What is a restaurant?

By one definition, a snack bar may be considered a ‘restaurant’. By another, seating must be provided.

Personally, I think of a ‘restaurant’ as a place where patrons sit at a table, order food that is brought to them, and pay after eating it. There will be waitstaff to provide service during the meal.

But then, fast food places call themselves restaurants. For example, McDonald’s Restaurants. It fits the M-W definition, and what’s the alternative? ‘Fast food place’? What else are you going to call it? I think of a cafeteria as being a place where a patron serves himself. But then, I also think of a cafeteria as a place where a server dishes up the food. Are fast food places cafeterias, then? If so, why don’t people refer to them as such?

What about diners, cafés, coffee shops, bistros? Originally, a diner was a prefabricated restaurant. Today, it seems they are more likely to be in non-prefabricated buildings; i.e., a ‘stick-built’ structure. To me, ‘café’ implies a small restaurant with a limited menu. A ‘bistro’ implies a café with a more limited menu. When I was a small child, a place like Denny’s might have been referred to as a ‘coffee shop’. (‘Coffee house’ is a term that I didn’t hear come into use in the U.S. until the '80s, and meant a place where coffee is the primary attraction. Food would be primarily baked goods.) To me, a bistro seems the same thing as a café; only they’re more likely to serve spirits.

In the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s, and occasionally in the '90s, Crazy Otto’s was a favourite place for my dad and I to have breakfast. Originally, it had only counter seating and one booth. (The original location was closed after the Northridge earthquake necessitated expansion of the railroad tracks to which it was adjacent; but by that time it had two kitchens and two dining rooms. They now have four locations.) Crazy Otto’s was and is definitely a ‘diner’. To me, Denny’s is also a diner. But since patrons are seated, order their food from waitstaff, and pay on the way out, it’s a ‘restaurant’.

Where do you draw the line between a ‘restaurant’ and a ‘diner’? Or any of the other subtypes of restaurants?

Diners have breakfast items available all their open hours, and are likely to be open 24 hours. If they’re not, then they open early to feed the labor class on their way to work. They also serve lunch and dinner and are often open late to feed the drunks on their way home to bed. Denny’s is a diner (although they’ve tried to class the joint up a bit. It’s still a diner, it just has bigger tables.)

Pancake houses serve breakfast and some items that might be considered lunch items, but they close before dinner.

Restaurants are places that sell food that may be consumed on the premises and that could be made into a meal your mother might approve of. That is, they have vegetables somewhere that aren’t just garnish. :wink: Yes, this means McDonalds is a restaurant, although my son did develop a useful distinction between “restaurants where you pay first” and “restaurants where you pay after” in terms of what sort of behavior for what duration was expected of him as a toddler.

Snack bar/hot dog stand/taco stand/etc. serve a limited menu and while they may have a counter you can eat at are not designed with the comfort of customers in mind. Many have no “inside” for customers at all. Food is intended to be taken and eaten elsewhere. Rarely do they serve a full menu of entrees and sides and deserts, and they hardly ever have breakfast items.

Now…what the hell is Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins? I have no idea. They have tables (although not many), they sell donuts. They also sell breakfast and lunch sandwiches and hash browns. There may even be a salad on the menu, I can’t recall. Over on the other end, they sell ice cream. They meet all of the rubrics that I can think of for “restaurant,” but…no. Just…no. They are not a restaurant! :smiley:

If you have to get you own food and drinks and carry it to your table yourself, it’s a workaurant—according to the old Steak ‘n’ Shake commercials.

Fast food restaurants, diners, buffets: they all qualify as restaurants; they’re just specific types of restaurants. But I’ll grant that many of them are further from the Platonic ideal of a restaurant, where you are seated and handed a menu and a server takes your order and brings you your food and you pay aftyerward.

I’m perfectly happy with the definitions the OP quoted (and similar ones I found, like “a commercial establishment where meals are prepared and served to customers”).

A restaurant is any establishment that serves ready-to-eat food and provides a place to eat it on the premises. One might refer to a “sit-down restaurant”, which usually means that you go in and sit down before ordering, wherupon a server brings you your food.

There are always gray areas, though: For instance, Ponderosa used to have an arrangement (I don’t know if they still do; they’ve all closed around here) where you go in and immediately order and pay at the register, then go sit down, then a server brings you your food. Is that a “sit-down restaurant”? And what about buffet restaurants? Does a place without indoor seating count? Maybe if it has outdoor seating, available in appropriate weather? Or what if it’s strictly carry-out and/or delivery? Or maybe the seating is shared between multiple establishments, like in a mall food court.

What, like a movie theater?


Exactly. The industry itself refers to all of these sorts of establishments as different segments within the restaurant category. Some examples (these are the actual terms used in the industry):

McDonald’s, Taco Bell: quick service restaurant (QSR, or “fast food”)
Chipotle, Panera: fast casual restaurant (typically a little higher quality, somewhat pricer, than a QSR)
Golden Corral, Old Country Buffet: buffet restaurant
IHOP, Denny’s, Cracker Barrel: family restaurant
Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Chili’s: casual dining restaurant (CDR)
Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Capital Grill: fine dining restaurant (or “white tablecloth”)

Now, some of these may not fit a particular person’s fussier / less inclusive definition of what a restaurant is (as the OP), but the establishments themselves consider themselves to be restaurants. :slight_smile:

Traditionally, a restaurant was any establishment that served food.* There are adjectives and phrases, of varying rigor, to describe subcategories of this: diners, fast-food, drive-through, snack bar, coffe shop, cafe, pancake house, hash house, burger joint, bistro (more a meaningless marketing term these days), deli, sandwich shop, drive-in, sit-down, casual dining, etc.

*if you want to be a real traditionalist, they were a place where you went to get restorative treatments, i.e. enemas. Meals were part of the deal, and soon becamed their main product.

I think it should be a place whose main business is selling food. That would eliminate places like bars, movie theatres, arcades, bookstores, etc that sell food as a sideline to their main business.

If I am thinking of going out to eat, a “restaurant” is a place that has metal silverware. It’s a nice restaurant if it also has cloth napkins and pepper mills.

A building, where food is prepared or finished, you don’t serve yourself the food, and there’s a seating area for eating.

Drive-Thru Only
Food Trucks
Hot Dog Stands

Sub shops

If you have to queue up like cattle and take your own food to the table, it’s not a restaurant in my view. McDonalds is out.

To me, a restaurant is anywhere that serves food and someone busses my plates. Buffets are in. McDonalds is out.

You have to specify “ready to eat”, or else Safeway and Albertson’s are restaurants.

Don’t they sell fried chicken and make sandwiches at the deli? The grocery store I usually go to even has a few tables adjacent to the deli so people can get lunch and eat it there.

I just looked them up on the county restaurant inspections site, and what looks like one grocery store operates under four different entities. Produce, seafood, meat and restaurant/bakery.

If you sit down, are given a menu, and someone brings your food and clears your table, you’re in a restaurant, IMHO.

If you can tell your significant other, “I am taking you to a restaurant for our anniversary!” and they don’t kill you on the way in or out, chances are it was really a restaurant and not a fast food/chain establishment.

I would agree that in a restaurant you get seated at a table, order food and drink and then pay before you leave. In theory, it should also have a least a bit of ambiance - real silverware and napkins, perhaps a nice decor or view.

Then again, I am perplexed when I hear the fast food chains refer to their food as “sandwich”. Sorry, but a “Whopper sandwich” or “Big Mac sandwich” just sounds strange…in my life I have never referred to a hamburger/cheeseburger as a sandwich - they are simply a hamburger or cheeseburger.

We’ve actually had a poll on this.

Part of the reason “Big Mac sandwich” sounds strange is because of the redundancy, not the fact that it’s a hamburger. “Big Mac” or “hamburger” is already the name for that type of sandwich; you don’t need to specify that it’s a sandwich. But if a piece of meat between two slices of bread, possibly with other toppings, doesn’t count as a sandwich, why not? If you replace the meat patty with a chicken filet, everybody calls it a chicken sandwich. If I order a Big Mac and they ask if I want the combo/Value Meal, I’ll say, “No, just the sandwich.”

Still, I’ll grant that a hamburger isn’t the first thing I’d think of when asked to imagine a sandwich. It’s further from the Platonic ideal of a sandwich—an example that I was thinking about when I said upthread that a fast food restaurant is “further from the Platonic ideal of a restaurant.”