I'm looking for words that can distinguish two business types. Take, for example, McDonalds and Takara. McDonalds is a business that, while it is a "restaurant", does not behave like a restaurant, in the sense that customers just order food and directly pay there, much like retail. On the other hand, Takara is also a restaurant, and it behaves like one in the sense that customers order food, wait, and pay once they're done.

I was thinking of the terms "Retail" and "Restaurant", but in the case of McDonalds and Takara, both are restaurants but one acts like retail and the other doesn't. What are good words to categorize these two business types in order to differentiate them?

  • 5
    This is really a question about business classification, not English. By certain definitions, McDonald's is absolutely a restaurant, and by certain definitions, all restaurants are retail. What kind of writing, and for what audience, are you engaged in?
    – choster
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 2:19
  • @choster I wasn't very specific because I wanted a wide range of answers. I'm trying to distinguish business types in a POS system, where in the "retail" mode there aren't tables ("counter service") while in "restaurant" mode there are ("table service") but my word choice was not correct
    – Mingle Li
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 13:20
  • 1
    I think your comment explaining how you would like to use the words is important information that should be part of your question. I understand why you didn't want to be too specific, but too vague can be a problem too :) There are many different categories for restaurants, and which you would choose depends on why you're grouping them.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 13:32

4 Answers 4


You could describe the type of service the restaurant offers instead of describing the restaurant itself.

"Counter Service" has some variations, but it usually means that a customer will walk up to a counter and place their order and pay for it before they receive it. Then they might wait for their food at the counter and carry it to a table, or they will sit down and someone will bring their order to them.

"Table service" usually means that the customers sit at a table and a waiter will take their order and deliver their meal after it is prepared. Most of the time the meal is paid for after it is eaten, and a gratuity for the servers is expected.

Sometimes though a "fast food" restaurant might offer table service or a counter service restaurant will offer "fine dining" style food.

Example of how to use these terms:

While a restaurant with table service might be a good choice for a special occasion, restaurants that offer counter service are becoming more popular for a quick meal.

  • To me, "fast food" means you pay and get your food up front. Table service may or may not be provided, but that is irrelevant to the original question as I read it. "Fast food" is necessary and sufficient to answer the question in my interpretation. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 19:08
  • @Darren did you read the comment by the author under the question explaining what they were looking for in more detail? I encouraged Mingle Li to add it to their question.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 19:53
  • I didn't see that, thank you for pointing it out. In that case I think this question might possibly be more related to Software Engineering, or even English Language & Usage rather than English Language Learners. That is a subtlety that is not clearly distinguished among many native speakers. Many restaurants with "counter service" also have tables, and some of them even send someone around to service the tables, even if payment is all handled up front at the counter. That sort of payment, to me, is the clear distinction between "fast food" and otherwise. Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 20:16
  • To clarify further: as you have defined "counter service" and "table service" in your answer, they are exactly synonymous with my concept of "fast food restaurant" and "not a fast food restaurant". When you say "Sometimes a fast food restaurant might offer table service" to me that either means it is no longer a fast food restaurant (i.e., it now meets your definition of table service) or it is still a fast food restaurant (because it still satisfies your first definition in spite of the fact that there is someone waiting tables, and it still does not satisfy the second definition) Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 20:18
  • @DarrenRinger Well I don't think (in general) you should have to know the answer to tell whether a question is off-topic. This is a pretty straight-forward question about what is the appropriate word in English to describe something and while it might also be on-topic on ELU, it's on-topic here (and I think from the score very useful to our community). I wrote this answer, because (by accident) a comment I left under JR's answer seemed to be exactly what MingleLi was looking for and they wanted to accept it as an answer.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 20:22

McDonald's is known as fast food, and this term can be used adjectively (as in fast food restaurant).

Adjectives you can use to describe the other kinds of restaurants include:

  • eat in
  • dine in
  • fine dining

(There are probably others as well, but those three are listed roughly in order of increasing fanciness.)

There are many kinds of restaurants. Some kinds get their own noun (such as steak house), some can be described with slang (such as hole in the wall), and some are named by their cuisine (like Takara, a Japanese restaurant) .

  • 8
    There is also "counter service" and "table service" - those don't necessarily describe the restaurant itself though.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 20:03
  • 3
    My family calls the Takara-style restaurants "sit-down restaurants"
    – Jeutnarg
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 22:20

I would say that McDonalds is a fast-food restaurant, while Takara is a sit-down restaurant. Granted, "sit-down" is not as elegant as "table service" (and may just be local dialect) but it gets the meaning across.

  • 2
    Well, sit-down may not be as "elegant" as table-service, but I think it's a better option in most casual conversations. (Sometimes less elegant is better; this seems to be one of those times.)
    – J.R.
    Commented Jul 12, 2017 at 22:33
  • Note that, as ColleenV points out, fast food restaurants often offer table service. I would not be confused by a sentence like, "Let's go find a table at the nearest fast food restaurant." However, I would also not be confused by a sentence like "Do you want to go to a fast food restaurant or a sit-down place?" The contrast between fast food and sit-down tells me that fast food us being used to mean counter service in this case.
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 15:38
  • @Vectornaut agreed, there are no clear distinctions. There are restaurants where you pay first at the front, then sit down and wait some time before getting your meal, but you are not expected to tip your server (in the US). So it's not really "fast" but also not really a typical "table-service" experience.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 19:34

I see a couple of others have wanted to describe the business model you described of paying up front as fast food. However, I am aware of restaurants which are not fast food that also have the model of paying up front. Therefore, I don't think that's an adequate description.

Probably the best description I can think of is prepay business model. There are many variations - some restaurants are experimenting with buying a ticket in advance for the full value of the meal, just like you buy a ticket if you fly on an airplane or go to a concert. Most cafeterias require customers to pay before they eat, as do many delis and coffee houses (and, of course, most fast food restaurants).

Another word that come to mind is takeout business model. Actually almost any restaurant will offer a takeout service even if it is primarily a dine-in/sit down restaurant. Many also have delivery service in at least a limited area. Some of the reasons why are explained here.

In general the advantages of these kinds of approaches are greater certainty that customers will not make reservations and fail to show, improved table turnover (up to 80% improvement when comparing a prepay model with a post-pay model), and less delays for customers (no waiting for the check after the meal, etc.)

On the other hand a traditional, dine-in/sit-down restaurant with a post-pay business model is trying to upsell customers. The longer a customer sits, the more food, desserts and drinks the customer might order. Some restaurants make up to 75% of their income from selling drinks but a more typical number is probably around 20%. A typical restaurant will charge prices such that the actual costs of the restaurant are: 50% of what they charge for meats, 30%-50% of what they charge for wines, 15% of what they charge for pasta and salad, and less than 10% of that they charge for desserts. So if customers will stay longer and order more foods like desserts, that's almost pure profit to the restaurant.

  • 2
    +1 nice answer that describes these using more formal, economic language. As you point out, cafeterias, buffets, coffee houses (but not coffee shops, at least in the US) and others all use the prepay business model. The main distinction between these and post-pay restaurants is, I think, the waitstaff.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 13, 2017 at 14:50

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