Continental Breakfast Blues

Basic RGBI like biscuits and gravy. I don’t like carpenter’s glue with floor sweepings in it. Someone needs to get the word out to a certain hotel chain that there’s a difference.

The Wire family took a 1900 mile road trip for Spring Break this year, necessitating eight consecutive nights in hotels. And that meant eight continental breakfasts.

Since we’re not filthy rich (not even grubby rich), the included breakfast was key to our hotel bookings. This family of hungry kids and beer-loving dad averages a fifty dollar bill for each meal of non-drive-through food. If we could fold eight breakfasts into the hotel costs, that would save us enough money for a stack of souvenir t-shirts and a grocery bag of fireworks.

But there are as many variations on the phrase “continental breakfast” as there are on “close to major attractions.” As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s garbage.

I wasn’t expecting a king’s feast here. I just needed enough palatable calories to propel me down the road toward the next highway adventure. Also, I understand that running a hotel is a highly competitive business, and anywhere they can cut corners will allow them to keep their rates…well, the rates are still pretty friggin’ high.

For a few days we managed to score a “hot” breakfast. The difference between a “continental” breakfast and a “hot” breakfast is marked by the presence of up to three things: Play-Doh-like scrambled eggs that looked like they may have survived the Vietnam War; the aforementioned biscuits and gravy (which must be a boon to the hockey puck industry); and/or the notorious Self-Serve Waffle Maker.

The Self-Serve Waffle Maker exists in two states: Out of Order, and Ready To Inflict Third Degree Mayhem. You’ve surely seen this thing in action. A dispenser poops out a glop of batter into a paper cup, which is then poured onto the griddle that is hotter than the surface of Mercury. Then the other half of the griddle is closed over the batter, and flipped over to clamp it shut. A red light comes on. Ten days later, a beeper goes off, indicating that your delicious waffle is ready to dig out of the griddle crevices with a thin plastic fork.

So simple, yet so baffling to the average hotel customer. You know there’s a waffle maker in your hotel because you can hear it constantly beeping all the way from your room from the moment you crawl out of bed in the morning to go pee.

As you straggle into the “breakfast room” five minutes before the breakfast ends, it’s usually the same scene: a hungover traveling product rep, an elderly couple gumming oatmeal and muttering to each other, and two or three families running wild through the place. The kids are wearing swimsuits, trailing pool water on the carpet, and distributing cereal to every surface of the breakfast counter.

If the widow maker, er, waffle maker is in service, there will be some Mensa candidate standing in front of it, a cup of batter in his paw, looking at the thing like it’s the control panel to the Large Hadron Collider. Eventually a haggard hotel employee will come over and show the lunkhead how to pour the batter onto the griddle, and then close the lid, and then, like it says on the fluorescent poster board with six-inch bold black letters, TURN IT OVER.

The waffle enthusiast will complete the steps (to the raucous cheering of everyone in the breakfast area) and then wander into the lobby to find a USA Today, leaving the smoking contraption to beep endlessly when his delicious waffle is ready. This cycle will repeat itself a dozen times on any given morning.

The variety of offerings at a continental breakfast are mostly dictated by the size of the breakfast room. I made the mistake of using hotels.com to lock is into a room in central Oregon for three days without first getting a glimpse of the joint. At $33.40 a night for two queens and a free breakfast, I thought, how bad could it be?

We pulled into the dark parking lot after seven hours on the road, ready to collapse onto our beds, maybe get some hot tub time. The neon in the motel sign buzzed and winked. A loose newspaper page tumbled across the asphalt. There was only one other car in the lot, an unmarked police Crown Vic nosed up to one of the rooms. I suspected a drug sting. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the theme song from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

I got out of the car in the “porte cochere” (in this case, a portable tin roof over a handicap parking space) and approached the tiny lobby, which resembled an inner-city check cashing shack.

“Wire…Wire…” intoned the gentleman behind the counter, tapping on the keyboard of his decrepit Compaq computer. “Oh, yes, here we are. Double queen. Room 303.”

I looked out at the shadowy parking lot that was surrounded by a row of low-slung rooms. “Three-oh-three? But there’s only one level.”

He handed me a gold key on a diamond-shaped plastic fob. “Yes, that is correct. Apparently the original contractor got a deal on metal threes when he bought the door numbers.” He smiled, flashing a gold tooth next to an empty space in his grille.

I took the key and looked to the end of the lobby, where there was a small kitchen counter that held a straw basket of instant oatmeal packets and another one that contained two black bananas. At least I hope they were bananas. Next to the basket was a plexiglass breadbox displaying a lumpy donut and two raisin bagels. I could swear some of the raisins had wings.

There were two stainless steel vacuum carafes on the counter. One had a small picture of a coffee cup on it. The other had a picture of a goat.

The desk clerk followed my gaze, and nodded proudly. “Oh yes,” he said, his gold tooth flashing in the glare from a nearby streetlight. “We offer a free continental breakfast.”

“Really,” I said, signing the check-in sheet and steeling myself for the wrath of my family. “Which continent, exactly?”

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