Restaurant vs. Cafe

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We’ve all searched for an eatery and come across both restaurants and cafes. But what really is the difference between the two?

Depending on the meal you’re looking to consume and the environment you want to consume it in, you may want to narrow your query.  If you were looking for a light meal or snack, just a cup of coffee, or a bowl of soup, you would most likely be looking for a cafe. If you want to settle into a more formal meal with waitered service, you should seek a restaurant.


  • Casual setting
  • Order from display case or menu behind counter, or self-serve
  • Pay at register when food is delivered
  • Seat yourself from available tables, booths, or counters space



  • More formal atmosphere
  • Order from menu at your table
  • Generally served by waiter or waitress
  • Pay after meal is completed
  • Sit at a booth or table assigned by the retaurant


Cafes offer a casual atmosphere to enjoy a beverage and small meal. The word cafe is French for coffee and cafes are mainly just that – coffeehouses. While most American cafes serve coffee, bakery snacks like muffins, bagels, and cakes, the concept has expanded to eateries offering a variety of beverages and small meals. At a cafe, you can get breakfast, lunch, a light dinner, or a quick snack. Cafes generally do not offer waitered service. Menu items are found on a board above the register or in actual display cases under it. Orders are placed at a counter, paid for at a register, and bagged for you to choose dining in or taking out. Many food items at a cafe are prepared and pre-packaged for self-service by the customer or quick delivery to the customer.

Cafes generally offer open seating and encourage customers to relax with a newspaper or laptop or meet up with friends for engaging chatter. Dining at a cafe can be in a booth, at a small table with chairs, or even a bar with benches, stools or just standing room to eat and run. Many cafes have outdoor seating that may even include oversized, patio game boards like chess. Some cafe have couches and lounge chairs for extra comfort when enjoying your coffee and snack. One of the big perks of the modern cafe is they are computer-accessible, meaning they offer wi-fi and charging stations for your personal electronics.

A restaurant, on the other hand, has a more formal environment, generally with waitered service, designed around an entire meal, like dinner. Restaurants generally cook your food to order.

Restaurants can vary in price, service, and atmosphere. There are fast-food restaurants with a similar environment and payment process to cafes, but offer full meals, prepared to order that commonly comes in a bag or on a tray. These restaurants are inexpensive, quick, and can be eaten inside or taken out. You can even order from your car at many of these types of restaurants.

There are also restaurants considered “fine dining”. These establishments provide top notch service and ambiance, and food prepared by some of the world’s top chefs. Meals can be one course, or a full five course feast – all of them high-end and exquisite. At these restaurants, you sit at an assigned table with a menu of food and beverage options. Serving items from their regular menu, you’ll usually also find an extra assortment of daily specials, fresh items the chef is excited to prepare. You place your order with a waiter/waitress, who brings the order to your table after it is prepared in the kitchen. Payment, with a tip for your server, is expected after you have finished your meal.

Somewhere between fast food restaurants and fine dining establishments, there are hundreds of low, mid, and high end eatries. Chain restaurants, like Olive Garden, Applebee’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings fall into this middle ground, as do many of your local town eateries. Differing from fine dining, at chain restaurants, the menu rarely changes and there are usually dining deals, making them an affordable, convenient, comfortable restaurant option. Your local restaurants are similarly run – a stable menu with fresh chef’s specials for busy nights.

While both restaurants and cafes do serve many of the same types of foods and beverages, one big distinction between the two is you generally do not find alcoholic beverages at a cafe. Most cafes focus on coffees, sodas, and other non-alcoholic beverages. There are some cafes that serve beer and wine, but if you’re looking to grab an adult beverage with your meal, you will find more eating options searching for a restaurant.

Both restaurants and cafes have their benefits. Depending on your personal and dining needs, you may visit each in the same day.

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