A eulogy for the hotel buffet

Farewell sweet breakfast prince. We will miss you.

It unfurled in stages, like an opera or a football match. I’d come down early that morning, insomnia having got me from my bed earlier than either I, or the hotel staff, would have liked.  So I sloped in, hair all over the place and eyes still heavy with sleep, to the large sitting room at the Villa Spalletti Trivelli in Rome and waited for breakfast to begin. 

Soon a little procession commenced: salvers and great silver ice buckets appeared, only to be shuffled off into an adjoining room by maids who seemed equally tired. It seemed to take an age. But then, like the red sea parting, the doors opened. “Breakfast is ready, sir,” said the maid.

“Lovely,” I said. And it was, too — a long thin table was set hard against the back wall; a breakfast buffet of unrivalled magnificence. It was the most Italian thing I had ever seen. A bowl of boiled eggs, peeled — a concession, I assumed, to visiting Americans — lay at one end of the table. And then row after serried row of cakes. Lemon cakes; jam tarts with pastry lattices as fine as anything by Grinling Gibbons; little glass towers of jams and preserves and chocolate spread that may have just been molten Mars bars.

It looked like something from the Field of the Cloth of Gold, if everyone at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was suffering from diabetes.

For years I lived like this, in a haze of calories and greed. I had a food column in The Independent Newspaper, as it then still was, and in its little brother the i Paper, and wrote about travel when I was not writing about food. I went all over for a hot dinner. 

But, as I travelled more, I discovered that while you could tell the quality of a chef from the dinner he makes, you could tell a lot about the culture of a country by the goings on at a hotel breakfast buffet. Greed, pride, sloth, plate envy — you encounter all of life between 7 and 10am in the dining room. Or at least you did. 

"You can tell a lot about the culture of a country by the goings on at a hotel breakfast..."

With grim inevitability it seems that Covid-19 might have done for the buffet breakfast. Since the outbreak began, hotels have sensibly taken the view that the open smorgasbord is a recipe for trouble. A la carte has now muscled in at breakfast time too, having already annexed lunch and dinner. The twentieth century has finally ended.

It is not that buffet breakfasts were always things of beauty. In Dallas, I encountered eggs which looked like shoe leather going for a swim in some vegetable oil. In Thailand, the saddest plate of sausages I ever saw — they were as pale and soft as an under-excited penis. 

Still, even in those situations, the sheer array of foods on offer meant there was at least something edible. And that explains part of the joy of the breakfast buffet: it is unrestricted, like a pool without a lifeguard in which you can jump and cavort and play the fool. It allows for behaviours that would otherwise be considered indecorous, greedy, and often a touch dangerous (fifth pancake, anyone?).

Not only that, it allows for the minimum of interaction with other human beings before you have revived yourself with coffee or Bloody Marys, depending on your wont. Indeed, you can go from bedroom to plate of eggs in just five words: name, room number, and the words “buffet, please”.

This is not just good for you. It also saves the staff of a five-star hotel some bother, too. The morning is when the hotel puts their rookie players up to bat. They tend to be young and they disappear a lot and they do this because they are hungover like you. I worry for them if they must now produce poached eggs on command.

It will be a sad loss for sociologists if the buffet never returns. You could always tell the nationalities of fellow guests even before they spoke. The North Americans would invariably eat pancakes of frightening sweetness; the French feign disgust so ostentatiously for the Nutella spread and then hide some bacon beneath a croissant; the Brits just eat everything that isn’t nailed down and still wrap up a boiled egg in their napkin for later.

There is hope, of sorts, for those not content to watch this unique form of meal go quietly into that good night — as I discovered myself when staying in the Hotel De Crillon, one of the grandest and most obliging hotels in Paris. It was the month before it closed in early 2013 and I was staying for the weekend.

I was also going to nightclubs. Quite a few nightclubs. On the Saturday night, I called it quits and got to my room at 5am, and spotted the thing that anyone wants to see returning home from excess: the breakfast menu. In a haze of greed and misunderstanding I filled in the card and put it on the door handle. 

I woke at 11.30 to a knock on the door. Three waiters were pushing two enormous trollies. I had, apparently, scribbled “11.30 S’IL VOUS PLAIT” on the card and ticked every box save the one for croissants. There was everything from salmon fumé to blueberries gilded with gold leaf and half a pig’s worth of sausages. The bill was roughly the size of Belgium’s GDP. 

But in those brief, glimmering moments between waking up and coughing up at check-out, I was happy. Heaven was that hotel suite and my own private breakfast buffet. And I didn’t even have to hide an egg in my napkin for later.

Farewell sweet breakfast prince. I will miss you.

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