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When I look for an hotel I often see the "continental breakfast" expression when they refer to their breakfasts.

I looked up the expression on Google and found:

a light breakfast, typically consisting of coffee and bread rolls with butter and jam.

This contradicts my experience as I often find a lot more than that. There are often croissants, boiled eggs, scrambled eggs, juice, sausage, tomato, baked beans, etc.

What is and what can I expect from a continental breakfast? Does the industry have a different concept? And what other kinds of breakfasts are there?

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    It is used quite widely in Europe and North America, but there is no common rule about what is included. I have also seen it offered with Japanese as other option, but other hotels there used 'American' instead. – Willeke Jul 23 '17 at 16:44
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    It is sometimes distinguished from a "Full English" breakfast [and various other country names] which includes sausages, bacon, eggs, baked beans, various potato products, toast, et c., and is a much more substantial meal. – Calchas Jul 23 '17 at 17:59
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    Depending on how inexpensive your "hotel" is, a "continental breakfast" could consist of as little as a large thermos coffee dispenser and a box of doughnuts near the reception desk ... – brhans Jul 24 '17 at 14:31
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    Your description fits what you get in a B&B in Scotland when you order continental breakfast. – user24582 Jul 24 '17 at 15:04
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    @Calchas - That explains the "Continental" terminology. I've been wondering for years if there was some "Insular" breakfast that had proper eggs and bacon. – T.E.D. Jul 25 '17 at 14:30
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Great Britain vs the Continent

Whenever something is referred to as "continental", you can be sure it's meant as the opposite of "British". The popular myth of the newspaper headline reading "Fog Blankets the Channel; Continent Cut Off" is another example of the attitude that spawned this dichotomy.

In this case, a continental breakfast is the opposite of a full English breakfast and that is where the term originated.

Traditional English Breakfast

On the British Isles, a full breakfast (called a full English breakfast, full Scottish breakfast, full Welsh breakfast, or full Irish breakfast depending on the country; I'll use English in my answer since that's the most common term), is a warm — mostly fried — breakfast. Its exact constituents vary, but it usually consists of scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon, baked beans, fried tomatoes, and fried potatoes, sometimes with black and white pudding, or with fried up leftover vegetables from last night. It's quite a heavy meal.

In the rest of Europe, breakfast is usually mainly bread with cheese, slices of meat, or sweet or savoury spreads. Breakfast cereals, sometimes. The only ingredients that are usually eaten warm are eggs or porridge. It is a bit lighter meal than an English breakfast

Hot beverages such as coffee or tea are common to both.

In Hotels

The main difference between a continental breakfast and a full (English) breakfast is cold vs. hot.

A continental breakfast can be served cold, eggs having been boiled beforehand. The only hot ingredients might be the beverages — coffee, tea, hot chocolate. This reduces cost for the hotel and allows for the breakfast to be served in just about any room; it's not unusual to see the hotel bar being used for this if the hotel serves only a continental breakfast.
The hotel doesn't need any cooks to be present, just waiting staff to serve it.

If a hotel serves both a continental breakfast and a full English breakfast, the latter may be offered at a premium, since the costs to the hotel are higher as well.

If you've had a continental breakfast that included scrambled eggs and other hot dishes, it most likely was a breakfast buffet, where the hotel offers something extra to its guests, ending up a bit in the direction of a full English.

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    The use of the word continental is much wider than just Europe. I have seen it in the USA and Canada. Not sure, but I think I have also seen it in Japan, (for a general Western breakfast) and Australia and New Zealand. – Willeke Jul 24 '17 at 18:03
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    @Willeke of course, but that's where it originated. – SQB Jul 24 '17 at 18:04
  • A continental breakfast can contain hot porridge and hot tea or coffee, so hot vs. cold is not quite accurate. – gerrit Jul 25 '17 at 13:45
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    @gerrit I've clarified a bit; originally I had left out the beverages. I've never gotten hot porridge as part of a continental breakfast in a hotel, though, so I disagree with you on that. – SQB Jul 25 '17 at 14:12
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    @SQB the method of cooking the eggs would normally be fried but these days choices are usually offered. Scrambled is most certainly NOT the default option for a genuine Full <insert country here> Breakfast except in buffet style breakfasts, where it is best avoided anyway as it is generally badly cooked, rubbery slop. Also hash browns are an American invention and NOT considered part of a traditional breakfast, although fried potatoes may be. Also, on the continent cold meats are a frequent addition to breakfast as well as cheese, as are museli and yogurt. – Steve Pettifer Jul 25 '17 at 15:56
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Continental tends to refer to a cold breakfast, as opposed to a cooked breakfast. Usually it is breads, cereals, drinks, but each hotel will dress it up as they please.

American breakfasts tend to be cooked eggs, breakfast meat, breads, drinks.

Full or Cooked breakfast (often named locally ie Japanese breakfast, etc) tend to be whatever is commonly cooked for breakfast in the country the hotel is located in.

Buffets, well most folks know what a buffet is ....

But as mentioned in my continental description, each hotel can and will dress up their meal offering as they see fit for all of the above "categories". Plus different cultural expectations will contribute to the final menu.

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    Some hotels will have cold meats and cheeses included in a continental breakfast; on top of pastries, breads and cereals. – Neil P Jul 24 '17 at 9:30
  • It may still be useful to mention what types of foods the buffet will offer, not just implying the change in style. It usually offers full American breakfast foods. – Pysis Jul 25 '17 at 14:04
  • @Pysis - A buffet will have different items in different countries and many do not include "full American breakfast foods" (whatever that may entail to you). – user13044 Jul 25 '17 at 14:14
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    Country was mentioned and implied. I can attest to many buffets marketed as such, not as a contenintal breakfast, even if the serving stations were similar, for a high or even 100% of hotels I have been to that mention it. – Pysis Jul 25 '17 at 14:20
  • @Pysis - I see no mention of country either direct or implied in the OP (or in my answer). The context of the question is in regard to hotel industry use of the terms (an industry which is global). – user13044 Jul 25 '17 at 14:22
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Here are some breakfasts I have encountered. Of course, each hotel adds and removes items as they wish.

Edited according to some comments (especially the ones about the boiled tomato - I now realize how mistaken I was).

  • Continental - very modest; consisting of a hot drink, bread and/or pastry, butter, jam, possibly juice, sometimes more.
  • English - Eggs, sausage, fried bacon, baked beans, grilled tomato, cereal, tea or coffee.
  • Irish (often called "Full Irish") - similar to English, with black/white pudding (which may be found in the English too) and no cereal.
  • American - large amounts of eggs, fried bacon, cereal, pastries, sometimes waffles, coffee.
  • Israeli - large buffet with eggs (often made to order), vegetables, fruit, cheese, cereal, and more (no meat).
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    I don't think I've ever seen a continental breakfast buffet that didn't include a selection of cereals and juice. Most will also have fruit and pastries; many offer some cold cuts too. – Henning Makholm Jul 23 '17 at 19:24
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    Boiled rather than fried tomato? You've been had. Wherever served you that was lying quite freely. – Ben Jul 23 '17 at 19:29
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    What about kedgeree? Or kippers? Or Eggs Benedict (personally I prefer Royale)? Or a good old Omelette? Or smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on toast? Or any other number of cooked breakfasts that don't fall under a particular national name? Continental in my experience is, as you say, cold (but I agree with Henning it usually includes cereals, fruit and pastries—sometimes yogurts etc too); but not anything cooked. – eggyal Jul 23 '17 at 21:41
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    @HenningMakholm I've seen in the US -more than once - a "continental breakfast" consisting of instant coffee with a microwave to heat your water, and a box of donuts. – axsvl77 Jul 24 '17 at 1:11
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    Downvoted. This is simply inaccurate. As @Ben points out, an English breakfast has a grilled or fried tomato. Cereal is absolutely not an essential component, nor is coffee. And the the distinction between an English and Irish breakfasts really is just where the breakfast is served. An English breakfast is just as likely as an Irish one to include black pudding. – MJeffryes Jul 24 '17 at 9:24
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I have only had two kinds of breakfasts in the hotels that I have visited, the continental breakfast, which across all the properties I have visited is:

  • bakery items
  • fruits (seasonal)
  • coffee or tea

The variety of each may vary depending on the type of location you are in and the locality. For example in some areas, a continental breakfast includes an egg dish of some sort (boiled, omelette, fried to order, etc.)

The other type is the "breakfast buffet" which includes:

  • fruits
  • bakery items
  • a deli section (cold meats and cuts)
  • a dairy section (yogurt, milk, cheeses of various varieties)
  • drinks:
    • milk
    • fruit juices
  • coffee, tea and espresso stations
  • a cereal station
  • a condiment station
  • a warm breakfast station (usually, made to order omelettes or eggs)
  • a buffet line, which consists of:
    • eggs (scrambled and boiled, usually)
    • beans
    • breakfast meat
    • a carb item (usually grits)
    • any regional specialities
    • a vegetarian option

Depending on the restaurant chosen and the hotel locality, you may see different items or areas for specific dietary needs. At one hotel I saw a specific area for vegan items for breakfast.

At a hotel in Islamabad (capital of Pakistan) I had in addition to the omelette station, a paratha station (its a hot leavened fried bread with butter) which is traditional to South Asia; and sweet meats.

8

While reading other answers here, I am discovering new types of breakfasts. Never realized there are so many differences between UK counties and regions. Most hotels specify the type of breakfast they offer either to establish value or to cater a certain clientele. The point is that the name of the breakfast is not the menu, but an indication of the types of things offered.

The ones I know of are:

  • Continental: Hot coffee and tea, plus an assortment of breads and cold bready pastries, things like croissants and danishes some to mind since Continental refers to the continent of Europe. An American hotel offering a continental breakfast usually offers bagels and donuts, sometimes with something similar to poundcake. Juice and milt are often available too.
  • American: Coffee, tea, juice, milk almost certainly plus warm food with eggs, bacon, sausages and potatoes (hash browns or home fries).
  • English: Also with coffee, tea, juice, milk and hot egg and meat based breakfast, plus commonly British items such as beans and tomatoes.
  • South American: Coffee, tea, juice, bread, fruits and jam or marmalade.
  • Asian: Tea, often coffee too, plus congee with an assortment of toppings such as boiled eggs, fried fish, steamed vegetables and sauces. Depending on with your are in South East or North East Asia, dumplings or soup (or both) make a frequent appearance.
  • Japanese: Tea and coffee with steamed rice, cooked fish and broth plus a number of garnishes such as pickled vegetables, tofu, boiled egg to add to your soup or eat with the rice.

Half of these were covered by previous answers already but other regions do have their own and the closer you get to the region the more specific things get. In Asia, hotels often offer a buffet with each type getting its own section. So while you are eating breakfast in Asia, hotels catering to international travelers can still offer a section of American and another for Continental breakfast, plus one for local type of breakfast.

Note that I do not consider buffet to be a type of breakfast. Most breakfasts listed above can be served or offered as buffet or even a hybrid. In South America for example, many hotels offer a buffet of bread and fruits but will serve one or two, made-to-order, eggs. In Taiwan, I was often given a set breakfast plus access to a table with additional rice and congee but nothing else.

In Brazil, breakfasts were different than in the rest of South America. I don't know if it is called Brazilian breakfast but it consists mostly of large amount of fruits, eggs, tapioca, bread accompanied by coffee and juice.

  • In hotel parlance, buffet refers to a serve yourself type breakfast whereas a cooked or full is served to you. Buffet will often combine multiple breakfast types. – user13044 Jul 25 '17 at 15:37
  • Usually we say buffet or a la carte. Sometimes people also use cooked-to-order but that can mean something that as not been prepared in advance. A buffet can have many cooked items yet be self-served, so obviously the language is being overloaded in English. – Itai Jul 25 '17 at 15:51
  • We are not talking about what we say (me, you, etc), we are talking about terms used by hotels to describe food is provided with a room. – user13044 Jul 25 '17 at 15:59
  • If you are doing breakfast lists, you've missed off (at least) the sort of breakfasts common in Germany, Austria, Switzerland (German speaking) consisting of cold meats, cheeses, bread, etc. – abligh Jul 25 '17 at 19:15
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    The list if not really about which place eats what but more about how hotels describe their breakfasts. The actual contents of a continental breakfast in a US hotel may be very different from one in Europe (and indeed with vary between states and countries within those regions). – Itai Jul 25 '17 at 19:38
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I add to the list of Ugoren, as he already wrote obviously every business change items.

Colazione / Italian breakfast: coffee or cappuccino, tea available, biscuits and pastries, bread - butter - jam. To my experience nowadays in hotels and pensions there is always at least one juice, eggs (although in small properties you can only boil them, or they are served 3' and 8'), cheese, ham and salami, cereals and muesli, yoghurt, fruits. It was the reason I THOUGHT this to be a continental breakfast, because is not what we italians have in everyday life. Also, I can imagine that a very small and cheap property might serve an Italian breakfast similar to that italians do everyday at the bars (intended as business itself) and therefore be limited to coffee, caffelatte or cappuccino for the drink, pastries.

Europe in general: Experience tells me that in most of Europe the hotel breakfast is like the extended one I mentioned just the very lines above. Obviously the precise items may vary according to the country: cheeses, salumeria, bread are different everywhere, and so can be even with a single country, e.g. Italy.

Frühstück (Austria), similar to the above in structure, very different in details. Cheese and wurst dominated (there can be three sorts of both) over the sweets, that are limited to jam and bread rolls. Huge choice of breads. Egg can be as you like, either there is a cook or you do it. Again cereals, muesli, yoghurt. Typical in the broad choice of meat and leaver spreads.


Reading again the question I found that I and the OP have the same impression. It seems that a continental breakfast is rarely served, or the definition he found is wrong. See also my comment.

  • The more limited breakfast I had to date, both were in England and US. I do refer to choice, not to calories or size. – Alchimista Jul 23 '17 at 22:00
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    CAUTION: The English word "marmalade" means specifically jam made from citrus fruit (specifically oranges unless qualified as "lemon marmalade", "grapefruit marmalade" etc). Is that what you meant? (I ask because the German word "die Marmelade" is a false friend - it is better translated as "jam"). In Germany and Switzerland I would expect a few sorts of jam (for example: marmalade, strawberry, blackcurrant). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Jul 24 '17 at 11:13
  • @Martin Bonner. Yes, you are right. I couldn't recall the word jam. The same with marmellata in italian. There is also confettura (confiture) which brings in more confusion.I will correct. Thank you. – Alchimista Jul 24 '17 at 12:49
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    what do you mean by eggs served 3' and 8' ? – aslum Jul 24 '17 at 13:43
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    @aslum. Hardness expressed in minutes. :) Cooking time. – Alchimista Jul 24 '17 at 13:45
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The two basic kinds of breakfasts are "continental," and "country." That is, "continental" refers to the European continent, while "country" refers to individual countries.

A "continental" breakfast is distinguished from a "country" breakfast by the lack of cooking. It consists mainly of "cold" items such as "breads": rolls, croissants, danish, etc. plus cold drinks such as juice or milk. Tea and coffee are the only "hot" items served because the waitstaff can serve this (and "cold" items) without the help of a chef. One variation of "continental" is "South American," which includes cold local fruits such as papayas, mangoes and guavas. Some European continental settings feature cold "northern" fruits such as honeydew and cantalope.

A "country" breakfast features hot food, requires a chef, and varies by country. An "American" breakfast might feature fried eggs, bacon, ham or sausage, and potatoes or hot cereal. An "English" breakfast will have eggs,meat and potatoes, like an American breakfast, and also include beans and other typically English vegetables. an "Asian" breakfast might substitute fish for meat and use Asian-style vegetables (all cooked).

  • As a northern European, I'm somewhat amused to hear cantaloupes being described as a northern fruit ;) – lambshaanxy Sep 16 '17 at 2:05

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