Day breaks in Sarasota.
It is 6 a.m. and the morning fog lifts from the jacarandas as I yawn, welcoming another day. The drive up I-75 to Tampa is long but tranquil; the truck may as well be on autopilot. My only company this morning is James Brown's extended version of "Super Bad," its potent bass hooks shaking my ass awake even though the rest of my body is not. The purpose of this trek, at such an early hour no less, is to research and report on breakfasts. Hotel breakfasts, to be specific. That I didn't pay for.
I'm an old hand at this. In the days when I lived in a van on St. Pete Beach, this was a daily regimen, and one that I soon became keenly acquainted with. Some pointers: Dress appropriately, like you would when meeting relatives. Pick a chain hotel; often, the locals won't provide breakfast. When you walk into the hotel, do so with a sense of purpose. Give the folks behind the counter the "what's up" nod. If you have a cell phone, pretend you're talking on it.
Today begins with a personal favorite, the Residence Inn in downtown Tampa (). Fresh, hot eggs, sausage and biscuits welcome me as I take in the drone of CNN on television. The do-it-yourself waffle iron is itself a conversation topic. Strangers trade witticisms about it, while a couple of children help their elders figure out the machine's intricacies. For a moment, the machine fosters a sort of collective peace. I pass on to the croissants, which are spongy, fruit flavored and freshly thawed. And by eavesdropping on the morning conversation, I gather that the oatmeal is excellent.
From there I travel north, bound for the hotel-rich environs of Fowler Avenue. When scoping out potential targets, always look for universities, tourist areas and convention centers. Case in point: I found five near the University of South Florida within mere blocks of each other. The next stop was LaQuinta Inn (), slightly more blue-collar than the Residence. The LaQuinta's breakfast bar also has the waffle contraption, though it receives considerably less attention than the individually bagged, cinnamon sugar-crusted crullers. The coffee comes from neither a pot nor a percolator, but a spigot sticking out from the wall like a Roman fountain. The fare here is pretty routine: bananas, baby muffins, cold Danishes and the ubiquitous raisin bran. What makes the LaQuinta special though is the dining area, an atrium that lets the warm honey sunshine in all morning. I indulge, while trying to remind myself that this is a mission, not just a trough.
If only I'd followed my own warning. By the time I reach the next hotel, a Wingate Inn (1/2), I'm stuffed like a prize goose. I have reached capacity, resigned to eating a single baby muffin and drinking decaf. There is so much caffeine flowing through these veins that I can see people's thoughts. I briefly sample the breakfast fare — a crockpot full of gravy, markedly different from the otherwise standard dining environment. Maybe someone brought it from home. There are thawed biscuits, which The Wingate is so unapologetic about that it doesn't even warm them up beforehand. The idea of complaining comes to mind, but then I remember to be humble because, legitimate or not, I am a guest. This proves to be the darkest hour of my journey. It is time to seek greener pastures. I leave only a half-eaten sticky bun as a token of my discontent.
Next (and final) hotel on the agenda is the Embassy Suites (1/2), boasting a decadent smorgasbord. Aesthetically, this is a welcome respite from the Wingate's cavernous clutches. The restaurant even has a fancy name: Mangrove Grille, as if it were necessary to assert its culinary prowess above others. The breakfast bar is akin to Shoney's — well lit, staffed with real people (this D.I.Y. preparation stuff is getting a little old) and full of little covered dishes. For the first time, the big-screen dining room television is not turned to the gloom-and-doom of today's news, but to cartoons. The fare is a mixture of the expected and pleasantly surprising: the biscuits, gravy, pastries and bananas are pretty standard, but it's the watermelon and adorably halved French toast that reawaken my palate. Somehow I find the appetite I had lost at the last hotel. This is a tropical paradise; the only things missing are palm fronds and hula skirts.
Suddenly, a group of skaters appears, seven of them, with boards in tow (afraid the maid might steal them?). I assume they are here for a skater conference or are fellow scammers — my brethren. Instinctively I know we must speak, despite my businessman attire and gawky older brother demeanor. After explaining who I am and what I'm doing, I receive blank stares. Why? Did I not say "dude" convincingly enough? But then, as if a dam has broken open, they begin talking in three-word phrases: Biscuits too dry. Chocolate milk good. Toast is good. Potatoes cold. There're no donuts. Bacon is weird. Chocolate milk good.
And then, just as sure as the sun rises, the clock strikes 11. Breakfast time is over. My work is done. It's a long drive back to Sarasota on this unseasonably chilly February morning, but I have memories to keep me warm. And a bellyful of weird bacon. Dude.
Mark Sanders can be reached at [email protected] or 941-906-7476.