, my wife and I made the terrible mistake of planning an elaborate vacation to Vietnam before we were 100 percent certain we could go on said vacation—only to reluctantly conclude that, no, we couldn’t actually make the trip, due to boring adult reasons like work commitments and “our finances.” We hadn’t booked anything, but we had plotted each day of our itinerary, picked which sights we most wanted to see, streamed several relevant episodes of Globe Trekker, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown, and generally became all too attached to the vacation bliss to come. As the dust settled on our demolished vacation dreams, the loss we felt most acutely was the breakfast buffet.
Of course, we were sad to miss the scenery, the street food, the colonial architecture, and the coffee—but does anything say vacation more than a good hotel breakfast buffet? For someone who normally just inhales a Chobani in the morning, and often neglects to do even that, a large breakfast is already a novelty. An all-you-can-eat breakfast laid out assembly-line style, or across a series of “stations,” and featuring some flourishes unique to your destination, is a piece of decadence that immediately cues the brain to forget its workaday worries and commence relaxing. The hotel breakfast buffet is the portal to vacation, and a daily reminder of your wonderfully altered circumstances.
For me, the hotel breakfast buffets in Asian capitals are the pinnacle of the genre. Often, they mix traditional local dishes with slightly off-kilter versions of Western fare, for a glorious East-meets-West mashup. Last year, at a boutique hotel in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, I experienced a breakfast buffet that offered both Japanese staples—miso soup, steamed rice, broiled fish—and, each day, a different rendition of a Western fast-food item that tasted far better than what you would find at any American drive-through. One day there were excellent tater tots; another day, truly delectable chicken nuggets. If there is a more perfect vacation feeling than alternating sips of miso with bites of ketchup-drenched chicken nuggets while gazing out at the Tokyo skyline, I have not yet discovered it.
But really, like pizza and sex, even bad hotel breakfast buffets are pretty good. There is always some kind of fruit and some kind of cereal and some kind of egg dish. There is usually bacon or sausage. There is coffee and juice. You can always make a piece of toast, often using one of those ingenious conveyor-belt toasters (why don’t they offer these contraptions for home use?), and you can top that toast with butter from an interesting receptacle—a little plastic packet with peel-off film that curls into a satisfying tube, or, at swankier joints, a dish of decorative butter balls, formed through god-knows-what backstage magic.
If you’re not finding all of the above at your hotel then you’re probably experiencing a continental breakfast, usually a sad affair, and nothing to get worked up about. Similarly, it is important here to distinguish between the hotel breakfast buffet, which is marvelous, and the restaurant brunch buffet, which is hell: a site of excruciating family obligation, long lines, and the worst kind of joyless food hoarding, because—as the elderly relative in your party inevitably points out—at these prices, you better get your money’s worth.
At the hotel breakfast buffet, however, the general public (read: your extended family) is not admitted. You are surrounded by your fellow guests, often an interesting gang, and everyone is happy to be there. Especially at international destinations, it’s fun to guess where everyone is from, to see what kind of brand-new vacation duds they’re sporting, or if they felt compelled to bring their enormous zoom-lens cameras even to breakfast. There is a feeling of giddiness in the room. Everyone is mooning about, amazed at their luck. Vacation!
It is tempting to rush this moment, to get out of the hotel and commence sightseeing. Resist the urge. Try to savor the delight of an extravagant breakfast in unfamiliar circumstances, the feeling of camaraderie that arises from breaking bread with strangers in a strange land. And if you’re in Tokyo, be sure to try the chicken nuggets—they’re delicious.
Mason Currey is the author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.