Diner vs. Cafe

In my head, there’s a difference, but I haven’t been able to completely flesh it out. Maybe you guys can help.

What makes a diner a diner and a cafe a cafe?

My mental picture is that in a diner, the cook is generally visible; (s)he’s at a grill behind the counter. In a cafe, food is prepared out of sight, in a kitchen in the back. Cafes are, in my world, just small restaurants.


A diner lets you eat at the counter or a table/booth. A cafe has no counter to sit at.

A diner has joe or jamoke, a cafe has coffee.

A diner will serve you breakfast or dinner any time of day, not so at the cafe.

A diner has a cook, cafes tend to have chefs.

Traditionally, diners were in portable buildings, like converted railroad cars or metallic Airstream trailers, often decorated with neon lights and space-age or Art Deco architecture. Diners were found all over the highways and byways of the United States (moreso in decades past than today), and ones in larger northern cities are often owned and operated by Greek immigrants. They often keep late hours, occasionally staying open for 24 hours. All these things make me think of diners, as opposed to cafes, which could be pretty much anything.

–Lou (huge fan of diners)

My completely arbitrary opinion:

If it has a view, it’s a cafe.

In a diner, a cup of hot joe and a donut costs ~ $2.

In a cafe, a cup of lovingly pressed and decanted mocha java and a biscotti costs ~ $5.

(‘not sayin’ it’s a bad thing. I like good coffee now and again.)

Also, I think of hearty fare when I think of a diner. Cheap and filling.
When I think of a cafe, I think more elegant creations. Expensive and sophisticated.

Diner = evening, possibly open all night. Where you go when you’ve been out until 2 a.m. and nowhere else is open.

Cafe = morning to early afternoon. Where you go when you want a pastry, sandwich or cup of coffee.

Also, at a diner you could get a bowl of hearty chili or a greasy cheeseburger at all hours, and maybe a gyro if you’re lucky. Probably have pie for dessert, or a vanilla milkshake. At a cafe, you’d be more likely to get a muffin or croissant with your coffee, or light sandwiches and salads for lunch.

Diners have very long menus – all the items are “traditional” comfort foods – greasy, fatty.

Every response has had elements of how I distinguish these places: type of food available, ambience, hours, type of building/structure, ethnicity of owners, etc.

Around here (Middle Tennessee) I can’t think of a single diner that’s doing business these days. There are any number of cafes and grills and “greasy spoons” serving anything from meat-and-three to coffee-shop specialties, with ethnic food in some of them.

When I was in high school there was your basic diner in an all aluminum, brightly lit, counter and booths, train car looking place that would seat maybe 40 people. Sandwiches, shakes, plate lunches, pies, jukebox. Distinctive. But I can’t remember a single one still operating in this area. Maybe some of my fellow Tennessee Dopers can point me to one.

In a diner, you either sit at the counter (usually on a swivel chair bolted to the floor) or in a booth (seats and tables both firmly fixed in place).

In a cafe, the tables and chairs can be moved. If the owners want to create a space for a performance of some kind – live band, poetry reading, etc. – they can do so.

To me, diners are eats-oriented, and cafes are drinks-oriented. You cannot easily get a full meal at a cafe.

That doesn’t seem to be a useful distinction here in the United States. Though, I don’t consider “coffee shop”/“coffee bar”/“coffee stand” and “cafe” to be exact equivalents. Maybe that makes a difference.

Since the word ‘cafe’ means ‘coffee’, a ‘cafe’ can definitely be a coffee house or coffee bar. Chain restaurants like Denny’s and Coco’s, which we used to call coffee shops, don’t qualify because the main focus is not coffee.

A diner serves comfort food, usually brought to your table and ordered from a server, but again I resist the idea of using the word for a chain restaurant. The traditional silversided structure seen in old movies and occasionally still IRL, was usually not actually converted from a real railroad car, but situated in a prefabbed building designed to be reminiscent of a passenger car diner. There were several manufacturers of these structures.

On the other hand, diners converted from actual dining cars do exist, notably Carney’s two locations in L.A.

[QUOTE=Spectre of Pithecanthropus]
Since the word ‘cafe’ means ‘coffee’,/quote]

I think that’s implicit in my comment.

Literally speaking, of course. But I was trying to point out that I do not believe that it is generally used that way in commerce in the United States. When you hear something described as a “cafe,” you don’t expect to see the same kind of thing you would see at a place described as a “coffee shop” or “coffee bar.”

Yeah, that’s part of my original difficulties. Cafe = coffee? Not so much, at least in my head.

The visible cook, has a counter, breakfast anytime, open all night distinctions are all useful to me. I know traditionally they were in small portable-type buildings, but I’m not certain if that’s a useful distinction to make today. Certainly if there’s a restaurant in a building like that, it’s likely to be a diner, but there are diners which aren’t in buildings like that.