Maybe you booked one hotel over another because it served a free continental breakfast. The idea of starting your day with a complementary all-you-can-eat buffet is just what some travels dream of. But if you take a moment to think about it, there isn’t anything especially “continental” about juice and muffins. So what’s with the name?

The term “continental breakfast” actually  originated in Britain in the mid-19th century. There, the phrase “the continent” refers to the countries occupying the mainland of Europe. Therefore, a “continental breakfast” denotes the type of breakfast you’d be served in places like France or Italy.

Breakfasts in these countries are famously light and delicate when compared to the full English breakfast — a heaping plate of sausage, beans, toasts, eggs and more — or an American breakfast — usually some combination of sausages, bacon, pancakes, waffles, potatoes, and toast.

As the nation grew and hotels popped up around the country, hoteliers were pleased to offer a lighter alternative to the traditional American breakfast. Not only did it please European tourists, but it was cheaper and easier to produce and staff.

And that’s how the standard hotel breakfast became the simple pastries, breads, fruits, and coffee spread we know today. But not everyone was happy.

American guests were initially outraged. Where was the hearty morning meal they were used to? Harper’s Weekly wrote that the continental breakfast should be banished from the “hemisphere where the Monroe Doctrine and the pie should reign supreme,” according to Mental Floss.

Today, people aren’t usually so concerned with their hotel breakfasts. Lots of hotels stick by the basic continental spread, but many more have added on easy to serve American basics like scrambled eggs and pancakes, so it’s clear a middle ground has been found. Many hotel guests just like the perception that they’re getting something “for free.”

So the next time you’re sipping that free coffee and nibbling that scone at your hotel’s morning buffet, just remember how it all came to be.

Also see, These are the snacks Martha Stewart never travels without.


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Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.