The best introduction to a new city isn’t through its nightlife, or even through its daytime tourist attractions and marketplaces. It happens before the stores open or the tour buses start their routes.
When visiting a new place, I always ride my jet lag and rise very early to hunt down the most elaborate breakfast in the vicinity. I often find this in a luxury hotel that I’m not staying in. It’s an easy venue for solo travelers not yet acclimated with a new place.
Elaborate is key in this ritual. No self-serve buffets (though they’re very hard to resist, especially in Asia) or grab-and-go cafés. Sitting down for a meal alone allows one to experience local hospitality and intuit an aspect of the local sensibilities. A restaurant’s service, after all, is a kind of cultural performance—with an intricate choreography that tells its own story of the place you’ve landed.
As you approach, think of the din of glass and silverware as like musicians tuning their instruments before a performance. Then comes a warm cup of tea or coffee. A newspaper and a menu may soon follow.
As the meal progresses, subtle variations emerge: In London a plate of soft scrambled eggs was presented with great panache under a comically ornate silver dome. In Tokyo, the smiling server offered a small box for my handbag. Afterwards, small bites of fish, slivers of rolled omelette, rice and pickles, all served in small beautiful plates appeared. I spent as much time admiring the Japanese pottery as I did savoring the delicious meal. And in Turin, the breakfast theater culminated with a sleepy waiter offering an assortment of chocolate hazelnut cakes.
I take no photographs of these solitary breakfasts. The hour is fleeting and precious—an experience perhaps made even more special because it wasn’t documented or shared.