What Exactly Is A Continental Breakfast?

There's a certain level of comfort that comes with knowing that the majority of hotels will almost always have a continental breakfast. When staying at a new inn, you can rest assured that even if you slept poorly, are having a rushed morning, or are simply hungry, you can head down to the lobby for a reliable, no-frills first meal of the day. But what does the term "continental breakfast" even mean, and where did it come from?

As more European workers and tourists began visiting the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to Webstaurant Store, it became customary for American hotels to serve a light breakfast of bread and pastries with fruit and coffee. European travelers preferred a small meal to start to the day, while the necessary ingredients were also easy to stock, cheap to order, and simple to prepare. For hotel owners, providing a platter of croissants and berries was cost- and time-effective — much more so than frying up custom plates of omelets and scrambled eggs, as some locales do today.

Where did the name come from?

The Kitchn states that the term "continental breakfast" was coined back in the mid-1800s in Britain, where people called mainland Europe "the continent."  The Brits noticed how different breakfast was in countries like France: The French started their mornings with only coffee and a pastry, while Britain was home to the full English breakfast of meats, beans, veggies, and eggs. The Brits referred to this petite, Mediterranean-style meal, then, as a continental breakfast. Today, the term refers simply to a "light breakfast (as of rolls or toast and coffee)," per Merriam-Webster.

While Europeans enjoyed the continental breakfast, not all bacon-and-eggs-loving Americans were fond of the trend: Mental Floss notes that a publication called Harper's Weekly said that continental breakfast should be "banished from the 'hemisphere where the Monroe Doctrine and the pie should reign supreme.'" Evidently, not everyone feels that way, as you can now find versions of the continental breakfast at hotels across the world. It makes sense that the concept has stuck around all these years. Per The Kitchn, the traditional American hotel fee included room and board (for all meals), while a European-style rate did not include meals. The subsequent "continental" plan, which included breakfast with the room, was a happy medium that made guests feel like they were getting a deal "for free."

What items are typically served in a continental breakfast?

Webstaurant Store lists some of the foundational standbys of the continental breakfast as baked goods and pastries, juices, fruits, breads, jams, dry cereals, cold cuts and cheeses, and, of course, coffee and tea — almost always served buffet-style. One reason behind the continental breakfast's ongoing popularity for hoteliers is that the items tend to be convenient to put out morning after morning, and they can be ordered in large quantities and kept in the pantry or refrigerator for several weeks. The foods are also a generally well-liked constant that can provide comfort and stability for those on vacation — not to mention a sweet perk in the morning. 

As tastes have changed and the continental breakfast has become a norm around the world, different hotels have offered their own version of the meal. To please American guests, for instance, many hotels buffets include hot items like scrambled eggs, bacon, and other breakfast meats, while some higher-end establishments might serve crepes, smoothies, health-conscious options, and omelets made to order. These days, what some hotels call a "continental breakfast" is more like a seven-continents-of-the-world breakfast.