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When I want to go out to eat, I say:

"let's go to a restaurant,"

but when I want to go play on the sand I say:

"let's go to the beach."

Why is that true? In both cases I'm talking about doing a single activity, that could take place at multiple locations, but I'm able to say "the beach" as though it is a specific beach.

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    After we've been to the beach, we'll go back to the house to change and then on to a restaurant. It's all a matter of whether or not we need to specify or define. If you always go to the same beach and always live in the same house but often choose different restaurants then that is how you would use the articles. – Nigel J May 13 '18 at 15:54
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    I have only one beach nearby that I go to. In Cape Town there are two oceans and (at least) two beaches. If I always went to the same restaurant, I could easily say "Let's go to the restaurant and then to a beach" – mplungjan May 13 '18 at 16:17
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    This topic has been discussed here easily 20 times. Please do some research. – Hot Licks May 13 '18 at 17:41
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    @HotLicks this question asks about a unique usage of the definite article when referring to certain locations in a given populated area; see my answer, with reference. The linked question does not cover this usage (which shows that there aint to simple and esay rule). Nor is it a matter of easy research, because this is usage that most native speakers are not aware of. – Arm the good guys in America May 13 '18 at 19:50
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    @user I think this answer to the linked question covers this question pretty well: When a native speaker says "the <non-unique location>", it is either obvious from context which one (there's only one beach near where speaker is) or all such locations are functionally identical but speaker habitually goes to a particular one (the grocery store nearest speaker's house, the bank where speaker has an account) and listener doesn't need it spelled out ("I'm going to the bank" but "Meet me at the First National Bank on Elm and 3rd".) – zwol May 14 '18 at 1:26
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Because that is how English speakers talk (and write).

There are things that a city has (if they have them) that are used with the, even if there are more than one and a particular one is not being discussed. This is the case for beach. Compare other things that cities or towns or other populated areas have, sometimes in multiples (more than one):

the bank
the library
the hospital
the pharmacy
the grocery store
the park
the beach

For these common locations of a populated area, we use the, even if there's more than one in that city, town, neighborhood, etc. We are not necessarily specifying which bank, library, hospital, pharmacy, grocery store, park, beach, etc. we mean.

See "Uniqueness, Familiarity, and the Definite Article in English" by Birner and Ward:

[T]here is a restricted class of uses of N[oun]P[hrases] containing the definite article that do not require uniqueness to guarantee felicity...In each of the above cases, the definite NP - the hospital, the bank, and the grocery store, respectively - refers to some non-unique and not necessarily familiar entity, yet the use of the definite is felicitous.

So

Let's go to the beach

generally just means "the physical location: beach" that is near the city or town in which we live, even if there is more than one beach. It can also mean "the beach that we usually go to."

Native speakers can also say

Let's go to a beach

This is just not as idiomatic.

As for restaurant, we would say

Let's go to the restaurant

only if we assumed that the listener(s) knew which restaurant we meant. This would, naturally, also be used--for the same reason--if there was only one restaurant in the vicinity.

But if someone called my house and asked for my roommate and I said

He's at the restaurant.

this usage is the same or similar to the first one I mention in this answer. In this case, by saying the restaurant I am not assuming that the caller can identify which restaurant it is.

As for

Let's go to a restaurant

the speaker is not specifying which restaurant.

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  • Don't forget the mall and the movies. So, now we have a new criterion for when to use the definite article--it should be used if it's felicitous! I am you have a source, however, for this frequent type of use that's really outside the accepted wisdom. – Xanne May 13 '18 at 22:13
  • Sorry, after "am" add pleased or glad. – Xanne May 13 '18 at 22:19
  • There's also "the theater." "to go to the theater" is an activity, possibly an event, like going to the mountains/the beach/the country or, in the US but not GB, the hospital. I wonder if CGEL covers this. – Xanne May 14 '18 at 0:11
  • I take it the key point here is "do not require uniqueness to guarantee felicity"—it might be helpful to expand on that a bit, and maybe put it in bold. (I take it this means that the experience is assumed to be pretty much the same/just as good from one beach to the next, whereas we would expect a bigger difference from one restaurant to the next, which would suggest a rule for when we might say "a beach" instead of "the beach" and for identifying other nouns in this class.) – 1006a May 14 '18 at 0:41
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I assume you are asking about the idiomatic use of the definite article 'the' versus the indefinite article 'a'.

"The beach" would imply you knew either what beach, or even if it means any beach, the article in use with the word beach has the force of specifying the general destination. Whereas if you say, let's go to the restaurant, it is presumed you are describing a restaurant known to your listener, or one you share commonly and refer to enough to describe it as "the* restaurant.

The Beach is a general term for some destinations or locales in English, like "The mountains," "the city," "the countryside," etc. It serves both as a general and specific in these contexts.

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