A step up from fast food outlets in terms of service, selection, price, and atmosphere (though not necessarily in tastiness), "casual dining" chain restaurants proliferate in North American suburbia. Like fast food chains, the main advantages are a comfortable familiarity and reliable (if middling) quality, but the casual dining segment adds sit-down table service, broader menu variety, and a more relaxed pace. While the food is rarely as authentic as at local independent restaurants, some chains have developed original dishes with distinctive flavors.
This is a very popular form of eating out in the USA and Canada as an informal meeting place for friends, family and work colleagues.
Generally known as casual dining, the restaurant style can range from a basic diner to a reasonable mid to high range restaurant. The concept of a chain with consistent fare in every city is nothing new; the now-defunct "Harvey House" chain (84 locations constructed from 1876–1930, serving rail passengers) was historically merely the first of what has become a crowded marketplace of competitive vendors.
Service at tables is generally quick and efficient although they can be very popular at peak periods, so waiting for a table can take some time. Unlike more formal or individual restaurants reservation of a table is generally not possible or practical; as with other restaurants in North America, you are generally expected to wait and be taken to a table. Some chains offer "call-ahead seating", allowing you to call in to get into a virtual queue and show up at the restaurant closer to your actual seating time. Others will offer you a short-range pager, allowing you to visit nearby establishments while you wait.
With the exception of the breakfast chains and family restaurants, alcoholic drinks (with the usual North American restrictions) are available. A few of these chains include a bar (or a sports bar) inside the restaurants.
Chains that serve a traditional or contemporary American cuisine are probably the most common in the country. You'll find a variety of meat-based entrees (main courses), primarily beef and chicken. Vegetarian options could range from a token salad or veggie burger to a whole separate menu of creative choices.
American restaurants fall generally into three broad categories.
Bars and grills
The American bar and grill is a common restaurant format where seating is arrayed around a central bar. The bar is well stocked, though the capabilities of the bartenders can vary widely; not all of them are adept at mixing cocktails, for instance. Beer, either on tap or in bottles, is by far the most common beverage served. Patrons often get a drink at the bar and wait for other members of their party, or for a table to become available, rather than wait in the lobby. TVs are present, usually tuned to sports channels; while sometimes restricted to the bar area, other restaurants scatter them throughout the seating area.
The food tends toward the fried, grilled, and barbecued end of the spectrum. Servers often have a collective "gimmick" they're all expected to follow, such as a provocative uniform or breaking out into song on cue.
- Applebee's — mainstream American dishes, "neighborhood bar and grill". (US and 15 other countries)
- Champps Americana — sports bar style, reasonable classic US food (50 locations in eastern/midwest US)
- Red Robin — quality burgers as well as good reasonable Mexican, fish and salad dishes with unlimited fries. (over 500 locations, US and Canada)
- T.G.I. Friday's — food and alcoholic beverages (US and 60 countries internationally)
Steakhouses are similar to bars and grills, but they usually have a more formal atmosphere, and a greater focus on quality steaks. Your average bar and grill usually has a steak or two on the menu, but a steakhouse specializes in it. You generally won't find TVs or too many gimmicks here, and instead of a bar with beers on tap, you're more likely to find a wine list. However, steakhouses listed here as "casual" are often closer in layout to bar & grill establishments. This is especially the case for Logan's Roadhouse and Texas Roadhouse, and to a slightly lesser extent Outback Steakhouse.
- Bâton Rouge — Steakhouse. Renowned for their fall-off-the-bone ribs. Casual ambiance. (30 locations in eastern Canada)
- Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar — high quality and price, requires formal attire (US east, south and southwest, 28 states)
- The Keg Steakhouse & Bar — Canada-based chain with locations in all provinces except Prince Edward Island, plus four US states
- Logan's Roadhouse — casual Southern US-themed steakhouse (about 260 locations, mostly US south and midwest)
- Allergy warning: This chain provides complimentary peanuts to all diners, making peanut dust omnipresent.
- Outback Steakhouse — casual Australian-themed steak house (over 1200 locations throughout the US and more than 20 other countries, but almost totally gone from Canada)
- Ponderosa and Bonanza — two brands under the same ownership; both are casual steak houses with extensive buffets of appetizers, entrees, and sides; named for old Bonanza TV series (225 locations in US northeast, gone from Canada)
- Ruth's Chris Steak House — high quality and price; unlike Fleming's, business casual dress OK (about 125 locations throughout US, plus a few in Puerto Rico, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia)
- Texas Roadhouse — also casual; similar to Logan's in both menu and decor (about 450 locations in most of the US, also present in the Middle East and Taiwan).
- Allergy warning: This chain also provides complimentary peanuts to all diners.
Family restaurants and diners
Family restaurants serve inexpensive "homestyle" comfort food in a casual atmosphere. Many are open for breakfast; some, especially diners, even serve breakfast all day. These restaurants almost never have alcohol available (that's the "family" part). Some have a counter where you can sit and order without waiting for a table.
- Bob Evans — family restaurant (eastern US, 19 states)
- The Cheesecake Factory – upscale casual restaurant with an enormous menu, offering truly enormous portions of mostly American and Italian-American food. The breadth of the menu means that there's something for nearly everyone, including vegans and picky kids. As the serving size is unreasonably large even by American standards, plan to split a single large dish with a friend, or to take most of it home with you. They also offer more than 30 kinds of cheesecake each day, and multiple kinds of cake. (40 states)
- Chez Cora — Just "Cora" (with a still-sleepy cartoon sun) on some signs, this chain pioneered the "breakfast only" format in Canada. They're widespread throughout Quebec and the Windsor-Quebec corridor, and have a smaller presence in other provinces. They can be pricey, but the fresh-fruit selections are often worth it. Some locations have a limited weekday lunch menu.
- Cracker Barrel — Commonly found near Interstate Highway exits to cater to long-distance travelers; smaller portions but a wide variety of "country" dinners and "fixin's"; known for the Cracker Barrel Old Country Store in the lobby of each restaurant, which sells a variety of old-fashioned gifts, gadgets, and goodies (US, nationwide)
- Denny’s — always-open diner with table service (US, Canada, Mexico and 10 other countries)
- Eat'n Park — friendly restaurant with a small bakery that churns out their iconic Smiley Cookies; unlimited Soup, Salad & Fruit Bar (US regional: Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia)
- IHOP — originally known as International House of Pancakes; pronounced "EYE-hop" (US and Canada; also in Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Oceania)
- Skyline Chili — Ohio basic diner, cinnamon Chili on spaghetti is a must experience. (US regional: Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Florida)
- Smitty's — pancakes, waffles, omelettes, salad, sandwiches, steak, pasta, all day breakfast and lunch menus (Canada, national)
- Waffle House — always-open diner best known for its breakfast foods (US south, 25 states)
- P.F. Chang’s China Bistro — American variation on Chinese food. Generally good quality. Also large western style dessert dishes. (US, Canada, 10 other countries)
- Buca di Beppo — Basic Italian-American food, but with a unique service model. Food is normally served "family style", with each item served a la carte and shared among the dining party. (A few locations, however, do offer a lunch menu with individual-sized portions.) All rooms are themed, with the largest in each location being the "Pope's Table", a single round table seating up to 18 people with a bust of the Pope as the centerpiece. One other table, the "Chef's Table", seats up to 10 and is directly across from the main kitchen; if you can get seated there, the servers and chefs will talk with you and often let you sample several dishes. The decor is dominated by photographs of Italian and Italian-American subjects, and much of the background music is by Italian-American artists such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett. Owned by the Planet Hollywood chain. (US, about 100 locations, mostly near the coasts and in the Midwest; five in the UK, three in the UAE, and one in Metro Manila)
- The Old Spaghetti Factory (U.S. site, Canadian site) — Two separate chains that share a basic theme and a logo; each eatery is housed in a repurposed warehouse or historic building decorated with antiques, and they're known for using old trolley cars in their seating areas. The food varies between the two chains; the U.S. chain is surprisingly inexpensive for the quality and quantity, while the Canadian version is just a touch more upscale. (US, 44 locations in the West and Midwest; Canada, 15 locations in B.C., Alberta, Winnipeg, and Toronto)
- Olive Garden — basic American-Italian with an old-world theme (US, with a few locations in Canada and Mexico)
- Spaghetti Warehouse — Almost identical to The Old Spaghetti Factory in concept, but has shrunk precipitously in number of outlets since its peak; not cheap but portions are huge (US, 10 locations in Ohio, Texas, Nashville, and Syracuse)
- Chili’s — Tex-Mex, USA interpretation of Mexican food (US, Mexico, Canada and 30 other countries)
- Buffalo Wild Wings — Sports bar and casual dining (US, Mexico, Canada, Philippines). Owned by the parent company of the fast-food chains Arby's, Jimmy John's, and Sonic.
- St-Hubert — With over 100 locations in Quebec and nine more in neighboring areas of Ontario and New Brunswick, St-Hubert is widely considered to be French Canada's answer to the Anglos' Swiss Chalet (see below), and indeed the similarities are more numerous than the differences: like its counterpart, St-Hubert specializes in rotisserie chicken, with a mixture of dine-in restaurants and "Express" locations for takeout and delivery only (the "putt-putt ding-ding" commercials for St-Hub delivery are a longtime mainstay of Quebecois radio and TV advertising). The main difference you'll likely notice is in the dipping sauce served with the chicken: while St-Hub's version contains many of the same seasonings including that unmistakable hint of allspice, its base is chicken gravy only, with no tomato paste added. In addition, each location (except some of the Express locations) contains a full bar (Pub le St-Hub) with a surprisingly wide selection of beer and other drinks, and if you're a fan of sinfully rich French-Canadian desserts like Acadian-style sugar pie and chômeur pudding, save room after dinner.
- Swiss Chalet — Unlike most other chicken chains, the poultry at this Canadian chain is roasted on a rotisserie, rather than deep fried. Many locations have large dining rooms with full table service in addition to take-out counters, but some are takeout (or drive-thru) only. You'll find them all over Canada with the notable exception of Quebec, where St-Hubert (see above), owned since 2016 by the same parent company, reigns supreme.
- Bahama Breeze — Caribbean-inspired seafood, chicken, steaks, and tropical drinks (US regional, mostly eastern seaboard. 37 locations)
- Bonefish Grill — Specializes in grilled seafood, with fully stocked bars; specials on food and drink rotate about every 2 months. Owned by the parent company of Outback Steakhouse. (about 160 locations in 28 states)
- Red Lobster — seafood, steak. A bit pricey. (US, Canada, four other countries)