US Dining -

The variety of restaurants throughout the US is remarkable. One thing that a traveler from Europe or Latin America will notice is that, in some locations, many restaurants do not serve beer, wine or liquor. Another is the sheer number and variety of fast food and chain restaurants. Most open early in the morning and stay open late at night; a few are open 24 hours a day.

Types of restaurants

Fast food restaurants, such as McDonalds, are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food, fish, chicken, barbequed meat, and ice-cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; "soda" (called "pop" in the Midwest) or other so-called "soft drinks" are standard. The idea here is that one chooses the type of food one wishes first, and then selects a restaurant that serves it. The quality of the food served varies but, in general, because of the strictly limited menu, it is good. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service, to the extent there is service, is friendly. In many locations away from the major cities, you will probably need a car to get to one that you want.

Take-out food is also very common. You will order by phone and then usually drive to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver this type of food to your hotel or home. Another type of restaurant is the chain restaurant. These are usually sit-down restaurants and many times specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or meat, though some serve a large variety of all types. Some are well-known for the breakfast meal alone, such as the International House of Pancakes (IHOP) which serves breakfast all day. A few of the larger chain restaurants include Red Lobster, The Olive Garden, and Chi Chis to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.

Another class of restaurant is the so-called family restaurant. These can be considered chain restaurants or not, but the code meaning of the term is that they do not serve alcoholic drinks. Very large cities in America are like large cities anywhere, and one may select from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagantly expensive full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes, but in the South, Midwest and West, non-chain restaurants are scarcer. In "up-scale" restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed, but you should check first if there is any doubt.

In the northeast, the diner is a popular restaurant. They are individually run, 24-hr. establishments found along the major roadways, but also in large cities and suburban areas. They offer a huge variety of large-portion meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage and dessert. They are usually very popular among the locals for breakfast. Cost is comparable to the chain restaurant. 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 located on interstate highways and they cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel -- which is not always available in regular gas (petrol) stations -- as well as areas for parking the big rigs (Iarge trucks). Because long distance truckers sleep in cots inside their cabs, many of these trucker establishments have shower facilities for truckers as well. 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 hamburger and fries. A general gauge of how good the food at a truck-stop restaurant is would be to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.

Types of food

Barbeque, BBQ, or barbecue is uniquely USA and can be delicious. At its best, it's beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder wood smoked slowly for hours as the cooking method. The brisket and ribs are usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded into a dish known as pulled pork.

Chinese food is also widely available though a traveler from China might find it quite "Americanized". Japanese sushi 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.

Along with Chinese and Thai food, Mexican food is extremely popular among most age groups. As with other cooking traditions, Americans have given it their own twist. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy salsa, sour cream, and an avocado mix called guacamole. Small shops called taquerias can be found in the Southwest of the USA (and in recent years increasingly in cities throughout the country), where a good meal can be put together for $5-$10. The North and East usually have more pricey establishments, with entrees running about $10-15. Multiple (sometimes dozens of) Mexican restaurants can be found in almost every US city.

With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Lao food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.

Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. Most big cities and college towns 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 entree, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Veggie-only breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs can be found at most diners.

People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be well-served in the USA, 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.

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 / "meals", etc. While the quality of these "mass-produced" foods is somewhat questionable, they are much cheaper than most restaurant meals. Foreign travelers on any budget are often amazed at the endless and (to some) excessive selection of goods at American grocers.

Tipping

Unlike much of the world, tipping in America is standard practice for customers in full-service restaurants (where a waiter takes your order at the table and delivers it). Theoretically, tipping is discretionary, but in practice, except in the most extreme cases (i.e. grossly substandard service which management refuses to address), you should always leave a tip. Ponder these points before deciding to "stiff" a server:

  In many areas of the U.S. it is legal to pay waitstaff less than the mandatory minimum wage, so tips often form the majority of their income.
  In many restaurants, the waiter is required to share the tip with the rest of the service staff, so failing to tip the server deprives them of income as well.

Because some tourists from other countries do not understand the expectation of a tip, some servers may retaliate by giving poor service to all foreigners. If this seems to be happening, it might be advisable to "ask" the waiter whether the tip will be included in the bill, or some other comment to indicate that you intend to give one. A standard rate is 15% of the total bill (before taxes or any discounts), with 20-25% being expected for better than average care. For parties of six or more, many restaurants automatically add a "tip" of 15% or more to the bill itself; check before you pay. If you do get a server whose people skills need a major overhaul, or if you receive substandard food (e.g. food which arrives at your table cold) and the server refuses to address it, explain the situation to the manager before deciding not to leave a tip. A reputable restaurant will usually apologize and attempt to fix the problem, and a standard tip would then be expected (even if the manager gives you your meal free of charge in apology). A tip is still expected in the event of honest mistakes like spilled food, properly atoned for (e.g. an offer to pay the dry cleaning bill). If you receive poor service that is not corrected, a deliberately small tip (one or two coins) will express your displeasure more clearly than leaving no tip at all. Tipping is not expected at restaurants (including fast-food chains and cafeterias) where patrons stand at a counter to place their order and receive their food. Some such restaurants may have a "tip jar" by the cash register, which may be used at the customer's discretion in appreciation of good service.

Etiquette

In American restaurants of all types, it is not considered appropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners even if there are unused seats available, though that can be acceptable among students at university cafeterias.

Adapted from WikiTravel under the Wiki License


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