Types of restaurants
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King 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" (often called "pop" in the Midwest through the Northwest, or generically "coke" in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good. Also the restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but 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 very common in larger cities, for food that may take a little longer to prepare than a fast-food place can accommodate. Place an order by phone and then usually drive to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver. Pizza is by far easier to get by delivery than in a restaurant.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from fast food. They may specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or a particular nationality, though some serve a large variety of foods. 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, Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday's, to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.
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 and prices to match. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes. 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.
The diner is a typically American, popular kind of restaurant. They are individually run, 24-hour 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; some serve breakfast all day. Diner chains include Denny's and Norm's, but there are many non-chain diners. Cost is comparable to a 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, areas for parking "big rigs", and shower facilities for truckers who sleep in their cabs. 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 burger and fries. A general gauge of how good the food is at a given truck-stop is to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.
Some bars double as restaurants open late at night. Note, however, that bars may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo ID proving they are not, and this may include the dining area.
Americans also tend to serve soft drinks filled with ice cubes to keep them chilled. Getting no ice in your drink is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. If you ask for water, it will tend to be chilled and contain ice cubes, and you will probably have to insist on not having ice cubes if you desire so.
Barbeque, BBQ, or barbecue is uniquely U.S. 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. Various parts of the US have unique styles of barbeque. The big regions are Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
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. Indian food outlets are available in most US cities and towns.
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 U.S. (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 the average main course 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 Laotian 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 main course, 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 U.S., 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.
It is generally considered inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if there are unused seats available. However, there are exceptions to this rule, mainly cafeteria-style eateries with long tables. In crowded informal eateries and cafes you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at, and in such circumstances you may be asked to share as well.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating are considered rude in most restaurants, as well as loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. Except in fast food restaurants, it is common to keep your napkin on your lap. Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a "doggy bag", implying that the leftovers are for your pet). Some restaurants offer an "all-you-can-eat" buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed, or carries an additional fee.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc) are designed to be eaten by hand.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In rural areas, alcohol is mostly served in restaurants rather than dedicated drinking establishments, but in urban settings you will find numerous bars and nightclubs where food is either nonexistent or rudimentary. In very large cities, of course, drinking places run the gamut from tough, local, "shot and a beer" bars to upscale "martini bars".
While most American beer drinkers prefer light lagers – until the 1990s this was the only kind commonly sold – a wide variety of beers are now available all over the States. It is not too unusual to find a bar serving a hundred or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and "draft", though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen "on tap". Microbreweries – some of which have grown to be moderately large and/or purchased by one of the major breweries – make every kind of beer in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand.
Wine in America is also a contrast between low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. California wines are labeled by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay) rather than the regional appellation, although wine producers are trying to give names like Napa Valley some more clout on the market. Imports are widely available in better stores and establishments. Many other U.S. regions have also undertaken winemaking, with varying levels of success and respect. Sparkling wines such as champagne and prosecco are available by the bottle in up-scale restaurants, but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. The wines served in most bars in America are unremarkable, but wine bars are becoming more common in urban areas.
Hard alcohol is usually drunk with mixers, but also served "on the rocks" or "straight up" on request. Their increasing popularity has caused a long term trend toward drinking light-colored and more "mixable" liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that older drinkers favor.
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes, from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
While it is common for Americans to drink alcohol, there are some often-peculiar legal restrictions leftover from the country's experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s Although laws regulating alcohol sales and possession vary by state and county, the drinking age is 21 throughout the U.S. Enforcement varies, but if you're under 30 you should be prepared to show photo ID when buying alcohol or entering a bar (which usually refuse admittance to "minors" under 21). Beware that many waiters/waitresses may have never seen a foreign passport or driving licence. In some states, a foreign passport or driver's license is not an acceptable form of identification for buying alcohol — and the bar could lose its licence to sell alcohol if it gets caught accepting such id. Go ahead and try using your passport as id and you'll probably get your drink — just be aware that it might be refused. Selling alcohol is typically prohibited after a certain hour, usually 2AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. Several "dry counties" – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most towns ban drinking in public (outside of bars and restaurants of course), with varying degrees of enforcement. All communities have some sort of ban on "drunk and disorderly" behavior.(with new hamsphire being a notable excpetion, its not illegal to be drunk there, only disorederly(providing one isnt driving a car) Drunk driving has come under harsher scrutiny, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% considered "Under the Influence" and many states considering 0.05% "Impaired". Drunk driving checkpoints are fairly common during major "party" events, and although privacy advocates have carved out exceptions, if a police officer asks a driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test or perform a test of sobriety, you generally may not refuse. Penalties for DUI ("driving under the influence") can include hefty fines and a night or two in jail. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol within reach of the driver.