Food in United States
The diversity of restaurants in the United States is remarkable. In a big city like New York, it is possible to find a restaurant from almost any country in the world. In addition to the usual selection of independent restaurants, the United States has a uniquely bewildering array of fast food chains and casual dining restaurants; even if you think you know American fast food from the international branches of the chains, the variety nationwide is immense.
Ethnic cuisine from other parts of the world is often adapted to American tastes and/or prepared with locally available ingredients. This is particularly true of Asian cuisine, especially Chinese (see below).
Many restaurants, especially those serving fast food or breakfast, do not serve alcohol, and many others serve only beer and wine. Portion sizes tend to be huge, regardless of the style of restaurant, although this trend has eased recently as customers have become more health-conscious. Many restaurants now offer multiple serving options, although this is not always obvious. When ordering, ask if portion selection is available. It is very common to take home ‘leftovers’ and it is a great way to get two meals for the price of one. At the end of your meal, ask for a takeaway box if you haven’t finished your plate.
In much of America, home-cooked food is significantly better than restaurant food. This is especially true in rural areas and small towns. If you have the opportunity to attend a take-out dinner or potluck, don’t miss it.
Types of restaurants
In big cities, there are many examples of every kind of restaurant you can imagine, from small, inexpensive neighbourhood eateries to extravagant full-service restaurants with long wine lists and prices to match. Most medium-sized cities and suburbs also offer a decent selection. In the “upscale” restaurants, the former jacket and tie requirement for men is relaxed. If in doubt, ask the restaurant.
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Subway and Burger King are ubiquitous, but the variety of these types of restaurants in the United States is staggering: hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, barbecue meat and ice cream only scratch the surface. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; “soda” (often called “pop” in the Midwest to western New York and western Pennsylvania, or generally “cola” in the South) or other non-alcoholic beverages are the norm. Don’t be surprised if you order a soda, are handed a paper cup and have to fill it yourself at the soda fountain (refills are often free). The quality of the food varies, but due to the strictly limited menu, it is generally good, especially during the day. Restaurants are generally clean and bright, and service is limited but friendly. Tipping is not expected, but you must clear your table after eating. Some restaurants, called “drive-ins”, serve you right in your car. Most fast-food restaurants offer “drive-through” service, which allows you to place an order from the restaurant’s menu, which is posted on the side of a lane, then pay and have your meal (packaged to go) delivered to a separate side window before you drive to your next destination.
Takeout is very common in larger cities for meals that may take a little longer to prepare than at a fast food restaurant. Place an order by phone or online and then go to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. In some cities, it is easier to have a pizza or Chinese food delivered than to go to a restaurant. Pizza and Chinese food are particularly ubiquitous in the United States; cities with populations as small as 5,000 usually have at least one pizzeria and one Chinese restaurant for takeout or delivery, often more than one. The major national pizza chains are Pizza Hut (mostly takeout restaurants that also offer takeout and delivery), Domino’s (no takeout), Papa John’s (also no takeout) and Little Caesars (mostly takeout, but some offer delivery). Die-hard pizza fans usually prefer local pizzerias to large national chains; many of these restaurants also offer takeout and delivery.
Fast-casual restaurants offer a fast-food style (no waiter, no alcohol), but the meals are usually fresher and healthier. The food takes a little longer to prepare – and costs a few dollars more – than in fast food restaurants, but it’s usually worth it. Notable examples are Chipotle (Tex-Mex), Noodles and Company, Panera Bread (a bakery that also serves soups and sandwiches), Five Guys (burgers) and Freddies Burgers.
Diners are typically American and have remained popular since their heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. They are usually individually owned and operated, open 24 hours a day and located along major highways, although they also pop up in larger cities and suburbs. They offer a wide range of hearty meals, often including a soup or salad, bread, a drink and dessert. They are usually popular for breakfast in the morning, after work at the factory or after the bars close. Chain restaurants include Denny’s, Norm’s and (in the south) Waffle House.
No collection of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only come across these places if you are travelling by car or bus on an interstate trip. They are located on the interstate highways and cater to truckers. They have diesel fuel, separate parking for “big trucks” and showers for drivers who sleep in their cabs. These legendary restaurants serve what passes for “home cooking” on the road: hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken and of course the ubiquitous club sandwich or burgers and fries – expect big portions! The three main chains are Pilot/Flying J, TA/Petro and Love’s. They usually have 24-hour restaurants, including kid-friendly restaurants. They usually have 24-hour restaurants with all-you-can-eat buffets and big breakfasts, often served in pans. You are more likely to find such a restaurant in a TA or Petro (most truck stops also have national fast food outlets). Truckers know how to eat: if there are lots of trucks outside, it will be good.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step above Diners and Truckstops in terms of quality and price, but those with a discerning palate are likely to be disappointed. Some specialise in one type of food (e.g. seafood) or a particular national cuisine, while others offer a wider range. Some are known exclusively for breakfast, such as IHOP (originally International House of Pancakes), which serves it all day in addition to other meals. Larger chains include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee’s and T.G.I. Friday’s. Alcohol is usually served in these restaurants.
In larger cities, there are one or more fine-dining establishments, the quality of which can range from “overpriced” to “exquisite”. Some establishments have a dress code; if a jacket or tie is required, it is sometimes possible to borrow one.
Some bars function as restaurants and serve food late into the night. Bars, including their dining rooms, must not be open to persons under 21 years of age.
Soft drinks come with lots of ice. You can ask for no ice and the drink will probably be quite cold. Water is usually served cold and with ice unless you ask otherwise. It is usually not carbonated; if you want carbonated water, ask for “sparkling water”. Bottled water, carbonated or non-carbonated, costs at least $1 to $2. Table-service restaurants often bring free ice-cold tap water even before you take your drink order. Bottled water is assumed in fast food restaurants 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 specifically stated.
Types of services
Many restaurants are not open for breakfast. Those that do (especially fast food and diners) serve eggs, toast, pancakes, cereal, coffee, etc. Most restaurants stop serving breakfast between 10 and 11 am, but some, especially restaurants, serve it all day. Instead of eating breakfast at a restaurant, you can buy breakfast foods such as donuts, muffins, fruit, 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 used mainly by hotels and motels to describe a cold breakfast consisting of cereals, bread, muffins, fruit, etc. Milk, fruit juice, hot coffee and tea are the usual drinks. There is usually a toaster for the bread. This is a quick and cheap way to get food in the morning.
Lunch can be a great way to get food from a restaurant where dinner is out of your price range.
Dinner, the main meal. Depending on the culture, region and personal preference, it is usually eaten between 5 and 9 pm. Most restaurants accept your leftovers in boxes (usually called “take-out boxes”). It is advisable to book in advance if it is a popular, upscale restaurant or if you are dining with a large group.
Buffets are usually a cheap way to get a large amount of food. For a one-off flat fee, you can eat as many portions of the food on offer as you like. However, because the food can sit in the heat for hours, the quality can suffer. Usually, buffets serve American or Chinese food.
Many restaurants serve Sunday brunch from morning to early afternoon, with breakfast and lunch dishes. Often there is a buffet. As with most other meals, quality and price can vary depending on the restaurant.
Types of food
Typical American foods found in most restaurants or at large gatherings include hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, ice cream and cake. While many types of food remain unchanged in the United States, there are a few distinct regional variations. Most notable is the South, where traditional local dishes include grits (ground corn porridge), collard greens (a cooked vegetable often seasoned with ham and a little vinegar), sweetened iced tea, barbecue (which is not unique to this region, but is the best and most common), catfish (fried and served with a layer of breadcrumbs), maize bread, okra, red beans and gumbo (a stew of seafood or sausage, rice, okra and sometimes tomatoes).
Barbecue, BBQ or Barbeque is a delicious American speciality. At its best, it involves pork or beef ribs, brisket or pork shoulder that are slowly smoked over wood. The ribs are served whole, halved or cut into individual ribs, the brisket is usually thinly sliced and the shoulder can be pulled or chopped. Sauces with varying degrees of heat can be served on the plate or as a side dish. There are also unique regional styles of barbecue, the best of which are generally found in the South. The most distinctive styles come from Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina. California and Maryland have a style that emphasises beef grilled in an outdoor pit or brick oven. However, barbecue in some form can be found all over the country. Barbecue meat can be served with a variety of side dishes, including chilli, corn on the cob, coleslaw and potato salad. Barbecue restaurants are unpretentious and the best dishes are often served in very casual venues. Expect plastic utensils, picnic tables and sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbecue on the menu of an upscale chain or non-specialist restaurant may be less authentic. Ribs and chicken are almost always eaten with fingers; pork and brisket are eaten with a fork or in a sandwich. Some Americans (but never Southerners) use the term “barbecue” as a synonym for “cookout”: a party where chicken, hamburgers and hot dogs are grilled (rather than smoked) outdoors. These parties may be fun, but they do not represent American barbecue cuisine.
Thanks to a rich immigrant tradition, there is a wide variety of ethnic food in America; everything from Ethiopian to Laotian cuisine is available in big cities with large immigrant populations.
Italian cuisine is perhaps the most widespread of the ethnic cuisines in America, although it has often taken a different direction from Italian cuisine in Italy. All but the smallest villages have at least one restaurant specialising in pizza, and many have pasta restaurants as well. While the more upscale restaurants certainly offer more authentic dishes, it should be noted that the pizza commonly sold in the United States differs significantly from the Italian original, with New York and Chicago in particular having their own nationally famous styles of pizza not found in Italy. There are also restaurants that specialise in German or French cuisine, but in much smaller numbers. Nevertheless, the hot dog, whose origins go back to German sausages, has become an integral part of the American culinary landscape.
Chinese food is widely available and adapted to American tastes. Authentic Chinese food can be found in restaurants in Chinatowns, but also in communities with large Chinese populations. Japanese sushi, Vietnamese and Thai dishes have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentations. Indian eateries can be found in most major American cities.
Mexican/Spanish/Tex-Mex cuisine is very popular, but again in a localised version. The dishes are a combination of beans, rice, cheese and spicy beef or chicken with round flat breads called tortillas and are usually served with a spicy tomato salsa, sour cream and an avocado-based dip called guacamole. Small, authentic Mexican taquerias are easy to find in California and the Southwest, and increasingly in cities across the country.
Middle Eastern and Greek foods are also becoming increasingly popular in the United States. Gyro (known in Europe as “kebab”, “shawarma”, “gyros” or “souvlaki”) is a popular Greek sandwich on flatbread, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and a tzatziki sauce made from yoghurt and cucumber. Hummus (a chickpea-based dip/spread) and baklava pastries are often available in supermarkets, as is a growing selection of high-quality pita products.
The Jewish community in America has undoubtedly left a lasting mark on the culinary scene: Bagels and pastrami are very popular among Americans. The most famous shops are in New York City, but they can also be found in other major cities across the country.
Vegetarian food is easy to find in large metropolitan areas. As the number of vegetarians in the US grows, so does the number of restaurants catering to them. Most major cities and college towns have vegetarian restaurants that serve exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns, you may have to look through the menus of several restaurants before you find a vegetarian main course, or you may have to make up a meal of side dishes. Waiters can help you answer questions about meat content, but be clear about your personal definition of vegetarianism, as dishes containing fish, chicken, eggs or even small amounts of beef or pork may be considered vegetarian. This is especially common with vegetable side dishes in the southern states. Meatless breakfast dishes, such as pancakes or eggs, are readily available in restaurants. Vegans are also on the rise: many restaurants in big cities offer vegan options, and more and more places are being set up specifically for vegans.
People who eat a low-fat or low-calorie diet should be quite well off in the United States, as awareness of the importance of calories has increased since the 1970s. Fast food restaurants also offer low-calorie dishes and provide calorie and fat tables on request.
Awareness of food allergies varies. Packaged products (e.g. in grocery shops) must be labelled if they contain milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat or soy. Packaged foods must also list their ingredients, which may include non-specific information such as “spices”, “seasonings” or “added colours”. In contrast, non-prepackaged foods, even if served in a package or container – which includes restaurants, kiosks, bakeries and fresh produce in grocery shops – generally do not have to list allergens (although laws vary from state to state). Still, some restaurants do label allergens and are even proud to cater to people with food allergies, but it’s still your responsibility to protect yourself. Fast food chains and casual restaurants are often a safe bet because they know about food allergies and offer consistent ingredients and methods. In sit-down restaurants, inform your waiter (and possibly a manager or chef), ask questions, and if your waiter is unsure about something, ask them to double-check or insist on speaking to a chef. The recent popularity of gluten-free foods as a healthy diet (even for people without allergies or sensitivities) has led to a large number of gluten-free foods being marketed. However, as some of these products are ‘trendy’, they may not be sufficiently gluten-free for people with coeliac disease or wheat allergies.
For backpackers or people on a very limited budget, American supermarkets offer a seemingly endless variety of pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready to eat, e.g. breakfast cereals, ramen noodles, canned soups, frozen meals, etc.
There are many “corner shops” in large cities. These small convenience stores offer a variety of snacks, drinks and packaged foods. Unlike most convenience stores, their products are sold at relatively low prices (especially by urban standards) and can provide snacks or even (nutritionally incomplete) meals for a budget of no more than $5 per day.
It is generally inappropriate to sit at a table that is already occupied by other diners, even if it has open seating; Americans prefer this level of privacy when dining. Exceptions are cafeteria-style restaurants with long tables, crowded cafés and informal restaurants where you might ask a stranger if you can share a table, and some inexpensive Chinese restaurants where the staff will ask you to share a table. However, striking up a conversation in this situation may or may not be welcome.
Table manners vary greatly, but are typically European. It is impolite to suck or make other noises while eating, as well as to speak loudly (even on the phone). It is quite common to wait to eat until everyone at the table has been served. Cloth napkins should be placed on your lap, you can do the same with paper napkins or place them on the table. You won’t be offended if you don’t finish your meal, and most restaurants will wrap up the leftovers to take away, or provide you with a box (sometimes euphemistically called a “doggy bag”, implying that the leftovers are for your pet). If you want to do this, ask the waiter to take the leftovers “to go”; this term is understood almost everywhere and causes no embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an “all-you-can-eat” buffet or other service; you are not allowed to take portions from this type of meal or you will have to pay extra.
Many fast foods (sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, tacos, etc.) are designed to be eaten by hand (known as “finger food”); a few foods are almost always eaten by hand (French fries, barbecue ribs, chicken on the bone), even in moderately good restaurants. In case you are not sure: Eating with a fork and knife is unlikely to offend anyone; eating with a fork and knife in your hand, on the other hand, will, as it is considered “uncivilised” and rude.
If you are invited to a meal in a private home, you can ask if you can bring something to eat, e.g. a dessert, a side dish, wine or beer, or in the case of an outdoor barbecue, something useful like ice cream or plastic cups or plates. The host will often refuse, especially if you are a traveller. If you are not asked to join the meal, it is a good idea to bring a small gift for the host (often called a hostess gift). A bottle of wine, a box of sweets or fresh cut flowers are the most common. You should not expect this gift, if it is food, to be given with the meal; the host has already chosen the components of the meal. Gifts of money, prepared food or very personal items (e.g. toiletries) are not appropriate.
An exception is the take-out or potluck, where each guest (or group/family) brings a dish to share with everyone else; these shared dishes make up the entire meal. Dishes are usually grouped (e.g. salads, main courses or casseroles, side dishes, desserts); you should ask the host if there is anything in particular they would like you to bring. The ideal dishes for a potluck should be served in a large pot, bowl or dish and are usually served buffet style, so salads, casseroles and appetisers are important. These types of meals usually offer a wide variety of well-prepared dishes and can be the best way to experience authentic American cuisine – and your own foreign speciality can be the main attraction!
There is no nationwide smoking ban, so whether or not smoking is allowed in a bar, restaurant or other covered public space varies from state to state and even within a state. In most cases, smoking is prohibited. If there is a “no smoking” sign, lighting a cigarette can result in ejection, a fine or even arrest, in addition to unpleasant looks.
Smoking has acquired a social stigma – even where it is allowed. You should ask those around you if they object before lighting up. Many states have laws about smoking near public entrances: Look for signs indicating a minimum distance from the door, although these are not always enforced. If you find an ashtray or a cigarette butt, it is generally safe to smoke there.
Drinks in United States
Americans’ drinking habits are as varied as the backgrounds of the many residents. In the cities, there is everything from the local “shot and a beer” bar to the upscale “martini bar”; urban bars and nightclubs often serve simple food or nothing 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 places to eat nearby, residents go to the same place for meals and nightlife. A few states have “dry counties”, places where it is illegal to sell alcohol for local consumption; these places are mostly in rural areas.
The minimum drinking age is 21 throughout the United States, except in most remote territories (where it is 18). Enforcement of this rule varies, but if you are under 40 (or appear to be) you may be asked to show photo ID. Recently, some retailers have started requiring ID for all transactions. Some retailers do not accept foreign driver’s licences (except those from Canada and possibly Australia, as these licences have barcodes that can be read by US ID readers), so it is strongly recommended that you have your passport ready when purchasing alcohol. In some states, people under 21 are not even allowed to be in a bar or liquor shop.
The sale of alcohol is usually prohibited after 2am, but there are cities where bars are open later or even all night. In some states, most shops are only allowed to sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold in specialty shops. Some “dry counties” – mainly in the southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public places; private clubs (with nominal contributions) are often set up to get around this ban. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most cities prohibit outdoor drinking, although enforcement varies. Even if it is allowed, a visible bottle (rather than one in a small pocket) is either illegal or attracts police attention. Drunk and disorderly” is prohibited. Drink driving is very strictly policed. A blood alcohol level of .08% is considered “under the influence” and many states consider .05% “impaired”. If you are under 21, most states have set limits of .00-0.02%. Aliens are usually deported, even those with permanent residency. It is also illegal to have an open container of alcohol anywhere other than in the boot of a car, which can result in a hefty fine. If you find yourself in a situation where you have had a little more to drink than expected and you are not sure if you can drive, there are quite a few taxis in medium and large cities. Many automobile clubs offer hotlines to find a way home.
The sale of raw milk for human consumption is illegal in some states and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits the sale or distribution of raw milk between states.
Beer and wine are the main non-distilled alcoholic beverages, whisky is the main strong alcohol (i.e. a distilled beverage). Cider”, without further specification, is simply an unfiltered variety of apple juice. Hard cider is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apples. Although it was consumed with enthusiasm two centuries ago, its popularity is only now being revived after decades of oblivion.
Beer accounts for about half of the alcohol consumed in the United States. The nationally known pale lagers (which are cheap and mediocre) are still the most widely consumed, despite the emergence of other types of beer in the 1990s. Microbreweries, which specialise in small-batch, high-quality beers made using traditional methods, are providing much-needed variety. Microbreweries, also known as ‘craft beers’, are often inventive and experimental; some are excellent examples of classic beer styles, while others push the boundaries and develop new and unique flavours. Most are the work of individual regional breweries, although a few achieve national distribution. Some bars and restaurants offer microbrews, others do not, seemingly at random. Brewpubs combine microbrewery and bar, serving high-quality beers made on site. Vermont offers the most microbrews per capita in the country, followed by Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Maine, while Washington State produces 77 per cent of the total US hop crop, a key ingredient for beer production.
The wine is available in the full range of quality. American wines are mainly labelled by grape variety. The specificity of the labelling gives a rough indication of the quality. The colour alone (“red”, “white”, “rosé” or “rose”) indicates the lowest grade. At the top, regions are labelled 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 usually comes in a plastic bag in a box. The “fortified wines”, also called “bum wine”, are the complete opposite of the European high-end port, sherry or Madeira.
All 50 states have some form of viticulture, but 90 per cent of US wines – including the most famous from Napa Valley – come from California. Oregon’s Willamette Valley and Washington’s wines represent good value for money because they are less well known. Michigan, Colorado’s Wine Country and New York’s Finger Lakes produce German-style white wines that have won international competitions. The Llano Estacado region in Texas is also known for its wines.
Sparkling wines are available by the bottle in upscale restaurants and are sometimes served by the glass. The best Californian sparkling wines are comparable to the great French Champagnes, but they are not often sold in supermarkets outside California.
Most bars, with the exception of urban wine bars, serve worthless wine. Wine is taken very seriously by some restaurants, but as with all other alcoholic drinks in restaurants, expect to pay up to four times the liquor price for a bottle.
Hard liquor (i.e. spirits) is usually drunk with mixers, but can also be served “on the rocks” (with ice) or “straight” (unmixed, without ice, also called “neat”). Whisky, the traditional choice, remains popular despite the increasing popularity of vodka and other clear spirits. Whiskey is distilled from many different types of grain. The main types are rye (made mainly from rye, a relative of wheat), malt (made mainly from barley) and bourbon (made mainly from corn).
American nightclubs offer the usual range of different music scenes, from discos serving top-40 dance music to obscure clubs serving tiny snippets of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are quite numerous in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but you can find one or two in almost every town. Gay/lesbian nightclubs are also in almost every medium to large city.
During happy hour, a period of 30 minutes to three hours, usually between 5pm and 8pm, there are significant discounts on certain drinks. Ladies’ nights, where women receive a discount or other financial incentives, are becoming more common.
Until 1977, the only state in the United States where gambling was legalised was Nevada. The state has allowed gambling since the 1930s, giving rise to resort cities like Las Vegas and Reno. Nicknamed “Sin City”, Las Vegas in particular has transformed into a gambling haven for adults, offering many other after-hours activities such as amusement parks, nightclubs, strip clubs, shows, bars and four-star restaurants. Since then, gambling has spread outside Nevada to a variety of American cities such as Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Biloxi, Mississippi, as well as on riverboats, ocean cruises and Indian reservations. State lotteries and “scratch games” are another popular form of legalised gambling. However, online gambling and sports betting across state lines remain illegal in the United States.
The United States has one of the largest varieties of soft drinks (non-alcoholic carbonated drinks with high sugar content, as opposed to “hard” alcoholic drinks) and the best-known brands originate in this country. While Pepsi and Coca-Cola are sold (almost) everywhere in the world, some flavours are hardly known outside North America. Root beer, for example, is a non-alcoholic drink that contains various aromatic roots; while the taste is foreign to most Europeans who are not used to it, it is one of the first things Americans tend to miss when they are abroad for an extended period of time. Sparkling water is not commonly consumed by Americans and is considered more of a “European” curiosity, but it is available in most shops. Tap water is safe to drink, but is often avoided for its taste because of its chlorine content, which varies by region and can be very high. Regardless of what people say, bottled water is generally no better than regular tap water, apart from the chlorine problem mentioned above. Restaurants in some parts of the country, such as the South but not others, will often give you at least a refill, if not an unlimited refill, of the soft drink of your choice, and tap water is almost always served for free if you ask for it. Americans like to put lots of ice in their drinks. So unless you specifically ask for “no ice” (and sometimes even then), you will get plenty of ice with all your soft drinks, including water.