Are there any differences between canteen and cafeteria?

In India, usually an eating place attached to an office, factory or school is called a canteen. Of course, in some new offices it is called cafeteria, but government offices and factories still call them canteens.

In US, I have never heard canteen used except for military canteen. Is it the same in British English too?

  • 3
    A canteen holds water, while a cafeteria holds coffee. :)
    – tchrist
    May 17, 2012 at 0:50

7 Answers 7


In British English a place that you eat, at work / supplied by work would be a canteen, but cafeteria is also equally common. I would imagine cafeteria is a safer choice so that both AE and BE would understand.

But canteen a little bit old-fashioned, mostly because offices don't have canteens or cafeterias and we don't have any factories anymore.

  • 1
    We means British? In India, it is still common to have canteens. In fact it is a law that there should be a canteen which provides food at subsidized rates for employees in factories.. Also, most of the colleges have canteens/cafeterias attached to them.
    – rest_day
    Jun 13, 2011 at 21:22
  • @rest_day - well now that British Steel is Indian perhaps they will have a cheap canteen again!
    – mgb
    Jun 13, 2011 at 21:49
  • I was not sure whether your answer was tongue-in-cheek, not being familiar with British office scene. Everything clear now from a British perspective.
    – rest_day
    Jun 13, 2011 at 21:53
  • @rest_day most offices don't now have a canteen. And since most are now built on office parks away from the city center it means everyone has to get in the car and drive to get some food.
    – mgb
    Jun 13, 2011 at 21:57
  • 1
    Really, mgb? I've been in the UK for decades and I haven't heard the word cafeteria in use, at all.
    – Tristan
    Jul 10, 2012 at 15:14

Rest, to actually answer your question:

  1. "Canteen" tends to mean commissary associated with an office/factory. You CAN also use "Cafeteria" in the same way, but "Canteen" is more specific, more normal.

  2. "Cafeteria" can mean the cafe/restaurant, for customers, YOU FIND IN A LARGE DEPARTMENT STORE. (Typically either in the basement or on the top floor.)**

  3. "Canteen" - generally - tends to be a bit derogatory and/or old-fashioned.

  4. Note that a "Cafeteria" is specifically more down-market (cheaper, worse) than a "restaurant." Specifically note that "Cafeteria" always implies you get the food from a long service area - with trays, you know? And carry the food yourself, on trays, to an unserved table. In contrast at a "restaurant" or "cafe" you sit down and are served.

  5. Generally this is all more UK than USA, as others have pointed out.

  6. In my opinion -- both words would be easily understood, by every English speaker, in every country. If you said "the factory canteen" (or cafeteria) every English-speaker everywhere would understand you - but to repeat point (5), it is odder and perhaps "British-sounding" in the USA. There are some claims by commenters from the USA that some people in the USA would not know what the word means.

**Just FYI, in a SHOPPING MALL, there is always an area with a number of fast-food places arranged together. This is always called by the silly term "the food court."

Footnote: in the USA (and indeed, perhaps UK too), in certain circles "Canteen" can be a bit trendy-cool-retro. Particularly in connection to the film or advertising industry. Thus, in Hollywood California, in the 90s there is (or was) a painfully "hip" expensive restaurant just called "The Canteen." Even though the name is seemingly dowdy, the reference is to the ultra-trendy "canteen" on a film-set or at a movie studio.

Finally as Keith mentioned, "Canteen" also means a water bottle, particularly military (both UK and USA).

  • 1
    I disagree with you on two points: "canteen" as a place to get food isn't really in common use in a large chunk of the U.S.; you'll get odd looks from a lot of people if you used that word. Further, not every shopping mall has a Food Court.
    – user362
    Jun 14, 2011 at 2:15
  • @Al HI Al! That's why point 5 exists.
    – Fattie
    Jun 14, 2011 at 6:10
  • 4
    I think this statement: “Both words would be absolutely understood, by every English speaker, in every country.” is too strong. Canteen meaning a place to eat is not well-known at all here in the U.S.
    – nohat
    Jun 14, 2011 at 21:00
  • @nohat, Hmm, if you say so it's true as a report. I'm very surprised - I lived in many parts of the US for many long years, dealing with language constantly, and I would have said everyone in the US knows that word (even if it "sounds foreign or british"). I will edit.
    – Fattie
    Jun 14, 2011 at 21:13
  • For what it's worth, the only incidence of "factory canteen" in the Corpus of Contemporary American English is from someone speaking about a town in Scotland.
    – nohat
    Jun 14, 2011 at 22:33

In American English, the term "canteen" most often invokes images of a water-storage container designed to be carried at the hip and commonly used by outdoorsmen (hikers, soldiers, hunters, etc). The term as it refers to an eating place in American usage is most often found in the film industry, where it has become synonymous with the commissary on a studio lot, or the cafeteria/craft services area of an on-location film set. This is most likely a "bleed-over" from British English usage described in other answers.


I've always lived in the US (54 years) and cannot presently recall hearing the word canteen used to refer to an eating establishment except in old military films, sections of books or articles dealing with military food and drink service three or more generations ago, and WWII era(?) "Hollywood Canteen." I briefly served in the Marines. Never saw a canteen which wasn't a personal water or beverage container to be attached to a belt.


Cafeteria comes from Spanish, according to my dictionary, and means coffee-shop. I suspect cafeteria was adopted by the retail industry some time in the 20th century for an in-shop cafe: Cafe suggests a separate place, and they wanted to get away from the military connotation of canteen


It’s clear from the answers that the differences between canteen and cafeteria are in their use. Cafeteria seems to be used in American English. Canteen is the word used in the UK.

I have not heard the word cafeteria in use in the UK. Such a place has always been referred to as a canteen. The only times that I have heard cafeteria used, have been on American TV.

It seems that in both American and British use, the word canteen also means a kind of bottle for carrying water. For example, on the belt kit of a military person like a soldier.

There are three definitions of the word here: http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/canteen


A canteen is a type of food service location within an institution in which there is no waiting staff table service. Cafeteria is also a food service, but it is limited only to selected products.

  • So are you saying a canteen is not limited to selected products? You can get anything at a canteen, but a cafeteria has a limited selection?
    – Mitch
    Sep 13, 2013 at 10:57

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