An Ode to the Breakfast Buffet

·6-min read
Photo credit: © Martin Parr/MAGNUM PHOTOS
Photo credit: © Martin Parr/MAGNUM PHOTOS

Of all the predictions on how life will “never be the same again”, there has been little outcry or consideration for the buffet. The prognosis isn’t good for a system in which a gang of strangers throng around countless communal and uncovered food and drink bowls to serve themselves, often with their hands. Sure, things could be done, changes could be made, but let’s be honest with ourselves: no amount of hand gel or Perspex panelling will be enough to preserve its immediate future. And there are real concerns that it could be gone forever.

This news will hit a section of people hard; myself included. Greedy people, sure. But there’s a lot more to buffet culture — as it has almost certainly never been called — than quantity. We need to distinguish that it’s the breakfast buffet we’re talking about here, and specifically the kind served at an international hotel of
distinction; where great deliberation has gone into curating the charcuterie and where a palpable excitement can often be felt on “the floor” upon arrival.

It’s only stretching it slightly to say that some of my fondest travel memories involve that first trip downstairs for breakfast. I have friends that proudly point to an impeccable record of never missing one, no matter how early the start or late the night.

In my twenties, these buffets only brought the promise of plenty: “You can eat whatever you want? What are the guys running this place thinking?” It was less an experience, more a direct challenge to test their profit model. Of course, such hubris resulted in a neanderthal approach; staggering back to the table with one or two giant plates piled high with all manner of food groups, like a buffet hit-and-run, baked beans spilling against smoked salmon, sausage nestling against plain yoghurt. Amateur hour.

It was a turning point when a friend — more a mentor, I can see now — reminded me that the stations never ran out. “It’s not a tag sale,” he said, with tough love. “There’s a lot more where that came from.” Slowly, a calmer approach developed, where plenty was replaced with patience and possibility. At a buffet, you were in charge and who knew where it could lead you.

Bangkok, certainly, was a turning point. Staying downtown at The Sukhothai with my wife on the first day of a holiday, we had given ourselves half an hour or so for breakfast before a fairly busy day out. I wandered into the high-ceilinged restaurant alone and unprepared for the scale of the operation. Sections rolled into sections, Thai, next to Indian, pastries and pancakes, juices from fruits I couldn’t name, an omelette stand with no queue. At that point, I hadn’t even seen the dim sum corner.

I returned to the table with nothing but a message. “We might need to cancel the temple trip,” I said, trying to sound calm.

“Why?” she asked, wondering what could have happened in the time I went to get apple juice.

“Have you seen the buffet?”

She was confused, naturally. We hadn’t flown 6,000 miles to spend the first morning in a large international hotel’s breakfast buffet hall. But she must have known from the wild look in my eye that this was important. We left a couple of hours later, not only losing sightseeing time, but significant mobility too. Yet we both still talk about that buffet to this day. Perhaps, on reflection, for different reasons.

Photo credit: Aladdin Color Inc - Getty Images
Photo credit: Aladdin Color Inc - Getty Images

It was at The Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland with some friends a couple of years ago that between courses — or visits — we decided to formalise the essential rules for good breakfast buffet conduct. How to maximise enjoyment, while minimising the need for a lie-down. They were surprisingly easy to agree on.

Arrive early, naturally. Take a New York Times International Edition as a respectable cover for your intentions. Choose a table that isn’t “on top” of the buffet but is close enough for frequent access. You’re going to be doing a lot of steps after all.

Start with a casual walkaround. No plate. Just drink it in. Understand what you’re working with. There are whole sections you can strike off in your head. The weird Italian cakes, the make-your-own muesli stand. Yet the often overlooked salad bar is an unlikely ally, not least for roughage.

You’re playing the long game so think in courses. Yes, making multiple short trips will attract the attention and admonishment of your dining companions. Let them scoff. Literally. They know not what they do. Start cold and least filling. Beware the pastry trap — always the most tempting but it could end your breakfast far earlier than you’d like.

It’s typical that a buffet nemesis will present themselves. Most likely a stocky, central European man who will seem to time his trips uncannily with yours, hovering indecisively around similar food stations. A blocker. Only experience, and acceptance, will guide you past him.

Of course, we weren’t to know then that the legendary Gleneagles buffet breakfast could be the last some of us might ever enjoy. And that these freshly minted rules would soon become obsolete. Today’s buffet nemesis isn’t just one man but everyone. Our knowledge of airborne particle dispersion distances sure takes the fun out of the fruit salad selection.

Understandably, hotels that were once world-class buffet operators have been forced to go à la carte. They will say that you can still order everything you could before, but the best know that something has been lost. And given what many of us eat at a buffet, having to say your order out loud, piece by piece, to a waiter would be unthinkable.

The breakfast combinations I settled into in the Maldives a decade ago would certainly have looked a lot different if I’d had to make them public. “Yes, I’d like the croissant, the bacon roll, the pancakes, the fruit salad and then the curry, with naan bread and onion bhaji, please.” It’s the Maldives, though, that gives us hope. With screening checks for tourists upon arrival at its airport, the buffet lives on in some hotels for now.

The incredible curated breakfasts in Japan offer up a hybrid model where choice and possibility remain, without the need to get up. And the general manager of one of London’s best hotel breakfast buffets — at The Corinthia in Westminster — reassures me that “the minute we can, I will bring it back”.

And for now at least, we can say that’s enough.

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