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Restaurant vs Cafe: What’s the Difference?

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A restaurant vs cafe; do you know the difference? Are they even different? Read on to determine if what you have assumed is right.

These two terms often come to mind when discussing eating or dining out. But have you ever thought these terms don’t imply the same thing? I’m sure you have!

The truth is the trend of eating out is growing by the day. Few people have the time or desire to spend an hour or so daily preparing homemade dishes – although I do because I enjoy cooking. As such, most people visit their favorite restaurants or joints to have a meal or a bite and often call for home deliveries through apps like Doordash or Grubhub.

Interestingly, most people, even the establishments themselves, sometimes use the words “cafe” and “restaurant” interchangeably. But are they the same, or just similar? Or are they unrelated and entirely different? Let’s take a closer look.

What is a Restaurant?

Restaurant chef, dishes

The term restaurant has been around for quite some time and is mainly used to represent an establishment that serves food. The term comes from the French word “restaurer,” meaning to restore.

To be precise, it first popped up in 18th Century France in 1765. A French chef named M. Boulanger was the first to set up a restaurant business. He started by selling a unique dish comprising soup and sheep’s feet covered with white sauce.

Another source named Mathurin Roze de Chantoiseau was the owner of the first restaurant in Paris, and it served a wider variety of food. For instance, the establishment is said to have offered buttered pasta, poultry, eggs, and semolina.

However, these two accounts agree on the year of the first establishment of a restaurant and that it was in France. From then, the trend has continually grown to what we know today – modern restaurants in every corner of every city.

Today, restaurants are everywhere in the world, and there are different types. By far, the most popular kind of restaurant is fast food. Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) also have drive-through facilities.

Next, we come across casual restaurants popular in large towns and cities. Casual dining restaurants can be individually owned or part of a franchise. Customers sit down and get service in a comfortable setting.

Another type of restaurant that’s becoming quite popular is the pop-up design. Famous restaurants or chefs set up pop-up restaurants in various locations. They rent out a space, put up a temporary kitchen, and temporarily open it for guests.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Fargo, North Dakota

What is a Cafe?

Coffee shop

History shows that cafes, from the French “café,” have been around for centuries in different parts of the world. A cafe represents a smaller establishment with a smaller menu around coffee and tea.

In addition, you can find different pastries on the menu, like cakes, muffins, and other tasty treats. In certain parts of the world, cafes are called coffee shops, with coffee being the major item on the menu.

Coffee has been a drink of choice for people for centuries. The first cafe is said to have opened in 1550 in Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul. People would meet up, drink coffee, and have exciting conversations.

Nowadays, people enjoy heading to cafes to relax, perhaps work, and enjoy coffee, hot chocolate, tea, or other hot beverages. Modern restaurants have exceptional ambiance and even animals.

Cat cafes, for example, are gaining popularity worldwide. Today, there are several different types of cafes, including bakeries-, specialty, pop-up, drive-thru, and theme.

Here is a summary table comparing the key features and characteristics of a restaurant and a cafe:

Food OfferingsFull service menu with appetizers, entrees, dessertsLimited menu focused on light fare like sandwiches, pastries, coffee drinks
Dining ExperienceMore formal sit-down diningCasual, relaxed atmosphere
Operating HoursTypically open for lunch and dinner serviceOften open early morning through evening
SeatingTables with dedicated table serviceMix of tables and counter seating, self-service
Alcohol ServiceFull bar and alcohol menu commonMay offer beer, wine but usually no hard liquor

See Related: Best Travel French Presses for Coffee Lovers

Restaurant vs Cafe

Restaurants and cafes are pretty popular establishments present in cities and towns worldwide. People eat, drink, and converse with family and friends in these two spots.

From the definitions above, it’s clear that restaurants and cafes have been around for a long time. The best way to understand the differences between a restaurant and a cafe is to dig deeper and learn the differences regarding menu, ambiance, size, and cost per person.


Gourmet dining experience featuring succulent steak at top-rated Amsterdam restaurant
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Menus play a crucial role in each establishment. Both restaurants and cafes have distinctive menus showing a clear difference. Restaurants provide full meals meant to satisfy their customers wholly.

This is why many restaurants are open for lunch and dinner services only. The menu in a restaurant contains main dishes and different cuisines, and you can even order for home delivery.

When considering visiting a restaurant, note the different types—for instance, fast food, casual or fine dining. There’s no need to book a table in advance or stick to a specific dress code at fast-food joints. Here, you can eat burgers, fried chicken, and French fries.

However, fine dining often requires booking and usually adheres to some form of dress code. Meals are served in courses, and this is detailed in the menu.

On the other hand, cafes are where you go for light meals or a quick bite. Restaurants sell coffee, tea, juice, shakes, and other non-alcoholic beverages. Restaurants provide simple meals like sandwiches you can grab in a hurry.

They permit takeout, but you can still sit and enjoy your light dinner. Many people prefer heading to a cafe to enjoy some breakfast. You pop in, place an order, and wait for your snack and drink. Menus are among the main differences between restaurants and cafes.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Germany


Restaurant setting

Another main difference between a restaurant and a cafe is the ambiance. Restaurants have exceptional air, but it also depends on the type of restaurant. Fast-food restaurants tend to have a casual and fun atmosphere. The owners pick bright colors and whimsical seating to keep the space light.

However, high-end restaurants have a more sophisticated and classier ambiance. Everything from the lighting to the décor and seating is a fine dining experience. Such setups go hand-in-hand with black-tie and other similar dress codes.

Cafes have different ambiances since they encourage a more intimate and relaxing atmosphere. They feature warm lighting and spots where individuals can sit quietly and relax. It’s common to see pets working on laptops in cafes since there are usually charging ports and complimentary WiFi.

Part of the ambiance in a cafe is the music. Soft tunes can be heard from speakers in the establishment that contribute to the relaxed and warm setup.

See Related: Best Traditional Cafes and Brasseries in Paris

Building Size

Cafe vs Restaurant size

Most restaurants have room for multiple tables and chairs and areas for different setups, group events, or parties.

The rule is to ensure enough pathways for customers, wait for staff, and other people in the establishment. Most owners require a floor plan before working on the restaurant design. Floor plans include furniture, counter, coat room, restrooms, and kitchen.

Most cafes are smaller than restaurants. A cafe has room for a few tables, the main counter, restrooms, and a kitchen. They have tables inside and outside on the terrace for a relaxing outdoor experience.

However, it’s worth noting that cafes are expansive and part of the ambiance. This ample space usually has few tables and less crowding, making it more relaxing.

See Related: Best Restaurants in Minneapolis & St. Paul (Twin Cities)

Cost Per Person

Restaurant vs Cafe cost per person

Cost is a significant factor when considering the difference between cafes and restaurants. Restaurants serve main meals, as well as appetizers and desserts, and as such, the experience tends to be expensive. If you go to high-end restaurants offering fine dining, the cost per person is even higher.

On the other hand, most cafes aren’t as expensive as restaurants. A cup of coffee and croissant usually won’t cost you as much breakfast as a sit-down meal. This explains why it’s easy for people to get coffee or tea in cafes and forgo making it themselves at home.

After you buy coffee and pastry, you can sit in a cafe and do some work. The WiFi and charging ports are usually free of charge. People aren’t generally doing aren’t on laptops in sit-down restaurants, though occasionally, you’ll spot an outlier.

Restaurant vs Cafe: Seating Capacity

Restaurant vs Cafe seating capacity

Sitting capacity is another difference when comparing a restaurant and a cafe. Restaurants tend to be bigger, as mentioned above.

Restaurants that serve families have more seats and tables to accommodate large groups. The seating capacity in such a restaurant might be less spacious than that at a fine-dining establishment. This makes sense since kids tend to move around and need more space.

Cafes tend to be smaller and can accommodate smaller groups. The small spaces usually only have a few tables available, and compared to sit-down restaurants, more customers place their orders and take them to go.

See Related: Best Lake Minnetonka Restaurants

Type of Service

Waitress, service

Lastly, the type of service is essential to note when comparing a restaurant and a cafe. There are different types of restaurants, and many have waiters and waitresses. This means you arrive at the restaurant, sit at a table, and then a wait staff member attends to you.

A waiter or waitress comes by with a menu and gives you information on restaurant specials. After you enjoy your meal, your waiter or waitress brings the bill, and then you pay.

Still, it’s worth noting that fast-food restaurants require customers to pay first and then wait for their meals. Some restaurants also have bar areas that serve alcoholic beverages and have bartenders.

Cafes are different when it comes to the type of service. Many require customers to head to the counter, order, and wait for it to be processed. Some cafes have waiting staff who bring the order to you after you pay.

Are There Any Similarities Between Restaurants and Cafes?

Café de Flore terrace bustling with diners in Paris
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Yes, more so than not. Though the variety and amount of offerings differ, both establishments serve food and beverages. As such, perhaps the main similarity between a restaurant and a cafe is the menu. They might vary in cuisine, but you can find restaurants serving many items on a cafe’s menu.

For example, restaurants usually serve coffee and pastries as part of the dessert menu. On the other hand, there are now cafes that serve meals like burgers, pizzas, and pasta. These advanced menus show an overlapping between the two establishments.

Cafes and restaurants can also share similarities when it comes to ambiance. Gone are the days when cafes were simple, with only a few tables and chairs. Nowadays, they have taken on a more thoughtful air, featuring lounges, fancy interior décor, and even special menus.

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