Nothing like interacting with strangers before you've had your coffee
Bed & breakfasts typically rank among Don Henley and Medicare as Baby Boomer fare, but, throughout my formative years in Reagan’s America, my forty-something mother boycotted private inns like they were run by communists. The business model aggrieved her, from the potentially shared bathrooms to likely inelegant decor. (As an elementary schooler for whom pink and teal athleisure was the height of chic, I was unmoved by the latter.) “When you stay at a B&B,” she would say, revealing her ultimate grievance, “You have to talk to the people who own it.” My siblings and I reflexively shivered at the thought.
Once a month, we packed our lunch boxes and sticker/baseball card collections into my mom’s station wagon, driving from New Jersey through the leafy entrails of Connecticut to visit beloved, vaguely stereotypical Italian-American relatives in Boston. (Common refrains amongst the Bostonians included, “Eat!” and, “I made you an extra pork tenderloin!”)
We stayed at B&Bs along the route exactly zero times. A staunch believer that nothing is less cool than mandatory cheer, my mom shunned demographic expectations and the smiling sharks who dealt in Folgers crystals and mirthless laughter at B&Bs. In this, as in her preference for breezy tunics and ethnic jewelry, she was actually pretty prescient.
Earlier this year, Airbnb unveiled the slogan “Live there,” a subtle neg of the traditional lodging industry and its tacky reliance on tourists. Much like “Got milk?”, “Live there” infers what’s deficient in you, the rube scouring TripAdvisor with a tumbler of Mountain Dew. Namely: adequate calcium; connections to local culture.
It’s tough to quantify how Airbnb’s ascendance has impacted the market share of conventional B&Bs. The Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAII) finds that youthful travelers, including those oft-chronicled millennials, are more apt to recharge their smartphones in an Airbnb than at a doily-bedecked bed & breakfast.
For my travel bitcoin, B&Bs offer more consistently “authentic” experiences than those aggregated beneath Airbnb’s weirdly anatomical logo. On the one hand, Airbnb offers lovely private homes, fortuitously free for the weekend and oozing with indie elan. (“The deadbolt sticks sometimes, and the coffee shop next door has killer vegan scones!”) The darker side of the brand portfolio comprises a pyramid scheme of vacant dummy lots, furnished with impersonal effects by faceless entrepreneurs evading hotel taxes. At one such Airbnb apartment in Tokyo last winter, I encountered Ikea price tags on the lampshades and all the charm of an extended-stay Marriott.
No matter how outdated the decor, or reliant on animal protein the breakfast spread, B&Bs genuinely reflect their owners, not mass-marketed veneer. Mostly because B&Bs are their owners: nearly 80% of American innkeepers live on the premises, reports PAII, imbuing every quilt and cookie with unadulterated local flavor.
This is especially evident at the breakfast table. In an era when Edison bulbs and avocado toasts proliferate a monolithic aesthetic from Copenhagen to Cleveland, B&Bs offer home-cooked meals that defy, deny, or unwittingly evade trends. The person helming the kitchen is more likely to be the owner’s spouse than a professional chef who studied foraging under Ben Shewry. Breakfasts consist of perennially crowd-pleasing items like blueberry pancakes, and incorporate area influences in fascinating, satisfying ways.
Consider the lovingly warmed stack of Tex-Mex-style flour tortillas served alongside eggs Benedict at a B&B in Hill Country, Texas. If this seems “inauthentic,” remind yourself that the Manhattan origin story of eggs Benedict is murky at best, and that many of the world’s most delicious foods, such as ramen, resulted from enterprising cooks fusing multicultural traditions.
Certain national and global trends, like cold brew coffee or gluten-free grains, trickle into regional B&Bs, while others remain intriguingly elusive. Ask your innkeeper for soy or —double dare—coconut milk, ready yourself for inevitable alienation, and contemplate the economic ubiquity of the U.S. dairy industry.
Part of why I travel is to shift, widen, or examine the wonkiness of my perspective. Sure, I could sip cortados next to my facsimiles at the nearest fair trade coffee shop. But at this point in my life—healthy, hungry, sans sticker-collecting dependents—I’d rather interact with folks I might not meet otherwise.
Last year, at a B&B near Houston, I shared waffles with traveling Christian missionaries—unlikely breakfast companions in my adopted hometown of godless New York City. Throughout breakfast, I quietly marveled at the chance to casually chat with real-life human beings whose paths I so rarely cross, and who could easily devolve into parodic Others. Nerdy as it sounds, I was grateful we disparate travelers had come together to pass syrup and prattle about a recent thunderstorm. (The work of mighty Zeus, amirite?)
Regardless of faith, nationality, or tolerance for lactose, nothing demonstrates our shared humanity like miming to a non-anglophone stranger to pass the Coffee-mate. It’s enlightening to share your morning meal with strangers who alternatively talk too much, or stare wordlessly across a crystal goblet of fruit salad. The world is small, people are terrible or kind everywhere, and, seriously, no one likes honeydew.