I wake up from my melatonin-induced coma and stumble down to my hotel’s restaurant for my very first taste of Shanghai. What I find: a breakfast spread I could have encountered at a Holiday Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona: gloppy scrambled eggs, mealy hash browns, pork sausages stacked in metal tubs. If it weren’t for the kink in my neck, I’d have no idea I’d just spent the last 25 hours in transit and arrived in an entirely unfamiliar land, 7,364 miles away from home. Where were my Four Warriors, or si da jin gang, the indispensable symbol of Shanghai breakfast culture: glutinous rice rolls (ci fan), soy milk (dou jiang), fried crullers (you tiao) and sesame pancake (da bing)?
The “international” buffet-style breakfast that has become customary in so many hotels across the world is meant to give travelers a sense of comfort and familiarity in a foreign place. You’ll now see labneh and tabbouleh in the breakfast buffet at Claridge’s, and congee at the St. Regis in Mumbai. More than any food-related travel experience, they make us ponder what travel is, and should be. Because isn’t the point to detach from the familiar? To experience—even only for an hour, around 8 am—the life of the people who make the place we’re in what it is?
Because you know when you’re getting the real deal. Witness three of our favorites: Ballymaloe in Cork, Ireland (Crowe’s rashers, Jack McCarthy’s sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes with Rosscarbery black & white pudding and rhubarb compote); HOSHINOYA in Tokyo (an Okamochi bento box of steamed rice, miso soup, fermented soy beans, grilled fish, pickled vegetables, and dried seaweed); and Ett Hem in Stockholm (a breakfast that changes daily, often with Scandi granola, charcuterie and local cheeses, with house-made jams of Swedish berries). They’re emblematic of the kind of unmistakably place-specific hospitality that a thoughtful leisure hotel should be about.
We asked a handful of our favorite friends in food, in four far-flung cities, to share their visions of what the ideal hotel breakfast would look like in their respective cities:
Adeena Sussman (@adeenasussman), author of bestselling cookbook, Sababa
“With a culinary culture that straddles the Bible, the beach, and everything in between, Tel Aviv is truly a melting pot nonpareil. Sun, spice, and the freshest market-driven produce are throughlines in virtually every dish—think lemons, chili, tomatoes, and spices, used to delicious effect at every turn.
The city’s breakfast culture is an all day affair; it’s no coincidence that hummus and shakshuka, two breakfast dishes here, are consumed all day. It’s all about the spread: a groaning table laden with a representation of everything local here in all its bounty. Powered by coffee after strong coffee, it’s as social a meal as it is a sustaining one, with friends coming and going from an ongoing gathering that changes its cast of characters at the cafe, beach, or garden, with every hour.”
The ideal hotel breakfast in Tel Aviv:
“A super-spicy skillet of indvidual shakshuka filled with fresh herbs and studded with creamy local feta cheese; a mortar and pestle of tableside hummus made with just-cooked, meltingly tender chickpeas mixed with pure Palestinian tahini paste and fresh lemon juice; a chopped salad topped with toasted mixed nuts and seeds; a basket of sliced challah bread and pilllowy, still-hot pitas, and a killer cocktail made with local botanical gin; pureed watermelon, and fresh lime juice.”
Helena Puolakka (@chefpuolakka), Chef Patron of Savoy and Sasu Laukkonen (@sasulaukkonen), head chef and owner of ORA
Compared to Scandinavian cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm, Helsinki’s food scene is “a bit less in your face…it’s more subtle in a way,” says Sasu. “One has to remember that us Finns, we are modest and shy people, so lots of original and great business ideas, and in a nice way.” Helena adds “there’s a strong, but underlying, design element” in the city’s restaurant culture, “as Finland has a long tradition of architecture and design, with architects like Aalto and Saarinen.” She also points out that breakfast in Finland “does not have the same ‘status’ as a meal, as it does in NYC or London. People rarely have breakfast meetings, or go out for breakfast, especially during the week.” But to fully experience Finnish food culture, they suggest visiting the Hakaniemi, a marketplace by the harbor where one can find strong coffees and traditional meat pies.
The ideal hotel breakfast in Helsinki:
Overnight oven baked barley porridge, dark rye archipelago bread, sourdough or potato flatbread and Karelian pies with local cheese, smoked vendace or marinated Baltic herrings and salted butter. Yoghurt and muesli, in summer, with bilberry jam and wild strawberry compote with kefir and toasted oats. It would be “served by the sea on one of the islands with a small hotel and bakery, using only local produce and living off the land and seasons,” says Helena. “Where one could stay the day to enjoy nature, with great reading…and with day falling into night with a fabulous dinner by the fire—indoors or out.”
Briana Valdez, founder of HomeState
“LA’s restaurant scene is an exploration of the world’s cultures, with colorful and unexpected experiences around every corner of the city. I moved here from Texas 20 years ago and feel I’ve only scratched the surface of what the culinary community has to offer. From the tiny and hospitable La Cevicheria on Pico Blvd and Mini Kabob on Glendale Blvd to the grand dining rooms of Bavel and Republique, there truly is a JOY to live and eat here.
The ideal hotel breakfast in Los Angeles:
A refried bean and cheese breakfast taco, a.ka. a “Frio,” on a HomeState flour tortilla, some green salsa and a strong cup of coffee, “enjoyed sitting on a patio, listening to old school Julio Iglesias.”
Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn, head chef and owner of Le Du (@ledubkk) and Dan Fraser (@danielbfraser), founder and director of Smiling Albino
“A pre-breakfast pastime in Thailand involves presenting food to monks, usually sticky rice (it travels well) and dried fish and vegetables. The monks would eat, and when they are finished the rest of the villagers would eat. Even in modern Bangkok you see this happening on street corners in the early hours. One lovely boutique hotel in Chiang Rai, Phu Chaisai, has a path from a monastery through a thick wicket of forest right to the resort, so often guests can take part in this ceremony before their own breakfast. Sticky rice and vegetables are a mainstay of northern food, and having it for breakfast mimics the alms offering ritual.”
The ideal hotel breakfast in Bangkok:
Khao Tom (Thai boiled rice) with chili vinegar, dried chilis, lime and ginger—what most Thais would consider ‘comfort food’. “AriyasomVilla in Bangkok does a cool vegetarian spread featuring Buddhist-inspired dining—farm to table, locally-sourced, vegan, and older rustic recipes.”
Ben Hannon Hubley works on PRIOR’s content & editorial team, after having worked at the New York Times in Beijing. He received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University, and speaks Mandarin, Arabic, and Spanish. He is based in New York.