I take breakfast very personally. I care more about this meal than about anything else I eat all day, no matter where on Earth I am. If a hotel gives me a disappointing dinner, the occasion can still be considered a success if the moon above glows and the wine and conversation flows. But if they mess up breakfast, there’s nothing to catch my fall and quell my anger. For me, it’s a portent of the day.
This is why I’ve spent my entire adult life as a travel journalist making sure that my first meal on my first morning on my first visit to a new destination is a success. More than this, I’ve come to rely on it as a sure-fire way of quickly getting the measure of a new place. Whatever late hour I arrive at the night before, I venture out a few hours later to tuck into breakfast and people-watch.
There is no better method of swift immersion in the condensed spirit of a place: French toast on a bar stool in a Brooklyn diner amid a caffeinated orchestra of sirens, shouts and steam. Bulging parcels of dim sum in towering wicker baskets served on Formica tables in Hong Kong. A mattress-sized spread of glazed hams, shoe boxes of cheese and salamis the size of weightlifters’ biceps, devoured in cuckoo-clock chalets in the Alps. And, most memorably for me, a mug of silky hot chocolate and a fried-egg roll in a sweltering mess hall in Afghanistan with the Royal Lancaster Regiment – the sound of desert wind outside broken only by the soft, exhausted conversation of soldiers at the end of eight hours of foot patrol, bent over their food and whispering to each other almost as if in votive prayer.
People-watching at breakfast time is the skeleton key that unlocks almost everything about the moods, the vicissitudes, the stresses and pleasures that a city or a village is experiencing right now. Taking the temperature of a new destination doesn’t mean rising at dawn to rush to the first stop on the tourist itinerary. It means pulling up a chair, making eye contact with a waiter and finding out what the local lingo for “Take your time, I’m not in a hurry” is when placing your order.
There are five rules for a perfect breakfast that override everything. Whether I’m in Boston or Beijing, Cape Town or Cape Horn, these are the breakfast non-negotiables. Follow them and your chances of a superior start to the day just improved immeasurably:
Go solo. Always go somewhere where you see people eating alone. Breakfast is the only meal of the day when people still feel comfortable tucking in with just themselves for company. If the place doesn’t have at least three solo diners, it just doesn’t understand breakfast.
Sit outside. Unless you genuinely fear frostbite, this establishment should have tables outside and you should grab one. You will never feel more urbane and content with your lot than when you’re casually turning the pages of a local newspaper, holding a coffee, watching the scene and its cast of characters play out in front of your eyes.
Don’t pay too much. It should be good value. If you spend more on breakfast than you do on lunch, then somebody has ripped you off.
Don’t hurry. You shouldn’t feel rushed. If a waitress slams a bill on your table before you ask for it, kindly pass it back and ask for an extra pot of coffee. Breakfast should never, ever be rushed. Unless you want it to be, of course.
Be a regular. Despite the thrill of discovering the new, breakfast is the one meal where we don’t mind having the same thing two days in a row. So if you’ve found the perfect spot in Lisbon for a pastel de nata or the top-notch osteria in Palermo for a millefoglie, don’t feel you’ve become boring by going again the next day. Even on your second visit in a café, if you go before the lunch rush, you’ll be amazed at the recognition you get from staff. On my second visit to a shack in Kingston, Jamaica for ackee and saltfish, I was offered a handgun at a knockdown price. On my third visit to a diner in Nashville I was offered a lift in a coupé to New Orleans with three cheerleaders. You can guess which offer I accepted.
Health experts claim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But the benefits for the mind are just as important. Breakfast is about renewal. It’s about the future. And on holiday, it’s about the adventure of the day ahead. So order another coffee. Lunch is for wimps. Breakfast, done right, is for champions.