Many people grew up using the term “restaurant” to refer to any away-from-home destination for a meal, but as tastes changed, the ways to describe eateries became more numerous. Soon, fine-dining and family-style categories, among others, indicated to potential diners what they could expect at a particular establishment.

Some eating establishments deserve their own category, if only because there are so many different ways people refer to them. Many people go to a local shop for a cup of caffeine and a little something to go with it. Is that a cafe or a bistro?

Cafes vs. Bistros vs. Brasseries

Cafes: The word "cafe" literally means coffee and is French in origin. In Italy, it’s spelled “caffe” and is a place where a person can find a good cup of coffee or coffee drink. Such places often serve a limited menu of snacks such as baked goods or finger sandwiches. A cafe is usually small, intimate, and a place where you find tables of people engaged in conversations.

Bistros: The bistro’s origin is also French, but it takes the idea of the cafe and kicks it up. A bistro can be loosely compared to an American fast-food restaurant. Menu items are based around types of foods such as stews, soups, and other slow-cooked foods that can be prepared in large quantities and kept over time. The bistro’s origin goes back to the basements of apartments in Paris, where tenants often paid for both room and board. Like the cafe, bistros are usually small, intimate places, and bistro service may feature wine or beer for consumption.

Brasseries or Trattorias: These establishments can be compared to the American version of the brewery or European pub. The word “brasserie” in French means brewery. It describes a place where beer is brewed and light menu items are served in a casual atmosphere, somewhat similar to bistro service. In Italy, a trattoria is also a place where light fare is served, but the beverage of choice is usually local wine.

Other Types of Eating Establishments

Four basic types of eateries are defined by the atmosphere and types of food and service diners are likely to find at each one.

Fine dining: This is your high-end establishment, at which patrons observe a formal dress code and pay a premium for attentive service, a romantic atmosphere and unique dishes prepared by decorated chefs.

Casual or fast-casual dining: These are well-known chains to which you take the family for a special occasion without breaking the bank. They may or may not offer bistro service at the table and usually feature an open kitchen and counter where patrons can watch their food being prepared. This type of restaurant most closely fits the bistro definition.

Family-style: This type of dining experience could fall under the category of casual, but the food is usually served in larger portions, the intent being that the table can share the entire dish as opposed to individual entrees. Family restaurants typically have a relaxed atmosphere.

Fast food: If you’ve been to a McDonald’s or Taco Bell, you’ve eaten at a fast-food restaurant. These are the chains that are popular with kids or busy parents, and they are marketed that way for their low prices and food that can be grabbed to go. Menu items at fast-food restaurants are usually cooked ahead of time to reduce preparation time.