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I recently ate at an establishment called The Park Cafe and Diner. How could a debate not ensue? What is the difference between a Cafe and Diner? Apparently, this place is both.

I have read various opinions online that discuss the visibility of the kitchen, the presence of counter-seating and such. But nothing authoritative.

Is/was there a commonly understood difference, or have they been relatively interchangeable and perhaps regionally variable?

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    I suppose, a cafe serves light meals, and a diner.. heavy meals. – NVZ Jun 13 '16 at 15:05
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    Etymologically speaking, cafes serve drinks (originally, coffee). Diners are places where you eat (dine). – FumbleFingers Jun 13 '16 at 15:06
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    Diners will serve you breakfast/dinner any time of day, unlike cafes. – NVZ Jun 13 '16 at 15:08
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    This is partly a 'cultural/national' issue. The term 'diner' is rare in the UK, and a café may or may not serve meals all day, which is also the case for pubs. – TrevorD Jun 13 '16 at 17:29
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    In the US, I've seen cafe used for shops that sell only coffee, restaurants that sell coffee and light meals, restaurants that serve ordinary full meals, expensive restaurants that serve gourmet meals, and bars that serve alcohol but no coffee at all. At this point it basically means "some sort of food or drink is served here". – Nate Eldredge Jun 14 '16 at 1:53
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Basically, a café is (in the US) a place you go for coffee and other beverages and maybe a light meal, such as a sweet roll or perhaps some pie. However, many cafés will also offer a sort of lunch menu with sandwiches and possibly burgers, fries, etc.

A diner is a place with offers full meals, generally of a relative proletarian nature (versus what would be served in a high-falutin' restaurant). Typically burgers, fries, modest steaks, maybe some fish, a limited selection of salads, and, of course, an assortment of beverages, centered around coffee and soft drinks.

The diner would typically have waiting staff, while the café might be either a server or (stand up) counter service. But either might (or might not) have a sit-down counter, in addition to tables. Typically the café is open for breakfast and lunch only, while the diner is open for lunch and dinner, and maybe open for breakfast, maybe not.

A fast food place would have fare similar to a limited diner, only no waitstaff.

(In fairness--not that New Jersey deserves it--there is a lot of variability across the US as to what these terms mean. My description above is probably most fitting to rural establishments, while metropolitan areas will develop their own quirks as to meaning.)

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    Diners that aren't open for breakfast? You must not live in New Jersey (where the diner is the state restaurant :-) ) A New Jersey diner without an extensive breakfast section in the menu, some of which is available all day, is unthinkable. – Peter Shor Jun 13 '16 at 20:06
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    @PeterShor - I lived in New Jersey for two years, so I can say this with some authority: New Jersey is weird. – Hot Licks Jun 13 '16 at 20:11
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    I lived in New Jersey eight times longer than you did. And I won't disagree. – Peter Shor Jun 13 '16 at 20:29
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    I would say another potentially big difference might be in the likelihood of offering outdoor seating. Cafe? Quite possibly. Diner? Never! – Paused until further notice. Jun 13 '16 at 23:40
  • In New York, diners have waiters. Cafes are open for dinner too. Also, I would not call typical American food such as burgers and fries "proletarian". That's the thing about the US, even the rich and super rich eat burgers....many diners serving dinner have things like: meatloaf and pureed potatoes; broiled chicken of some sort and a vegetable or pork chops. "home-cooked" type of food. – Lambie Jun 14 '16 at 14:23
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To make it as simple as possible: they are quite similar, but with a different focus.

The connotations are going to vary from region to region and person to person, so adding a great deal of detail is kind of pointless. Here's the general gist, which would be accurate everywhere I've ever been in the US:

You go to a cafe for coffee, and might get some food while you're there.

You go to a diner to eat a meal (dine), which will probably involve a beverage, which could be coffee.

  • @curiousdannii I could, but I do cover all that in my profile. – DCShannon Jun 14 '16 at 0:06
  • @curiousdannii The point of this answer was to make things simple, as compared to the overly detailed other answers (one of which seems basically correct). What I've added is all I'm going to add. Also, I respectfully disagree about the profile. Adding where your experience comes from to every single answer clutters the answers. Put it in your profile where anybody can see it whenever they like. Much simpler. – DCShannon Jun 14 '16 at 0:09
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In the US, a diner has three characteristics features: a window counter through which you see the cook/kitchen, booths and a counter with stools. That is the classic American diner. Funnily enough, in cities like New York, they are today almost all owned by Greeks or descendants of Greeks. They have traditional American breakfast, lunch and dinner foods. Nothing too fancy. Caters to all income types and is typically not expensive. Traditionally, also diners were modelled on dining cars from trains. Here is a "typical" diner, in Minnesota: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mickey%27s_Diner The traditional ones (from the thirties) were often art deco.

A cafe is associated with the idea of little tables (sometimes placed outdoors) where you can partake of slightly fancier fare or "cuisine" (salads and omelettes and dishes cooked by a chef) and is more European (French, Italian etc) in feeling. Often, they also serve wine and beer. They are rather informal but the good is usually good. Layout and atmosphere is more sophisticated, usually, than a diner. You don't get truck drivers, for example, sipping white wine of a summer afternoon. Here is one in Washington, DC https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HK_TST_1881_mall_restaurant_DG_Cafe_outdoor_sidewalk_umbrella.JPG

Food-wise, a cafe is more "sophisticated" than a diner. Diners are associated with typical American breakfasts, sandwiches for lunch and things like meatloaf for dinner. There is, of course, overlap.

I don't know why that Saskatoon Park Café and Diner has both words. Most likely, they want to appeal to both the cafe crowd and the diner crowd. They have pretty fancy sandwiches that go beyond typical diner fare....

http://www.parkcafe.ca/menu

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    I think your view of diners and cafes is relatively narrow. I seriously doubt that the Chatterbox Cafe has anything that one would call "European cuisine" (unless you include lutefisk and lefse). – Hot Licks Jun 13 '16 at 17:52
  • And Mickey's Diner is in Minnesota, not Michigan. I've eaten there at least once and have driven by many times. – Hot Licks Jun 13 '16 at 17:54
  • Fourth - and essential! - characteristic feature of a diner: The jukebox! Preferably with a station at each booth! – davidbak Jun 13 '16 at 20:10
  • @HotLicks I don't know what European Cuisine could be, if not lutefisk and lefse. Those are both Scandanavian, as I'm sure you know! It is a pretty specific (too specific?) definition though, you're right. – Dan Jun 13 '16 at 22:50
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    Diners today do not have jukeboxes, necessarily. – Lambie Jun 15 '16 at 13:39

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