We often use the terms restaurant, café, and diner interchangeably. However, each eatery has its own unique features. Knowing these can help you choose the appropriate venue and know what to expect when you visit an eatery.
Restaurant is a loosely used term that is applied to everything from fast food joints to five-star establishments. However, an actual restaurant is an eatery that offers a full menu of food and drinks. In a restaurant, food is usually served to patrons.
An example of a dish you might see on a restaurant menu is bacon-wrapped meatloaf topped with a tomato merlot sauce and crispy homemade onions served with sweet potato mash and organic Italian green beans. Including a variety of items from appetizers to desserts, restaurant menus are usually developed by a chef and feature unique dishes that will keep patrons visiting again and again. Prices range from $12 to $50 per entrée.
A fancier restaurant will take reservations and will sometimes require one. When you arrive, a host or hostess will seat you at a private table. A server will introduce himself or herself, take your drink requests, and then give you time to look over the menu. You will ask your server for whatever you need -- water, extra napkins, etc. This is what you're paying for -- the service and the quality of the food. Once you are ready to leave, you will pay your server and tip a customary 15 to 20 percent depending on how satisfactory the service was.
Restaurants vary when it comes to lighting, decor, and seating. They can be super high-class, with low lighting, crisp white tablecloths, centerpieces, covered chairs, and waiters in tuxedos. They can also be contemporary, with bright lights, industrial décor, and hardwood chairs. Most restaurants serve food on plates as opposed to baskets or trays. Because there are so many options, you can find a restaurant to suit any occasion, food preference, and budget.
What separates restaurants from diners or cafés is their variety. You can go to two vegan farm-to-table restaurants, but their menus and environments may be completely different. Even if you go to a restaurant chain like Applebee's or Chili's, you may find items that are particular to the restaurant's location. A restaurant in Milwaukee will be different from one in Savannah.
You can choose which restaurant to visit based on your mood, appetite, and budget. If you want a romantic date night, you'd go to something totally different from an establishment that accepts large parties or has multiple televisions playing sports games. Restaurants are chosen for a special reason, not just to eliminate hunger pangs.
In the movie Pulp Fiction, Mrs. Mia Wallace orders her famous $5 milkshake (a lot of money in 1994!) while sitting in a booth in Jack Rabbit Slim's diner. Most diners are less expensive but no less kitschy than Quentin Tarantino's version.
Think bacon, sausage links, hash browns, and two eggs over easy served with limitless black coffee. These casual eateries serve classic American fare that is usually fried or grilled by a cook -- not a chef. A diner's menu features what people have come to expect from these establishments, not what is creative. For example, you won't find a bison burger topped with tomato bacon jam in a diner. No, you'll find a single, double, or triple greasy hamburger served on a white bun with ketchup, yellow mustard, white onions, pickles, tomatoes, and a leaf of iceberg lettuce. You don't go to a diner for culinary delight but for comfort food, coffee, a milkshake, and perhaps a slice of pie.
Like the waffle ice cream cone, the diner is a completely American invention. Back in 1872, Walter Scott converted a horse-drawn wagon into a place where he sold food to the blue-collar workers of Providence, Rhode Island. A diner is run by a few cooks and servers clad in casual attire. If you see a booth or seat open, you can go ahead and grab it yourself. Many establishments are open 24/7 to accommodate all kinds of wayward souls who are working third shifts in a plant or just leaving the bar and want a turkey club sandwich to absorb the alcohol they've consumed.
The diner atmosphere is a friendly one. At most diners, patrons sit at a long counter on stools, shoulder-to-shoulder with other patrons and in sight of the cooks grilling and waitresses grabbing pots of hot coffee. There aren't a whole lot of bells and whistles, since most diners are situated in prefabricated modules. Booths, usually covered in vinyl, are scattered around the joint to allow for larger parties.
Although diners can now be found in Canada and Western Europe as well as the United States, they are still rooted in Midwestern America, especially the Midwest of the 1950s. Their comfort food menus draw patrons who want a no-frills establishment where they can be themselves and perhaps have a conversation with a new person. No matter where in the world you are visiting a diner, it will have stools, booths, pie, and hopefully a waitress named Alice.
Diners are where unpretentious people go for good conversation and unhealthy but delicious food. It may be the only place where you can grab a hot meal at 4 a.m. It may be the only familiar place in a new city. It's where sordid stories are told by the locals. It's where the real people go and have been going for years. The diners will always be the same, but the characters who visit them will always be unique.
Cafés are known less for their food and more for their drinks. They offer a few snacks and pastries, perhaps even a sandwich, but they generally don't serve a full menu. Cafés are places where you can get a quick bite to eat and a hot tea, coffee, espresso, or cappuccino.
Because they do not offer an extensive menu, cafés are only open from the morning to the late afternoon. They exist worldwide and are especially common in large European cities like Paris and Rome, where tables with umbrellas line the streets. Some may have a self-serve counter, or you may have a server. Either way, service is meant to be quick. Some establishments may be more refined, while others don't care if you roll out of bed and come on in without combing your hair.
Cafés are meant to be casual but can offer privacy for the patron who wants to read his or her book and enjoy a cup of coffee during his or her lunch break. Their comfortable and utilitarian designs give you a place to sit, do what you need to do, and continue on your way. Most have limited seating because they offer to-go items.
All cafés have a limited menu and times when they are open. They operate under the assumption that their patrons will only stay for a short period and rely on the efficiency of the service.
You go to café to meet a friend for a quick conversation or enjoy a midday cup of coffee. It's unlikely you will get to know the staff or other patrons, and you shouldn't go there to impress a date.
Now that you know the difference between these establishments, you can choose which best suits your needs and desires.