Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California
Vegan on the Road
A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast. Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper. Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.
About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had. If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby. This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.
We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.
My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts. The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction. Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.
One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food. This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters. The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room. While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal. In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel? One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton. Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?
Lesson learned: When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best. That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.
I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road. Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants. This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free. Pad se ew, please. No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce. Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right? Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.
As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit. Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu). But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning. I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting. I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.
As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles. After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in. The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee. (Query: Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning? When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter. And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight. I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.
Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal. When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am). And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill. Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread. Sigh. In some alternate universe, perhaps.
Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work. Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast. After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal. Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.
I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz. The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician. He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did. After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time. The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired. When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms. No need, said my wife. We were heading off to sleep anyway. Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble. Hallelujah! Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.
Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu. My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings. Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).
My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms. Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.
While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott. While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests. In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs). Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September). Oh, and about that concierge lounge: They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening. Appetizers? Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts. Who needs dinner? As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.
Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott
Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped. Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order. There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting. GF vegan? I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon). They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road. The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.
My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home. “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”