On the Line / Menu + Food / A Guide to Different Types of Restaurants

A Guide to Different Types of Restaurants

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Trying to understand all the different kinds of restaurants out there can feel like biting off more than you can chew.

There are so many restaurant options on the market of all shapes, sizes, styles, type of food, cooking methods, and theme, from sit-down to takeout, global chains to small town shops. All of them fill a need and have their own target customers.

Read on to get a break down of the different types of restaurants and make the concepts a bit easier to swallow.

Restaurant categories

Across the restaurant industry, there are two main categories of restaurant: table service and counter service. While these categories may seem self-explanatory, there are some important nuances to note.

Table service

Table service is essentially any dining experience led by a server. While its structure is basic in theory, tables are prepared, guests are seated, orders are placed, drinks and food are delivered, bills are paid, and thank you’s are (hopefully) exchanged on the way out — in practice, this concept can take many forms. 

From fine dining formalities that require waiting before being seated to more casual “seat yourself” set-ups, QR code menus to leather-bound and laminated displays, traditional ordering via server and POS system to innovative programs that allow guests to place their own order on their device while still getting a full-service experience, this seemingly simple concept offers a wide variation of dining options.

Counter service

Counter service offers a more flexible, less formal structure, wherein guests place and pick up their orders at a counter. 

A quicker, more streamlined dining option, counter service is often associated with fast food chains or fast-casual spots. Many of these counter service restaurants also offer seating areas with tables — albeit sans service — for customers who opt to sit and eat rather than take their food to go, affording guests the freedom to choose where and how to enjoy their meal on their own schedule.


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Types of restaurants

Most restaurants in the world can be categorized into one of these nine types of restaurants. 

1. Fine dining restaurants

Fine dining restaurants offer more sophisticated, elevated, higher-quality dining experiences than average, typically featuring an elegant dining room and excellent service. Fine dining menus tend to boast multiple courses: hors-d'oeuvres, soup, entree, salad, main course, and dessert, as well as coffee and digestifs. Often, a full-course meal is offered at a fixed-price, and all menu items are very high-quality at a high price point. Strict etiquettes are usually part of the fine dining experience, from the way tables are set up and cleared, to how guests are greeted and served. Proper attire is expected of both restaurant workers and patrons, with some establishments even enforcing a specific dress code.

2. Casual dining restaurants 

Like fine dining restaurants, casual dining spots are full service restaurants where guests are seated and taken care of by a server. As its name suggests, however, casual dining offers a more comfortable, laid back atmosphere with fewer rules and formalities and more affordable menu items. Casual dining restaurants tend to be more family-friendly and accessible to younger crowds, and can often include some form of entertainment, from TVs playing different sports games to live music performances.

3. Fast casual restaurants

Fast casual restaurants are essentially casual dining with a fast food twist, quick-service restaurants that provide the convenience, flexibility, and lower price point of a counter service model, while still offering quality food and a comfortable dining area for customers who opt to eat on-site rather than go with a takeout meal. Fast casual menus also tend to prioritize made-to-order and build-your-own menu options. 

4. Fast food restaurants

The main difference between fast food and fast casual restaurants is the time it takes to get a meal. Fast food restaurants prioritize speed and convenience, offering options like drive-thru windows and pre-made menu items that require minimal time to order and prepare, as well as operating hours that start earlier in the morning and stay open later at night. Seating is more limited and less focused on ambiance because most customers take their food on the go. Fast food chains are also increasingly prevalent, with franchises that have taken hold and spread across the country — and the world (think McDonalds, Burger King or Taco Bell).

5. Cafes and coffee shops 

While all of the restaurants covered so far focus mostly on full meals, customers at cafes and coffee shops are more likely to find smaller, more casual goods – coffee, tea, and other drinks, sandwiches, snacks and pastry items. Cafes and coffee shops primarily deploy a counter service model; however, like full service restaurants, they’re often a destination as much as a means to an end. Comfortable, welcoming seating areas create the perfect set-up for a coffee date or a meeting, catching up with a friend or working from “home.” Cafes and coffee shops also span restaurant categories, including everything from fast food chains, like Starbucks, to small town, locally-owned spots. 

6. Bakeries 

Bakeries share many qualities with cafes and coffee shops: cafes and coffee shops could also be categorized as bakeries depending on the baked goods they sell, and many bakeries could be categorized as a cafe if they also offer coffees and teas on their menu. The defining feature of a bakery, however, is a focus on baked, mostly flour-based goods – savory items like different types of breads and bagels, as well as sweets like cakes, muffins, scones, pies, and cookies. Bakeries may offer seating for guests to eat on-site, or operate primarily as a spot to stock up on baked treats.

7. Bars and breweries

The defining feature of bars and breweries is a focus on alcoholic beverages, as opposed to food, coffee, or baked goods. Bars tend to offer the widest range of drinks, from wine to beer, to spirits and cocktails, but can also focus on one category, like a wine bar. Breweries offer a much more narrow selection, typically brewed on-site, with different types of beer from one brewing company to choose from, either on draft or by the bottle or can. Breweries can also be micro- or craft breweries, depending on the amount of beer produced each year or whether a spot is classified as an independent brewery.

8. Food trucks 

Food trucks are essentially micro-restaurants on wheels, offering just a handful of very specialized, select menu items that can be executed on with a smaller prep space and kitchen. Food trucks can be parked anywhere permits allow, and are most most often seen at events, like markets or local fairs, or in areas with busy mealtime traffic, such as office buildings with working professionals to swing by for lunch, or nightlife spots where young people can grab late night food truck bites. While food trucks are almost exclusively counter service restaurants designed to take food on the go, some may offer portable seating options, depending on where they’re parked, for customers who want to hang out for a bit to enjoy their meals.

9. Delivery-only restaurants

Finally, there are some kitchens that choose to forgo traditional service models altogether. 

Ghost kitchens operate on a delivery-only basis, working out of dark kitchens (kitchens with no storefront, used to make food for online delivery orders only), shared kitchens, or even home kitchens. 

Virtual kitchens are similar to ghost kitchens, but operate out of a brick-and-mortar restaurant to create menu options for delivery. And cloud kitchens are somewhat of a mix between ghost and virtual kitchens, taking the concept of a ghost kitchen and franchising it into other business models.

How to Categorize a Restaurant

Restaurants are typically organized by three categories: price point, atmosphere, and service and presentation.

Price point

A restaurant’s price point is how much your meal will cost relative to other restaurants, and can vary across types of restaurant — fine dining restaurants tend to have higher prices, while fast food chains have more low cost options — and across individual establishments within one restaurant type — some fast casual spots or coffee shops have higher points than others. It is important to note, however, that price point does not always correlate to quality, and there are many restaurants, of all types, that offer high-quality meals at an affordable price point. 

Atmosphere

The atmosphere of a restaurant refers to its mood, ambiance, or vibe — often set by factors like the style, aesthetic, lighting, design, decor, and cleanliness, as well as the attitude and expectations of the restaurant staff. At fine dining restaurants, white table clothes, a server dress code, and full table service create a high-end vibe for special occasions, while a casual dining spot with a buffet-style set up creates a more relaxed atmosphere and a fast-casual restaurant with made-to-order options offers up a casual atmosphere.

Service and presentation

Finally, a restaurant’s service and presentation shapes their guests’ dining experience. Fine dining restaurants offer high-quality, full table service, with meals often presented in carefully designed, beautifully-plated arrays. Casual dining often offers table service with a more relaxed presentation, cultivating a more laid back atmosphere. The service and presentation at fast food restaurants reflects their ethos: quick counter service with a presentation that prioritizes convenience over aesthetic. And while the counter service at cafes and coffee shops creates an informal vibe, extra touches like latte art or well-designed bakery item displays can elevate presentation.

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