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Last year, however, Citronelle gingerly re-entered the breakfast business with M Express, a mostly grab-and-go service of pastries, juice, coffee, omelets, bagels and cold cereal in the restaurant’s lounge, a menu that rather smacks of a celebrity chef-branded continental breakfast. The new service, Retourne says, is just a reflection of the modern breakfast reality: Our hand-held, 24/7 information nation does not have time for it anymore.
“We’re almost too plugged in. . . . They don’t want to miss anything,” says Retourne. “There’s less personal time. It’s sad in a way. We’re always running, running, running.”
Look around the Washington area, and you see that breakfast is mostly a functional, calorie-and-caffeine intake period. It’s a stop at the chain coffee shop for a latte and (maybe) a pre-made sandwich. It’s a turn into the McDonald’s drive-through for juice and a McMuffin, a meal that can be unwrapped and consumed right in the car while listening to NPR, checking your e-mail at the stop light and worrying about the day ahead. Increasingly, what breakfast is not is a morning ritual of coffee, bacon, eggs, reflection and the daily paper (as if anyone buys those anymore, which is another story).
So what has happened to the so-called “most important meal of the day”?
Perhaps, as Marion Nestle suggests, we’re finally listening to our bodies and not American marketing gurus. The nutritionist, author and New York University professor thinks the breakfast-is-important message was drummed up by cereal companies hoping to manufacture a need for their products. The truth is, breakfast is more important to children than adults simply because the former do not have the same capacity to store glycogen, which Nestle describes as “what keeps you going when you’re not eating.”
Nestle knows from experience that breakfast is eminently skippable. She rarely eats it — and makes no apologies about it. “I truly believe that people should eat when you’re hungry, and if you’re not hungry in the morning, the world is not going to end,” she says.
A general lack of interest in food in the morning may explain why relatively few restaurants cater to those early weekday risers. (For the better breakfast spots in and around Washington, see our list and gallery.) But there are other factors as well. Coffee chains like Starbucks have aggressively targeted the breakfast crowd by doubling down on their morning options, offering not only hot drinks but also hot sandwiches, parfaits, pastries and other to-go items. But restaurateurs also say that breakfast service places an added burden on already-busy kitchens and rarely returns the profit that rewards such efforts. Just as important, they add, morning shifts are notoriously hard to staff.