AskDefine | Define cafeterias

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Plural of cafeteria

Extensive Definition

A cafeteria is a type of food service location in which there is little or no table service, whether a restaurant or within an institution such as a large office building or school; a school dining location is also referred to as a canteen or dining hall. Cafeterias are different from coffeehouses, although that is the Spanish meaning of the American word.
Instead of table service, there are food-serving counters/stalls, either in a line or allowing arbitrary walking paths. Customers take the food they require as they walk along, placing it on a tray. In addition, there are often stations where customers order food and wait while it is prepared, particularly for items such as hamburgers or tacos which must be served hot and can be quickly prepared. Alternatively, the patron is given a number and the item is brought to their table. Sometimes, for some food items and drinks, customers collect an empty container, pay at the check-out, and fill the container after the check-out. Free second servings are often allowed under this system. For legal purposes (and the consumption patterns of customers), this system is rarely or never used for alcoholic beverages.
Customers are either charged a flat rate for admission (as in a buffet), or pay at the check-out for each item. Some self-service cafeterias charge by the weight of items on a patron's plate.
As cafeterias require few employees, they are often found within a larger institution, catering to the clientele of that institution. For example, schools, colleges and their residence halls, department stores, hospitals, museums, and office buildings often have cafeterias.
At one time, upscale cafeteria-style restaurants dominated the culture of the Southern United States, and to a lesser extent the Midwest. There were several prominent chains of them: Bickford's, Morrison's Cafeteria, Piccadilly Cafeteria Apple House, K&W, Britling, and Blue Boar among them. Currently two still exist, Sloppy Jo's Luchroom and Manny's, both located in Illinois. There were also a number of smaller chains, usually in and around a single city. These institutions, with the exception of K&W, went into a decline in the 1960s with the rise of fast food and were largely finished off in the 1980s by the rise of "casual dining". A few chains — notably Luby's and Piccadilly Cafeterias (which took over the Morrison's chain), continue to fill some of the gap left by the decline of the older chains. Many of the smaller Midwestern chains, such as MCL Cafeterias centered around Indianapolis, are still very much in business.
The world's largest non-military cafeteria is in the Brody Complex at Michigan State University.


The cafeteria as it is known in the United States originated in Los Angeles in the very late 19th century. It derives from earlier food service traditions brought to California from Mexico by immigrants. The name Cafeteria is in fact Spanish, and roughly means "coffee shop." In California the self-service style became more streamlined, with probable influence from the factory assembly lines coming into vogue at that time, and American-style foods were served, although in California cafeterias (restaurant and institutional iterations both) Mexican style dishes continued to be available alongside standard American fare. In the early 20th Century dozens of cafeterias stood in Los Angeles. Today, Clifton's Cafeteria is the only remaining cafeteria from that era. It opened in 1935 and is decorated to resemble a mountain wonderland in the manner of Yosemite National Park.

Other Countries

A school cafeteria in Australia is called a canteen and is not set up like in the U.S. Service is much more like a takeaway store with patrons approaching a counter and ordering food, and paying at the register.
Australian university and hospital cafeterias are similar with the exception that payment is required per meal - charges may be per person (all you can eat), per serve, per plate or by weight.

Other names

A cafeteria in a U.S. military installation is known as a chow hall, a mess hall, a galley, or, more correctly, a dining facility, whereas in common British armed forces parlance, it is known as a cookhouse or mess. Some monasteries and boarding schools refer to their cafeteria as a refectory. Students in the USA often refer to cafeterias as lunchrooms, though breakfast as well as lunch is often eaten there. Cafeterias serving university dormitories are sometimes called dining halls or dining commons. A food court is a type of cafeteria found in many shopping malls and airports featuring multiple food vendors or concessions, although a food court could equally be styled as a type of restaurant as well, being more aligned with public, rather than institutionalised, dining.
cafeterias in Danish: Cafeteria
cafeterias in German: Mensa (Universität)
cafeterias in Spanish: Cafetería
cafeterias in French: Cafétéria
cafeterias in Hebrew: מזנון (חנות)
cafeterias in Italian: Mensa
cafeterias in Dutch: Mensa (eetgelegenheid)
cafeterias in Japanese: カフェテリア
cafeterias in Swedish: Cafeteria
cafeterias in Portuguese: Bandejão
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