The variety of restaurants throughout the U.S. is remarkable. In a major city such as New York, it may be possible to find a restaurant from nearly every country in the world. In addition to the usual array of independent restaurants, the U.S. possesses a singularly baffling array of fast food and casual chain restaurants; even if you think you know U.S. fast food from the chains' international outlets, the sheer variety domestically is immense.
Ethnic cuisine from other parts of the world is frequently adapted to American tastes and/or made with locally available ingredients. This is particularly true of Asian cuisines, especially Chinese (see below).
Many restaurants, especially those serving fast food or breakfast, do not serve alcohol, and many others may only serve beer and wine. Portions are generally huge, regardless of restaurant style, although this trend has moderated recently with increasingly health-conscious customers. Many restaurants now offer several portion options, though it may not be immediately obvious. Ask when ordering if portion choices are available. Taking home "left overs" is very common and is a good way to get two meals for the price of one. Ask for a to-go box at the end of your meal if you have not cleared your plate.
In much of America, home-cooked food is substantially better than restaurant fare. This is particularly true in rural areas and small towns. If you have the opportunity to attend a carry-in dinner or pot luck, this is a chance not to be missed.
Types of restaurants
Large cities host many examples of every type of restaurant imaginable from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagant full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. Most medium sized cities and suburbs will also field a decent selection. In the most "up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed. Check with the restaurant if in doubt.
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Subway and Burger King are ubiquitous, but the variety of this type of restaurant in the U.S. is astounding: burgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, barbecued meat, and ice cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; "soda" (often called "pop" in the Midwest through Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, or generically "coke" in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. Don't be surprised when you order a soda, are handed a paper cup and expected to fill it yourself from the soda fountain (refills are often free). The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good, especially in the daytime. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected but you must clear your table after your meal. A few restaurants, called "drive-ins", serve you directly in your car. Most fast food places offer "drive-through" service, allowing you to place an order from the establishment's menu posted on the side of a dedicated auto lane, and then paying for it and having it handed to you (packaged to go) at a separate side window before driving to your next destination.
Takeout food is very common in larger cities for meals that may take a little longer to prepare than in a fast-food place. Place an order by phone or online and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places also offer delivery; in some cities, it is easier to have pizza or Chinese food delivered than to find a sit-down restaurant. Pizza and Chinese are especially ubiquitous for delivery or takeout in the U.S.; towns as small as 5,000 typically have at least one pizza shop and one Chinese takeout/delivery restaurant, and often more than one. The main national pizza chains are Pizza Hut (mostly dine-in restaurants that also offer takeout and delivery), Domino's (no dine-in), Papa John's (also no dine-in), and Little Caesars (mostly takeout only, with some locations also offering delivery). Hardcore pizza fans will usually prefer local pizza places to the big national chains; many such restaurants also offer takeout and delivery.
Fast-Casual restaurants offer a fast-food dining style (no waitstaff, no alcohol), but the meals tend to be fresher and healthier. The food takes a bit longer to prepare—and costs a few dollars more—than at fast food joints, but it's generally worth it. Notable examples include Chipotle (Tex-Mex), Noodles and Company, Panera Bread (bakery also featuring soup and sandwiches), Five Guys (burgers) and Freddies Burgers.
Diners are quintessentially American and have remained popular since their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. They are usually individually run, open 24-hours and found on major roads, though they also appear in large cities and suburbs. They offer a wide variety of huge meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually busy for breakfast, in the morning, at the end of factory shifts, or after the bars close. Diner chains include Denny's, Norm's, and (in the South) Waffle House.
No compendium of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only encounter these places if you are taking an intercity auto or bus trip. They are found on the interstate highways and cater to truckers. There will be diesel fuel and separate parking for the "big rigs" and showers for the drivers who sleep in their cabs. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for "plain home cooking": hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous club sandwich or burger and fries—expect large portions! The three major chains are Pilot/Flying J, TA/Petro, and Love's. These generally have 24-hour restaurants, including "all you can eat" buffets and large breakfasts, often served in skillets. You are most likely to find such a restaurant at a TA or Petro (most truck stops also have national fast food outlets). Truckers know their eating: if there are plenty of trucks outside, it'll be good.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from diners and truck stops, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. Some specialize in a type of food (e.g. seafood) or a particular national cuisine, others have broader offerings. Some are well known only for breakfast, such as IHOP (originally International House of Pancakes) which serves it all day in addition to other meals. A few of the larger chains include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's. These restaurants tend to serve alcohol.
The largest cities will have one or more fine dining establishments, the quality of which can vary from "overpriced" to "exquisite". Some will have a dress code; if jackets or ties are required, they will sometimes be made available to borrow.
Some bars double as restaurants and serve food late. Bars, including their dining areas, may be off-limits to those under 21.
Soft drinks come with a liberal supply of ice. Asking for no ice is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. Water is usually served chilled and with ice, unless you request otherwise. It will typically not be carbonated; if you want carbonated water, ask for "sparkling water." Bottled water, still or sparkling, will cost at least $1–2. Sit-down restaurants will often bring free iced tap water, even before taking your drink order. At fast food restaurants, bottled water is assumed unless you specify "ice water" or "tap water". Coffee, tea and soft drinks are sometimes refilled at no extra charge, but you should ask if this is not explicitly stated.
Types of service
Many restaurants aren't open for breakfast. Those that do (mostly fast-food and diners), serve eggs, toast, pancakes, cereals, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11AM, but some, especially diners, will serve breakfast all day. As an alternative to a restaurant breakfast, one can grab breakfast food such as doughnuts, muffins, fruits, coffee, and packaged drinks at almost any gas station, coffee shop, or convenience store (such as 7-Eleven, Circle K or AM/PM).
Continental Breakfast is a term primarily used by hotels and motels to describe a cold breakfast offering of cereal, breads, muffins, fruit, etc. Milk, fruit juices, hot coffee and tea are the typical beverages. There is usually a toaster for your bread. This is a quick, cheap way of getting morning food.
Lunch can be a good way to get food from a restaurant whose dinners are out of your price range.
Dinner, the main meal. Depending on culture, region, and personal preference, is usually enjoyed between 5 and 9PM. Most restaurants will be willing to box up your leftover food (typically referred to as a "to go box"). Making reservations in advance is a good idea if the restaurant is popular, "up-scale", or you are dining in a large group.
Buffets are generally a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a single, flat, rate, you can have as many servings of whatever foods are set out. However, since food can be sitting out in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Generally, buffets serve American or Chinese food.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch, served morning through early afternoon, with both breakfast and lunch items. There is often a buffet. Like most other meals, quality and price can vary by restaurant.
Types of food
Typical American food items that can be found at most restaurants or large gatherings include hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, ice cream, and pie. While many types of food are unchanged throughout the United States, there are a few distinct regional varieties of food. The most notable is in the South, where traditional local fare includes grits (ground maize porridge), collard greens (a boiled vegetable, often flavored with ham and a dash of vinegar), sweet iced tea, barbecue (not unique to this region, but best and most common here), catfish (served deep-fried with a breadcrumb coating), cornbread, okra, red beans, and gumbo (a stew of seafood or sausage, rice, okra, and sometimes tomatoes).
Barbecue, BBQ, or barbeque is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it's pork or beef ribs, beef brisket, or pork shoulder slowly wood smoked for hours. Ribs are served as a whole- or half-rack or cut into individual ribs, brisket is usually sliced thin, and the shoulder can be shredded ("pulled") or chopped. Sauces of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. There are also unique regional styles of barbecue, with the best generally found in the South. The most distinct styles come from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. California and Maryland have a style that focuses on beef barbecued in an outdoor pit or brick oven. However, barbecue of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbecued meat can be served with a variety of sides, including chili, corn on the cob, coleslaw and potato salad. Barbecue restaurants are unpretentious and the best food is often found at very casual establishments. Expect plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbecue found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic. Ribs and chicken are almost always eaten with your fingers; tackle pork and brisket either with a fork or in a sandwich. Some Americans (though never Southerners) use "barbecue" as a synonym for "cookout": a party where the likes of chicken, hamburgers, and hot dogs are grilled outdoors (rather than smoked). These can be fun, but they don't represent the American BBQ cuisine.
With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Laotian food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.
Italian food is perhaps the most pervasive of ethnic cuisines in America, though this food has often taken a different direction than Italian food in Italy. All but the smallest villages have at least one restaurant that specializes in pizza, and many also have pasta restaurants as well. While more authentic fare is certainly available in fancier restaurants, note that the pizza typically sold in the U.S. has diverged significantly from the Italian original, with New York and Chicago in particular having their own distinctive styles of pizza which are famous throughout the country and not found in Italy. There are also restaurants that specialize in German or French food, but in much smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the hot dog, which traces its origins to German sausages, has become a integral part of the American culinary landscape.
Chinese food is widely available and adjusted to American tastes. Authentic Chinese food can be found in restaurants in Chinatowns in addition to communities with large Chinese populations. Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai food have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation. Indian food outlets are available in most major U.S. cities and towns.
Mexican/Hispanic/Tex-Mex food is very popular, but again in a localized version. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy tomato salsa, sour cream, and an avocado-based dip called guacamole. Small authentic Mexican taqueriascan be found easily in California and the Southwest, and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Middle Eastern and Greek foods are also becoming popular in the United States. The gyro(known as "doner kebab", "shawarma", "gyros" or "souvlaki" in Europe) is a popular Greek sandwich on a pita bread topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a yogurt-cucumber like tzatziki sauce. Hummus (a ground chickpea dip/spread) and baklava pastries are frequently found in supermarkets, along with an increasingly widespread and high-quality array of "pita" products.
America's Jewish community has undoubtedly left a lasting imprint on the culinary scene, with bagels and pastrami being widely popular among Americans. While the most famous shops are located in New York City, they are also widely available in large cities throughout the country.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarians are becoming more common in the U.S., so are the restaurants that cater to them. Most big cities and college towns will have vegetarian restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns you may need to check the menu at several restaurants before finding a vegetarian main course, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Wait staff can be helpful answering questions about meat content, but be very clear about your personal definition of vegetarian, as dishes with fish, chicken, egg, or even small quantities of beef or pork flavoring may be considered vegetarian. This is especially common with vegetable side dishes in the South. Meat-free breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs are readily available at diners. Vegans are also becoming more common, and many restaurants in larger cities will have vegan options available, and there is an increasing number of establishments being set up to specifically cater for vegans.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the U.S., as there has been a continuing trend in calorie consciousness since the 1970s. Even fast-food restaurants have "lite" specials, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on request.
Awareness of food allergies varies. Packaged products (e.g. in grocery stores) must be labeled if they contain milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, or soy. Packaged food must also list its ingredients, although this can include non-specific items like "spices", "seasonings", or "added color". But non-prepackaged food, even if it's served in a wrapper or container — which includes restaurants, kiosks, bakeries, and fresh food at grocery stores — usually has no obligation to label allergens (although laws vary by state). That said, quite a few restaurants do label allergens, and even pride themselves on catering to those with food allergies, but it's always your responsibility to protect yourself. Fast food and casual dining chain restaurants are often a safe bet for being knowledgeable about food allergies and having consistent ingredients and methods. At sit-down restaurants, inform your waiter (and possibly a manager or chef), ask questions, and if your waiter is unsure of anything then have them double-check or insist on speaking to a chef. A recent fad in gluten free food as a healthy diet choice (even for those who have no allergies or sensitivities) has led to a large selection of gluten-free foods being available, but as some of these are "fad" products, they may not be sufficiently gluten-free for people with celiac (coeliac) disease or wheat allergies.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer an almost infinite variety of pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption, e.g. breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, frozen dinner, etc.
In the largest cities, "corner stores" abound. These small convenience stores carry a variety of snacks, drinks, and prepackaged foods. Unlike most convenience stores, their products are sold at relatively low prices (especially by urban standards) and can provide for snacks or even (nutritionally partial) meals for a budget no more than $5 a day.
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are at cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, at crowded informal eateries and cafés where you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at, and at some inexpensive Chinese restaurants where staff will direct you to share a table. Striking up a conversation in this situation may or may not be welcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European-influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating is considered rude, as is loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. You should lay cloth napkins across your lap; you can do the same with paper napkins, or keep them on the table. Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a "doggy bag", implying that the leftovers are for your pet). If you want to do this, ask the server to get the remainder "to go"; this term will be almost universally understood, and will not cause any embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an "all-you-can-eat" buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional fee.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc.) are designed to be eaten by hand (so-called "finger food"); a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (french fries, barbecue ribs, chicken on the bone) even at moderately nice restaurants. If unsure, eating finger food with a fork and knife probably won't offend anyone; eating fork-and-knife food by hand might, as it's considered "uncivilized" and rude.
When invited to a meal in a private home, you might ask if you can contribute something to the meal, such as a dessert, a side dish, wine or beer, or for an outdoor cookout, something useful like ice or plastic cups or plates. The host will often decline, especially since you're a traveler. If you aren't asked to contribute to the meal, it is considered good manners to bring along a small gift for the host (often called a hostess gift). A bottle of wine, box of candies or fresh cut flowers are most common. You should not expect this gift, if it's food, to be served with the meal; the host has already selected the meal's components. Gifts of cash, prepared ready-to-serve foods, or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.
An exception is the carry-in or potluck meal, where each guest (or group/family) brings a food dish to share with everyone; these shared dishes make up the entire meal. Usually dishes are grouped (e.g., salads, main dishes or casseroles, side dishes, desserts); you should ask the host if they want you to bring something in particular. Ideal dishes for a potluck should be served from a large pot, dish, or bowl, and are usually served buffet style—hence the emphasis on salads, casseroles, and bite-sized foods. These types of meals typically offer a wide assortment of well-prepared foods and may be the very best way to experience authentic American cuisine—and your own foreign specialty might just be the star attraction!
There is no nationwide ban on smoking, so whether you are allowed to smoke in a bar or restaurant or other public indoor space varies between, and even within, states. In most cases, it is banned. If there is a "No Smoking" sign, lighting up may get you ejected, fined, or even arrested, in addition to dirty looks.
Smoking has acquired a social stigma — even where it is permitted. You may want to ask the people around you whether they mind before lighting up. Many states have laws about smoking near public entrances: Keep an eye out for posted signs stating a minimum distance to the door although enforcement is not consistent. Typically, if you find an ash tray or a butt station, you are safe to smoke there.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In the cities, you can find everything from tough local "shot and a beer" bars to upscale "martini bars"; urban bars and nightclubs will often serve only simple food, or none at all. In the suburbs, alcohol is mainly served in restaurants rather than bars. And in rural areas, the line between "bar" and "restaurant" is often blurred to the point of meaninglessness; with few establishments nearby, locals go to the same place for both meals and nightlife. A few states have dry counties, places where it is illegal to sell alcohol for local consumption; these are mostly in rural areas.
The drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. except in most of the outlying territories (where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you're under 40 (or appear to be), you may be required to show a photo ID. Recently, some retailers have begun the policy of requiring IDs on all transactions. Some retailers may not accept a foreign driver's license (except from Canada and possibly Australia, since these licenses have barcodes that are scannable by U.S. ID scanners), so having your passport available when purchasing alcohol is strongly advised. In some states, people who are under 21 are not even allowed to be present in a bar or liquor store.
Alcohol sales are typically prohibited after 2 AM, though there are some cities where bars are open later or even all night. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. Several "dry counties" – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most towns ban drinking in the open with varying degrees of enforcement. Even if it is allowed, a visible bottle (rather than one in a small bag) is either illegal or justifies police attention. Being "drunk and disorderly" is banned. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny. A blood-alcohol level of 0.08% is considered "under the Influence" and many states consider a level of 0.05% as "impaired". If you're under 21, most states have limits of 0.00-0.02%. Foreigners will typically be deported, even well established permanent residents. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol anywhere in a car other than in the trunk; this can be heavily fined. Should you find yourself in a situation where you drank a bit more than you intended and are unsure if you should drive, taxi cabs are fairly prolific in medium to large cities. Many automotive clubs offer hotlines to find a ride home.
Sales of raw milk for human consumption are illegal in some states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans the interstate sale or distribution of raw milk.
Beer and wine are the main non-distilled alcoholic drinks, with whiskey the main hard liquor (i.e. distilled drink). "Cider" without further qualification is just an unfiltered variety of apple juice. Hard cider is the alcoholic drink from fermented apples; although enthusiastically consumed two centuries ago, its popularity is only now resurging after decades of obscurity.
Beer constitutes approximately half the alcohol consumed in the U.S. Nationally known light lagers (which are cheap and mediocre) remain most prevalent, despite the emergence of other types of beer in the 1990s. Microbreweries, which specialize in small-batch, high-quality beers made by traditional methods, add much-needed variety. Microbrews, also called "craft beers", are often inventive and experimental; some are excellent examples of classic beer styles, while others push the limits and develop new, unique flavors. Most are individual regional brewers, although a few are reaching national distribution. Some bars and restaurants carry microbrews, while others don't, seemingly at random. Brew pubscombine microbrewery and bar and serve highly regarded beer that is made on the premises. Vermont offers the highest ratio of microbreweries per capita in the country followed by Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Maine, while Washington grows 77 percent of the total United States hop crop, a key ingredient in beer making.
Wine is available across the quality spectrum. American wines are labeled primarily by the grape variety. A rough guide to quality comes in the specificity of the labeling. Color alone ("Red", "white", and "rosé" or "pink") denotes the lowest echelon. Above this, regions are labeled by state (e.g. "California"), an area of a state (e.g. "Central Coast"), a county or other small region (e.g. "Willamette Valley"), or a specific vineyard (e.g. "Dry Creek Vineyard").
The cheapest wine tends to come in a plastic bag encased in a box. "Fortified wines", known as "bum wine", are the precise opposite of high-class European port, sherry or Madeira.
All 50 states practice some sort of winemaking, though 90% of America's wine—including its most highly regarded from the Napa Valley—are Californian. Wines from Oregon's Willamette Valley and Washington state represent good value as they are less well known. Michigan, Colorado's Wine Country, and New York State's Finger Lakes produce German-style whites which have won international competitions. The Llano Estacado region of Texas is also notable for its wines.
Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in upscale restaurants, and are also sometimes served by the glass. The best Californian sparkling wines have been rated comparably to leading French champagnes but they are not commonly sold in supermarkets outside of California.
Most bars, except urbane wine bars, serve unremarkable wine. Wine is taken quite seriously by some restaurants, but as with all other alcoholic drinks in restaurants, expect to pay up to four times the liquor store price for a bottle.
Hard alcohol (i.e. spirits) is usually drunk with mixers, but it is also served "on the rocks" (with ice) or "straight" (unmixed, with no ice, also called "neat"). Whiskey, the traditional choice, remains popular despite the increased popularity of vodka and other clear spirits. Whiskey is distilled from many different grains. The main types are rye (made with mainly rye, a relative of wheat), malt (made with mainly barley) and bourbon (made with mainly corn, i.e. maize).
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes, from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
"Happy hour", a period usually lasting from 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5PM and 8PM, sees significant discounts on selected drinks. "Ladies' nights", during which women receive a discount or some other financial incentive, are increasingly common.
Until 1977, the only U.S. state with legalized gambling was Nevada. The state has allowed games of chance since the 1930s, creating such resort cities as Las Vegas and Reno in the process. Dubbed "Sin City," Las Vegas in particular has evolved into an end-destination adult playground, offering many other after-hours activities such as amusement parks, night clubs, strip clubs, shows, bars and four star restaurants. Gambling has since spread outside of Nevada to a plethora of U.S. cities like Atlantic City, New Jersey and Biloxi, Mississippi, as well as to riverboats, offshore cruises and Indian reservations. State lotteries and "scratch games" are another, popular form of legalized gambling. However, online gaming and wagering on sports across state lines remains illegal in the U.S.
The United States has one of the widest varieties of soft drinks (carbonated high-sugar alcohol free drinks as opposed to "hard" alcoholic drinks) and the most famous brands originate here. While Pepsi and Coca-Cola are sold (almost) around the world, some flavors are hardly known outside North America. Root Beer, for example, is a non-alcoholic beverage containing various flavoring roots; while the flavor is strange to most Europeans not accustomed to it, it is one of the first things Americans tend to miss when abroad for longer periods of time. Sparkling water is not commonly consumed by Americans and rather seen as a "European" curiosity, but it is available in most stores. Tap water is potable, but due to its regionally varying and sometimes very notable chlorine content it is often avoided due to its taste. No matter what people might tell you bottled water is usually not in any way better than regular tap water apart from the chlorine issue mentioned above. In restaurants in some parts of the country such as the South but not others, you will often get at least one if not unlimited refills of your desired soft drink, and tap water is almost always served for free, if you ask for it. Americans like to put a lot of ice into their drinks, so unless you specifically ask for "no ice" (and sometimes even then) you will get a lot of ice with all your non-alcoholic drinks, including water.