When you crave a memorable dining experience, you may turn to one of two top options: diners or restaurants. These establishments have a lot in common and even overlap to some extent, but they’re not one and the same.
Understanding their similarities and differences is important not only as you plan your next meal out but also as you consider pursuing a career in the culinary arts. Below, we’ve provided a deep dive into both eating establishment types — and how they’ve shaped our understanding of food and hospitality.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A DINER AND A RESTAURANT?
Dining takes many forms, ranging from fast food to upscale establishments and everything in between. Most of the time, when you visit a place that serves you meals from a menu, you will refer to that venue as a restaurant. A small subset of those restaurants qualify as diners.
The main differences come down to cost, formality, and pace: diners are casual and, typically, more affordable. Service is swift and, while relaxing and taking your time is possible, most visitors are quickly in and out. Restaurant experiences tend to be more expensive, but may provide an elevated and more immersive experience.
Few dining establishments are as quintessentially American as the classic diner. Meant for quick, inexpensive, and enjoyable meals, the diner holds a lot of kitschy appeal and remains a favorite for anyone wishing to experience a slice of midcentury America.
The concept has taken on an increased fascination with help from the popular show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, which details America’s best greasy spoons. Iconic examples include Connecticut’s Olympia Diner and Georgia’s Marietta Diner, with both exemplifying classic diner style — neon lights and friendly vibes included.
Walter Scott received the bulk of the credit for developing a concept that would eventually evolve into our modern iteration of the diner. His version looked a little different from what we think of as a diner today: he served customers from a wagon, which included walk-up windows on both sides.
In the following decades, these ‘lunch wagons’ became prominent on the East Coast. Eventually, they gave way to prefabricated buildings, which were often constructed by the very manufacturers responsible for the original lunch wagons.
The concept remained prevalent in the United States during the Great Depression, even as many other eateries struggled. Diners really took off after World War II, however, and were dominant until fast food took over. These days, they are less prominent but are still highly appreciated, partly because of their kitsch factor and largely due to their friendly ambiance.
Food and Beverages
The vast majority of diners center around inexpensively prepared yet deeply satisfying dishes. Large portions are common, and while attention to detail might not be present in the plating, diner meals still often look and smell enticing.
Typical diner favorites include:
- Hamburgers and fries served in a basket and with plenty of ketchup
- Comfort food, such as meatloaf and mashed potatoes
- Simple yet hearty breakfasts — eggs, bacon, and toast, for example
- Desserts, such as milkshakes, ice cream, cake, or pie
- Coffee served in simple mugs and typically refilled as often as guests desire
Alcoholic beverages have not traditionally been served at diners, but that is beginning to change. While this is typically not an area of focus, it’s sometimes possible to enjoy beer from a small selection.
Down-to-earth vibes dominate the diner environment. This is where you go to kick back with a casual meal. It’s not necessarily relaxing, given the often-small quarters and the fast pace of service — but it’s definitely casual.
There may be some kitschy decor visible, but don’t expect sweeping views or beautiful music. Counter service and stools are common, although many diners also have private booths.
When you stop in at a diner, you’re free to come as you are — within reason, of course. Hygiene is important, but casual and even ultra-casual garb is perfectly acceptable.
This is where the cliche ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’ comes into play — stick with these simple rules, and you’re good to go. If anything, overly dressy apparel detracts from the experience; diners are all about casual eating, which is more readily accomplished in jeans than in a suit and tie.
As we’ve discussed, a diner technically qualifies as a specific type of restaurant. That being said, most restaurants are not diners. Rather, our concept of the restaurant involves a more refined experience in which guests select desired foods or beverages from an established menu.
At many restaurants, hosts, waiters, and sommeliers are on hand to provide upscale service. While takeout and even delivery may be available, it is this emphasis on service that truly sets restaurants apart. Keens Steakhouse in New York exemplifies what the fine dining experience is all about: white tablecloths, decadent meals, and attentive service.
Public dining establishments have existed in some capacity for millennia. In Ancient Greece and Rome, for example, it was possible to purchase ready-to-eat meals from thermopolia, although formal dining primarily took place within the confines of the home.
Later on, hospitality largely involved inns, which provided both sustenance and lodging. There, food was served at a common table rather than being selected from menus. Taverns were also popular, and while alcoholic beverages were often the main focus, bread, cheese, and roast meats were frequently served.
Dining establishments began to resemble our present-day version of the restaurant during the late 18th century. These were a big deal in France, where upscale eats were served in beautifully decorated settings. The concept became even more popular after the French Revolution, as talented cooks who had previously served aristocrats found themselves out of work.
In the US, dining largely followed the inn or tavern model until the French concept of the restaurant slowly began to gain traction. Boston’s famed Tremont House hastened this transition by providing a French-style approach to dining. Within a few years, this was commonplace. Since then, restaurants have expanded in scope to include the many varieties we take for granted today.
Food and Beverages
Virtually any type of food or beverage can be served at a restaurant. What distinguishes this establishment from others is not necessarily what is served but rather that specific dishes are selected from menus, prepared to order, and plated carefully to appeal to guests.
As compared to diners, restaurant cuisine involves more expensive ingredients, along with elevated cooking techniques and detail-oriented plating. Often, these dishes are divided into courses, such as:
- Appetizers. Often shared but sometimes enjoyed in lieu of a traditional meal, appetizers are meant to stimulate the appetite and set the stage for the dishes to come.
- Soups & salads. As with appetizers, soups and salads can either be served prior to or in place of a larger meal. For lunch, soups, salads, and sandwiches may be served together as combo meals.
- Entrees. The main course gets the bulk of the attention, and for good reason: this is where chefs really shine. In many restaurants, this category centers around heavier and more decadent meat-based dishes, such as steak or lamb.
- Dessert. Nothing caps off a delightful restaurant experience quite like a sweet treat. As is the case in diners, many restaurants serve cake or pie for dessert. In nicer restaurants, however, there is a greater emphasis on dessert presentation.
Restaurants can take almost any form imaginable, from strictly casual to decidedly formal. In general, however, they are usually more upscale than diners. In sophisticated locations, dim lighting, crisp tablecloths, and beautiful cutlery set the stage for a memorable experience. Music further contributes to the ambiance.
In some places, the view may be a central component of a restaurant’s overarching appeal; large windows offer stunning glimpses of the beach, mountains, or lush landscapes. When this is unavailable, the right decor and artwork can still provide a visual feast.
While dress codes are becoming increasingly a thing of the past, even for sophisticated restaurants, there is still an expectation that guests will look presentable. How this is defined will differ somewhat based on geographic location and, of course, the formality of the restaurant in question. With an upscale location that lacks an explicitly stated dress code, business casual should be acceptable.
If a dress code is mandated, be prepared to take your outfit up a notch. This might mean sticking with a dress or a button-up shirt. A blazer or sport coat is even better, especially if paired with high-end trousers and a pair of loafers. A classy pair of heels is always a solid fit.
DISCOVER THE DIVERSE APPEAL OF CULINARY ARTS
No matter which type of establishment you envision working in, targeted training will give your culinary career a significant boost. A bachelor’s degree is especially important if you want to make your mark at today’s trendiest and most sophisticated restaurants.
At JWU, we offer multiple programs that appeal to culinary enthusiasts. Consider pursuing your Bachelor of Science in Culinary Arts and Food Service Management or your Bachelor of Science in Baking Pastry Arts and Food Service Management.
Either degree program will expose you to talented and passionate professionals within the industry, along with a fascinating curriculum that will equip you with an impressive culinary skill set.