The “continental” in “continental breakfast” didn’t just refer to cuisine—it also referred to the way hotel guests paid for their meals. At traditional hotels, guests paid for their room and board together: They were expected to eat all of their meals in the hotel’s restaurant, and the price of all meals was included in the hotel’s rate. This was known as the American payment model. In the late 19th century, as middle-class patrons began demanding cheaper and more flexible arrangements, some hotels adopted a so-called European plan, in which guests paid only for their room and could either pay separately to eat in the hotel restaurant or go elsewhere for meals. Soon a hybrid American-European plan emerged, called the “continental” model to distinguish it from both (but to retain a whiff of foreign sophistication). At a continental-style hotel, breakfast was included with the cost of one’s room, but guests were on their own for lunch and dinner.
--L.V. Anderson, Slate, on our decidedly un-European continental breakfasts