When the characters Peter and Nance open a bed-and-breakfast on the IFC satire “Portlandia,” they call it the Quilted Tea Kettle Inn. The name’s the first clue that the show will probably manage to poke fun at every B&B cliche in the book: the bumbling and overly chatty owners, the floral wallpaper, the stained lace tablecloths, the privacy-killing thin walls. When one of their first guests, a first-timer to this particular genre of accommodation, asks them to explain the concept, Peter says, wide-eyed, “It’s somebody’s house, but it’s also a hotel!”
You’ve probably been there. So have I. Far too often for my taste, actually. Because the fact is, I’m not a B&B guy. I value independent businesses over chains, and character over cookie-cutter, but give me the choice between a mod boutique hotel and a fusty B&B, and I’ll take the former every time.
What’s so bad about B&Bs?
Let’s start with the decor. Sure, they’re often beautiful, historic buildings — but you have to look past so many dusty Oriental carpets, so many doilies, so many pink window swags, so many peony and rose and gardenia and tulip patterns on so many pieces of so much overstuffed furniture covered with so many pillows that it’s impossible to know what’s underneath. (There’s a reason so many architecture buffs are also minimalists.) And the tchotchkes! What some might appreciate as quirky I consider to be a good head start on that “Hoarders” casting-call application.
That’s just in the common rooms. The bedrooms — well, people complain, rightly so, that some modern hotels are so stark as to be cold and uninviting, but the opposite can be just as uncomfortable. They’re certainly not built for function. Just try to get those crusty velvet drapes to close over the scrim that passes for a window shade. Find a way to fit your clothes into those creaky little wardrobe drawers, if you can open them.
And then try to climb through the lace canopy and up four feet onto that four-poster monstrosity, onto that lumpy mattress, so soft that it smashes you and your companion together in the middle like the fillings in an overstuffed taco. I’m all for a place with character, but after experiences like the latter, I pine for nothing so much as a Westin Heavenly Bed.
Frankly, I have a problem with both of the Bs in B&B. In “Portlandia,” Peter and Nance inform their guests that breakfast is served from 8 to 8:30 a.m., a joke about the inflexibility of so many owners. But it’s the actual meal that bothers me most. At its worst, the breakfast consists of stale muffins and rubbery eggs and limp bacon, with “seasonal fruit” (i.e., a grapefruit with a maraschino cherry stuck in the middle). If the owner considers him- or herself a cook (or, God forbid, a chef), you’re usually in for a real mess.
Did some cookbook get mailed to all the Victorian inns in the country in the mid-1980s suggesting that the only thing that would satisfy guests is cream-cheese-stuffed French toast with a bourbon pecan sauce? I’ve had something like that in various guises — maybe a blueberry syrup instead of pecan, maybe a bread pudding or pancake stack instead of French toast, maybe a sausage stuffing instead of (or in addition to!) the cream cheese — in dozens of places. Because breakfast is included in the price of the room, owners — and too many customers — think that the only definition of quality is abundance. And the only definition of abundance is something overly heavy, overly sweet, overly sticky, overly over-the-top.
Part of the issue is that I’m famously grumpy before I’ve had my morning coffee, and even then I don’t tend to start moving at full speed until almost noon. If you’re chipper enough to describe yourself as a “people person” (or a “morning person”), then you probably feel differently about this, and maybe it’s exactly what draws you to a B&B. Personally, I can think of no torture worse than having to socialize with strangers over the breakfast table, especially pre-caffeine.
Like the breakfasts themselves, the questions — from the owner and the other guests — are usually the same: “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “How long have you lived there and done that, and where are you going today and how did you find out about this place and what else are you doing this weekend and what’s your family like and what are your deepest fears and most personal ambitions and dreams?”
I try to keep my responses monosyllabic, in the hopes of sending a signal that I’m having a Greta Garbo moment and just want to be left alone. Unfortunately, like the cat hater who finds himself constantly brushing felines from his lap, I invariably become the object of fascination at the breakfast table, the shy guy who surely can be drawn out by just the right line of inquiry.
Believe it or not, I actually enjoy meeting people when I travel and even like getting into conversations with strangers from time to time. I just want to meet them on my own terms — preferably in the afternoon.
I also value my privacy, and B&Bs are woefully short on that. In “Portlandia,” Peter and Nance barge in on one sleeping couple in the middle of the night — just to make sure that they’re enjoying everything, of course. And later that night, the sounds of another couple “rekindling the flame” echo through the ceiling. I’ve heard my share of that, too, including at one West Virginia inn where I was awakened by the amorous voices from the next room of a man and his lady friend — and then another man. When I saw her at breakfast the next morning, her companions had gone off to run a marathon; she’d slept in.
I’ve met many gracious B&B owners, but virtually all of them seem to think that you won’t be satisfied with their “charm” unless they’ve subjected you to the ubiquitous origin story. You know the one, right? “My husband and I were (insert high-stress profession here) in (big city), but we always tried to get away on the weekends to (vacation spot near big city) and always fantasized about one day escaping the rat race and running a B&B. People think it’s all fun, but (doing laundry/making up rooms/being available to help with anything guests need 24 hours a day) is a lot of work. Still, we love it.” If they don’t volunteer it, some other guest will invariably ask a question that prompts it. Again.
Given how I feel about them, why do I ever stay in a B&B, you ask? Well, I do like supporting small businesses, and I appreciate a place with a unique aesthetic. And they’re not all bad, of course. I remember one of my favorites, in Portland, Maine, where the antique wallpaper in my room was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen: Huge images of flowering trees swooped across the walls, with dozens of birds perched in the branches. And the breakfast? Perfectly soft-scrambled eggs topped with cherry tomatoes and chives, with a little crisp prosciutto on the side.
Plenty of B&B owners do many things right, but I do find myself wishing that more of them would take some cues from well-run hotels. That means light-blocking shades, soundproofed walls, firm mattresses — and better breakfast choices.
Oh, and here’s an idea that would go a long way toward serving someone like me. Years ago, I made a long drive from Boston to northern Vermont just because I’d heard that the former pastry chef who ran a B&B there was known not only for great hospitality and food, but also for what she called “dressing coffee.” At any time of your choosing in the morning, she’d leave a little stool right outside your door, with a big thermos of freshly made java and all the accouterments. I could caffeinate in the privacy of my room, then head to breakfast once I’d become civilized.
If enough places operated that way, I could see myself becoming a B&B guy after all.