Continental breakfast
Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images

Whether you’re planning a much-needed vacation, hosting a business meeting or attending one, the term “free continental breakfast” may catch your eye as you scan the hotel description. Visions of a buffet filled with pastry delights, heaps of bacon or ham, bowls of fresh fruit, stacks of cereal, and a made-to-order omelet station may dance through your head. But the actuality of what determines a continental breakfast varies – by continent.

The American Continental Breakfast

Breakfast on the European continent typically means a carafe of coffee, some juice, a muffin or a piece of bread to suffice until the heavy midday lunch. And it’s the Europeans who originally defined what is called a continental breakfast. In the United States, people like to sit down to a full breakfast, especially those heading for work at a labor-intensive job such as farmers, mill workers, construction hands or miners. They need a full stomach before facing their heavy workloads.

In the race for hotel guests, the European version of a continental breakfast was originally featured in American hotels. But Americans, used to a large breakfast, revolted and complained. Thus, the monster breakfast buffet came into being while still being referred to by its more “continental” and posh name.

Eating an American Continental Breakfast

A typical American “continental breakfast” includes both hot and cold items. A business buffet, served just before everyone sits down for several hours of discussion, is a modified version of both American and continental breakfasts.

  • Bread/Pastry – Mouthwatering pastries on the breakfast buffet include croissants; jam-filled Danish pastries; plain, egg, onion and “everything” bagels; muffins, and of course, a selection of breads for toast. Nearby are jars of jams and jellies, butter, cream cheese and, to please children, peanut butter.
  • Fresh Fruit – Seasonal fruit, diced into edible chunks, appeal to the health-conscious. Berries, watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, sliced oranges and local fruits are offered and sit adjacent to the cereals.
  • Cereals/Pancakes/French Toast/Waffles – Cold cereals appeal to children, and if the weather is cold, a hot oatmeal is inviting. In heated serving dishes, you may find pancakes, French toast, waffles or cheese-filled blintzes. Adding to the starch quotient, home fries, hash browns and even french fries are known to appear at the breakfast buffet.
  • Eggs/Cheese/Yogurt – Whether you like your eggs scrambled, fried or in an omelet, all are offered at an American continental breakfast. The more upscale the location, the more choices you have, and many may include a chef for custom orders. A cheese platter is an added plus to the American continental breakfast. Bowls of yogurt, some with fruit and others plain, are offered.
  • Meat/Fish – Crispy bacon, sausages and ham are also continental breakfast favorites, and for those who enjoy lox with their bagels, a platter of the cured salmon is perfect for that morning bagel at an upscale hotel.
  • Beverages – Coffee with an assortment of milk, cream or half-and-half, plus hot tea are a must for a breakfast buffet. Fruit juice, especially apple juice for children, and orange juice are typical offerings. A lemon- or orange-infused water carafe is always welcome.

A European Continental Breakfast

Unlike many Americans, who subscribe to the theory that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, Europeans reserve their large meal for the midday lunch. A guest at a hotel, inn or B&B in mainland Europe sits down to simple fare in the morning.

  • Coffee – A must. Strong, and usually served in a French press. Tea is offered as well, steeped and served in a pot.
  • Juice – Orange juice or a fruit nectar in a small glass.
  • Fruit – A small portion of either fresh or canned fruit.
  • Bread – A croissant, two pieces of toast or perhaps a chocolate-laced “pain au chocolate” rounds out the breakfast offerings.