FWIW, there are some definitions that the restaurant industry uses for different levels of service (which tends to have a correlation with price).
- A “quick service restaurant” (QSR) is what typically gets called “fast food” by consumers. Hallmarks are typically being counter service (i.e., you order and pick up your food at a counter, rather than having “table service”), relatively low price points, and often having a drive-thru. Examples: McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell, Subway etc.
- A “fast casual restaurant” is typically a step up from QSR – food may be of a bit higher quality, and is often a bit pricier than a QSR. Most are counter service, but some may bring your food out to your table when it’s ready. Examples: Panera, Chipotle, Panda Express, etc.
- A “casual dining” restaurant (CDR) nearly always has table service (i.e., a wait staff), and many of them have a bar, or otherwise offer a range of alcoholic beverages. Some are only a bit more expensive than fast casual, while others (particularly CDR steak places) are pricier still. There are a lot of big chains, but many little mom-and pop sit-down restaurants and diners would fall into this category (as would your typical Wisconsin “supper club”). Examples: Applebee’s, TGI Fridays, Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, etc.
- A “family restaurant” is a subset of CDRs – they usually are on the lower end of the casual dining price spectrum, often have a focus on breakfast foods, and are less likely to offer alcoholic drinks. Examples: Denny’s, IHOP, Cracker Barrel, Bob Evans, etc.
- A “white tablecloth” restaurant is kind of what the name describes – they are more upscale than CDRs, and typically have higher-quality food, better service, and commensurately higher prices. There are some chains that fall into this category (like Capital Grill, Seasons 52, etc.), but most white tablecloth restaurants are independents.
Anyway, a “nice” restaurant (or even a “fancy” restaurant) is a little relative, depending on the area, and a particular person’s POV. When I worked on the Applebee’s account, one of my art directors was from a little town in Nebraska; he noted that, to his family, Applebee’s was the place you went for a nice dinner, because it was, in fact, the nicest restaurant in the region.
For my wife and me, our go-to places for a “nice” restaurant are places like Seasons 52, and Mon Ami Gabi (a French bistro, which is part of the Lettuce Entertain You group). Here in suburban Chicago, I’d expect a dinner at such a place (including wine or cocktails, appetizers, dessert, etc.) to be more like $100 or so a person.