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The great hotel breakfast debate: is greedy OK?

He struggled to look on the bright side even in his younger days, so it’s no surprise that as he presses into his eighties, Alan Bennett is taking doomy geriatric maundering to heights previously unscaled by man.

In Venice for a break with his partner, Rupert Thomas, Bennett would not, of course, be expected to enjoy himself as others might, surrounded by great art and great food and with a much younger lover. Instead, he glances around the breakfast room at the soulless international tourist hotel he has (inexplicably) chosen to stay in and flicks the grumble button to autopilot.

A buffet is the most depressing place you can consume food

“The greed at breakfast in our hotel is . . . dispiriting,” he writes in a diary entry published this week in the London Review of Books (it sounds best if you do it in his wheedling Yorkshire squeak). “One young woman this morning with such a passion for fruit that she piles her plate with melon, pineapple, grapes and kiwi fruit and fills her pockets with tangerines to the extent that in the process nature itself is demeaned. Hard to be a waitress at breakfast and retain a respect for one’s fellows. Some of the well-to-do guests can’t wait to get the food back from the breakfast bar to their table, one young man downing a tumbler of orange juice en route and a boy stuffing himself with sausages before he even sits down.”

Now, I can’t bear to watch a fat bird stuffing her sloppy gob with free food either, but it’s a bit of a soft target for the Eeyore Laureate of Middle England, isn’t it? To see some lardy lass filling her face and pockets with scran just because it is free at the point of consumption, then equate that with the very debasement of nature? That is the sort of overblown, condescending and misogynistic drivel that . . . well . . . I would write.

And while the sight of young men (we can assume they are American because everyone in Venice is) eating off the plate they are holding as they walk round the room would have been frowned upon at Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate in the 1930s, it is sadly now completely normal, especially at the hell on earth that is a hotel breakfast buffet.

Why didn’t you do your research a bit better, Alan? Why didn’t you find a little place with waiter service in the morning? For a breakfast buffet, whether in the basement of a nasty regional business hotel by the side of a British ringroad or at a fancypants international five-star in the centre of a famous beauty spot, is the most depressing place you can possibly consume food. And the people doing it there are all scum.

First off, they care only about getting their shilling’s worth. They’ve been scraped for hundreds of pounds for an airless room with polyester sheets and a “view of St Mark’s” that turns out to refer to the suburban pizza place not the cathedral, so they are sure as hell going to get their value in calories.

Hotel fruit isn’t ripe and tastes horrible

They’ve been up since dawn because of the noisy plumbing and the people shagging just the other side of the cardboard wall and they are starving. They’re going to pile up all sorts of mismatched items — chocolate croissant, black pudding, muesli, baked beans, blueberry muffins, a couple of slices of smoked salmon and a spoonful of capers — on the biggest plate they can find, in case it’s all been cleared away by the time they go back for more, then drop their face in it on the way to the table and start inhaling.

The greedy cow you saw eating fruit? She was only doing what she thought was healthy. She had already eaten most of a pig, fried with eggs and a loaf of bread, but she has been told by health professionals for the past 50 years that fruit is good for you, so she’s chucking it down on top of all the rubbish in the hope that it’ll extend her miserable fat life by a couple of minutes, which it won’t, because it’s just more sugar.

Also, it tastes horrible because it isn’t ripe. Because hotel fruit never is. It comes in by airfreight, damned near frozen, regardless of the season, so you get ice cold wedges of green melon you could cut diamonds with, bananas you can’t peel and those filthy, floury, red apples the Yanks love because they saw one once in Snow White. But they’re free, so they eat them.

Then they load their pockets with buns and slices of ham and salami because they’re too mean to buy their own lunch, and scuttle out with pork fat and orange juice leaking through the revolting grey jogging pants they think are acceptable daywear on the streets of Italy.

And what about the tea? Did you try making yourself a cuppa from a weedy little Lipton bag (a brand that seems to exist only in hotels) in a thick, white coffee cup, using barely hot water, so that at best you had a pale yellow trickle of something approximating to an elderly tea lady’s morning wee?

Or the coffee? That thin, muddy concoction of chlorinated tap water and dust? Did you ask for mustard and get a funny look? Did you look bemusedly at the two baskets of eggs that were labelled “soft” and “hard” but which were all stone cold with greenish yolks? Did you request a bowl of porridge which they said would take five minutes but for which you are still waiting?

Honestly, Alan, at your age one would have thought you’d know better than to rock up at a hotel breakfast buffet expecting to have a nice time. Anyone would think that you did it simply because you like complaining.

I’m a buffet nerd and proud of it
By Hilary Rose

I rate hotels by the quality of their breakfast buffet. Current top of the list is the Eden Rock in St Barth’s, which is exceptionally smug of me, and I apologise, but it was a thing of unparalleled magnificence: home-made granola, dozens of types of tropical fruit, sliced thinly and ordered into pleasingly OCD lines, ten breads, four types of baguette, 15 different pastries — I counted because I am a breakfast-buffet nerd — big bowls of everything any health-obsessed American could want to sprinkle on her yoghurt, nine juices, eggs any which way you want them and a waffle station.

It is true that I don’t technically want to eat or drink most of the above, but still. It was impressive. It is also true that my love of breakfast buffets was sorely tested by a holiday on a grim cruise ship where the woman next to me had so much on her plate — eggs, beans, sausages, hash browns — that it overflowed on to her tray. The next day, she resolved the problem to her satisfaction by taking two plates. It had never occurred to me that it takes self-discipline not to put a fried egg on top of scrambled eggs on top of an omelette.

And buffets pose so many questions. Does anyone ever eat the slices of ham and cheese? Are they there solely for the people, like my mother, who used to make ham and cheese sandwiches for us to have for lunch on some freezing windswept beach in northern France? What is the point of pastries? Why are toasters so rare, internationally? Who decided unsalted butter was a good idea, or avocado at breakfast? And is it possible to get a decent cup of English breakfast tea anywhere in the world outside England?

At a breakfast buffet, you are in charge of your own destiny. Your toast will always be hot. You can examine your breakfast before committing to it. You can get your five-a-day without picking up a knife. At the Leela Palace in Delhi, they had a vegetable juicing station, where the vegetables were fanned lovingly by their very own fly-wallah.

Having said all of which, the best breakfasts I’ve had — Amanwella in Sri Lanka, the Hotel du Cap in the south of France, world-class fried eggs on toast on the Isle of Eriska — were not actually buffets at all: waiters took your order. And the happiest breakfasts I had were at Knoll House Hotel in Dorset when my nephew and nieces were little. The toast was always, always cold.

Hotel Tresanton, St Mawes, Cornwall

Breakfast buffet etiquette: they know what you did last summer

Olga Polizzi, owner of Hotel Tresanton, Cornwall
“We don’t do buffets with cooked food at our hotels. An egg cooked a la minute is always much better. We do put out fruit, yoghurts and croissants, though. We’re quite happy if someone pops a couple of croissants in their bag for later; that’s par for the course. If one is paying £32-£37 for a cooked breakfast at a hotel, I suppose there is a tendency to enjoy a big breakfast and skip lunch. If guests have paid a lot they are allowed to go slightly mad.”

Mark Sainsbury, owner of the Zetter Townhouses in Marylebone and Clerkenwell, London
“People forget they are in a public space more readily at breakfast than they would at dinner and behave more like they would at home. They can be very particular about how their breakfast is cooked — they want their eggs just so — but generally I think they are far better behaved than they were 20 years ago, when there was more of an upstairs-downstairs relationship. These days they are much politer. Or perhaps we just have nicer guests.”

Angela Hartnett, executive chef at Limewood Hotel, Hampshire
“I have to say that the British always behave very well at breakfast because they always assume everyone is watching them. If they do overload their plates, it’s probably because they don’t want to be seen to be going up twice and looking greedy. Certainly I’ve never heard a waiter complaining about the woman at table four stealing all the croissants. It’s not the same as when I worked in America, where you would see people stuffing whole plates of food into their bags for lunch.”

Kate Reardon, editor of Tatler
“While I agree that watching others stuff themselves is pretty revolting, I have been known to make myself a little picnic from a breakfast buffet — and sometimes seen myself well through to tea time on pilfered food, wrapped inexpertly in paper towels from the bathroom. I would draw the line at stealing a napkin, though. That is a matter for your own conscience.”

Lucy Hume, editorial manager at Debrett’s
“By all means make the most of the buffet, but remember basic courtesy: queue politely and use the serving utensils provided rather than your hands. Try not to overload your plate; it’s better to go back for seconds than look like you haven’t eaten for a week. It’s unlikely that your table will be too far away, so try to refrain from a quick nibble until you get there.”

● Frank Marrenbach, CEO of the Oetker Collection
“In our hotels I don’t observe people loading their plates until they break. The breakfast buffet in a lot of cases is a positive element. I don’t see the connotation of it being vulgar or disgusting — but it depends where you are. When my kids were young we went to some vacation clubs and sometimes you saw very different behaviour. On the first day they would behave like it wasn’t going to be there when they went back.”

Robin Hutson, chairman of the Pigs hotel and the Lime Wood Group
“I prefer to grab a plate of breakfast not piled high with food, then might go up for more, and more again. It’s all down to the individual and their eating preferences. Guests must eat what they want however they want to eat it.”

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