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Cafeteria vs. Cafe: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Updated on November 10, 2023
A cafeteria is a self-service dining establishment, while a cafe is a small restaurant offering light meals and beverages.

Key Differences

A cafeteria primarily denotes a type of dining place where customers typically serve themselves from an array of pre-made dishes. On the contrary, a cafe, though often casual, offers more of a sit-down environment where one orders from a menu, and staff serve the food and drinks.
While both cafeterias and cafes provide food and beverages to customers, the ambiance and setup often vary. Cafeterias are frequently associated with institutional settings like schools, hospitals, or businesses, offering a straightforward dining experience. Cafes, meanwhile, exude a more relaxed and often cozy environment, potentially featuring comfortable seating, music, and sometimes even books or games for leisure.
In terms of menu offerings, cafeterias usually present a broader selection of dishes, often including main courses, sides, desserts, and drinks. Cafes, however, typically focus on light meals, snacks, and a variety of beverages, especially coffee.
The interaction level with staff differs between the two as well. In a cafeteria, one might only interact at the checkout counter after choosing their meal. In a cafe, there's more interaction as you might place an order, request refills, or ask for the bill.
To sum it up, while both cafeterias and cafes cater to those looking for food and drinks, a cafeteria leans more towards functional and self-service, and a cafe offers a more ambient, service-based experience.

Comparison Chart

Service Type


Typical Setting

Institutions like schools, businesses.
Standalone, often in commercial areas.


Broad selection including main courses.
Light meals, snacks, and beverages, especially coffee.


Straightforward, functional.
Relaxed, cozy.

Customer Interaction

Primarily at checkout.
Order, request refills, get the bill from staff.

Cafeteria and Cafe Definitions


A self-service dining establishment.
Students gathered in the cafeteria for lunch.


A place known for its coffee and beverages.
The new cafe in town roasts its own beans.


A place offering a selection of ready-to-eat meals.
She quickly picked a sandwich from the cafeteria's display.


A venue that combines dining with other leisure elements, like music or books.
The bookstore cafe became her favorite workspace.


A dining setup where patrons choose from displayed options.
The new cafeteria layout allowed for smoother flow during peak hours.


A casual eatery with a relaxed ambiance.
The cafe by the river is the perfect spot for reading.


A venue with multiple food counters or stations.
The mall's cafeteria has a variety of cuisines to choose from.


A small restaurant offering light meals and drinks.
They met at a quaint cafe downtown for coffee.


An institutional dining area.
The company's cafeteria serves meals to over 500 employees daily.


An establishment where one can socialize over food and drinks.
Local musicians often play at the neighborhood cafe.


A restaurant in which the customers are served at a counter and carry their meals on trays to tables.


A restaurant serving coffee and other beverages along with baked goods or light meals.


A dining area, as at a school or office building, where meals may be purchased or brought from home and eaten.


Alternative form of café


A restaurant in which customers select their food at a counter then carry it on a tray to a table to eat.


(South Africa) A convenience store, originally one that sold coffee and similar basic items.


A dining area in an institution where meals may be purchased (as above), provided, or brought in from elsewhere.


A coffeehouse; a restaurant, especially a small restaurant where drinks and snacks are sold; also, a room in a hotel or restaurant where coffee and liquors are served.


A restaurant or café at which the patrons serve themselves with food kept at a counter, typically paying a cashier at the end of the counter and taking the food to tables to eat.


A small restaurant where drinks and snacks are sold


A room within a building functioning in the same manner as a cafeteria{1}. In certain organizations, as schools, the food may be provided gratis.


A restaurant where you serve yourself and pay a cashier


Where might I find a typical cafeteria setting?

In institutions like schools, hospitals, or large businesses.

What's the ambiance of a cafe?

Cafes are typically cozy and relaxed, often with a focus on beverages.

Are cafes mainly about coffee?

Many are, but cafes can also offer teas, snacks, and light meals.

What's the main difference between a cafeteria and a cafe?

A cafeteria is self-service, while a cafe provides staff service.

Do you always serve yourself in a cafeteria?

Most cafeterias are self-service, though there might be some assistance.

Do cafeterias always have a wide range of dishes?

While not a strict rule, cafeterias usually offer a variety of ready-to-eat meals.

Is the term "cafe" of foreign origin?

Yes, it's borrowed from the French word "café" meaning coffee.

Are cafeterias formal dining settings?

Generally, they're more functional than formal.

Are cafes typically smaller than cafeterias?

Often yes, but size can vary based on location and business model.

Can a cafeteria be in a commercial setting?

Yes, many malls or large office buildings might have a commercial cafeteria.

Can you find both a cafeteria and a cafe in a mall?

Yes, many malls have both, with cafes for casual sit-downs and cafeterias in food courts.

Do cafes often feature outdoor seating?

Many do, especially in areas with pleasant weather.

Which is likely to stay open later, a cafe or cafeteria?

Cafes, especially in urban areas, often have longer hours than institutional cafeterias.

Is a coffee shop the same as a cafe?

They're similar, but a cafe might have a broader menu than a coffee-focused shop.

Can a cafe have themes?

Yes, some cafes have specific themes or niches, like cat cafes or music cafes.

Do both cafeterias and cafes serve desserts?

Yes, both often have dessert options, though the variety might differ.

Can you find cafes inside bookstores?

Yes, many bookstores feature cafes for customers to read and relax.

Is a cafeteria's focus more on meals than snacks?

Typically yes, they offer complete meals along with sides and drinks.

Are cafes more expensive than cafeterias?

It depends on location and offerings, but cafes might charge more for ambiance and service.

Is it common to find international cuisine in a cafeteria?

Larger cafeterias might offer a variety of cuisines, but many stick to standard local dishes.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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