Most people know of two distinct categories of restaurants: fast food and fine dining. Fast food is pretty straight forward for them to describe, and fine dining usually comes with adjectives and descriptors like "linen tablecloths", "expensive wine list" and "stuffy services." Between them, there are several more categories of restaurants that all operate on a slippery slope of one slowly blending into another. While they are mainly used by economists and analysts to track how particular restaurants are performing in regard to their competition, it is helpful to have an understanding of what is out there.
The first step up from fast food is called "fast casual." This is a concept that has been around for a while, but only really began to take on a significant part of the restaurant market during the most recent recession when customers were being more concerned with their discretionary spending. The main difference between fast food and fast casual is that after ordering your food from the counter, you sit and someone will bring the food out to you. There are also some that, once you sit, will send a person around to take drink orders, but this is a rarity due to the increased labor costs. Other differences between the two usually include a higher price point, fresher ingredients, more items made-to-order and no drive thru service.
Next on the food chain, as it were, are casual restaurants. Also referred to as sit down restaurants - a term only first coined after the growth of fast food and take out restaurants - these are the restaurants most people think of when they think of dining out. The menu may either be a specific theme, such as a pizza place or a Chinese restaurant, or it may offer a wide variety of items as many of the national chains do. Some of these chains are creating that slippery slope by offering tablets at many of the tables where people can place orders without ever talking to a server.
A new niche that has been created recently is being called casual fine dining. Unlike casual restaurants, these tend to be privately owned and have a very definitive menu, such as a Latin fusion menu. They also put more of a premium on service as well as having an expanded cocktail program and bar menu. The use of the word fine can be misleading to some people; many of these restaurants tend to be casual enough to encourage family friendly dining.
In the end, the category does not matter as much to the consumer. If they have a restaurant that they like to frequent, that will most likely not change if somebody tells them what type it qualifies as. But it certainly helps to have some knowledge, especially if you are reading reviews of a restaurant you have never visited before or are traveling to a new city.
Jack Terry is a freelance writer who has been covering the food and beverage industry for more than 20 years. http://www.osorioslatinfusion.com