HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


What's the difference between a coffee shop and a diner?

There's a best diner thread on the LA board. And some of the recs say "It's not really a diner, it's a coffee shop."

I understand there is a difference, I just don't know what it is.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. I think once upon a time, a coffee shop was basically a diner. If someone said to me "old fashioned coffee shop" I would imagine a diner.

    With the advent of Starbuck's, however, I think coffee shop now means place with fancy latte drinks, WiFi access, and maybe frozen coffee and/or tea drinks.

    A diner, to me, still has barstool seating, pancakes, burgers, shakes, malts, and only black coffee. No espresso drinks!

    1. The extent of the menu. Diners' go on for pages. A coffee shop is for sandwiches, maybe soup.

      1. I think of a diner as stand alone with parking and a coffee shop as a shop on the ground floor of a multi-storey office bldg.

        2 Replies
        1. re: yayadave

          that is pretty much how i think of them as well. coming from new york city, when i was growing up we also had luncheonettes....which i remember as being expanded candy/magazine stores, with a cash register in front, where you could buy candy/magazines, etc., then usually a counter where you could be served, and then some tables/chairs alongside or behind the counter.

          1. re: mshpook

            And one degree away from that is a deli. I think!

        2. don't diners serve breakfast (usually all day?), & coffee shops are where you go to buy a tall soy latte, "study", & use the free yfi? maybe it's a regional thing, weird!

          1. meatloaf, mashed potatoes w/gravy, and a veggie !

            1. IMHO, in L.A....

              diner = broad-sized restaurant with barstools, booths, fountain drinks, standard american short order grub.

              coffee shop = small diner. no or short bar, standard american short order grub but smaller menu, may have espresso drinks nowadays

              cafe = hip artsy spot for caffeinated beverages, haute munchies in a case, wifi, small tables, often with patio outside

              1 Reply
              1. Oh no, guys!

                Any baby boomer knows a diner is a very specific thing: It's one of those long pre-fab, railroad-car-looking things with stamped bare metal all over the place from the 40s and 50s. It has a long counter with stools in front of the food prep area and a single row of booths around the perimeter on three sides. It has only one entrance/exit. It's in the middle of the long side that presents to the street and the cash register is on one side of that door.

                A coffee shop is something of any other type of architecture with the same kind of menu.

                1. Rainey gives a nice perspective on the history of the diner. Coming from Joisey saw a lot of them growing up. And during the 60's they grew from the "greasy spoon" artistic impression to a stand-alone McD's style architecture on steroids. Most of the ones I remember are either called by the name of the town they are located (Summit, Rahway) or for an historic figure (Betsey Ross, Ben Franklin) The menus grew faster than their size and served every type of cuisine. Someone at the table could get Mexican, another Italian, a third Greek and the fourth some scrambled eggs and bacon.

                  Coffee shops are normally not free-standing and the menu starts at corn muffins through eggs and pancakes at breakfast. Lunch has the basic hamburger and deli meats hot and cold. Dinner they usually add a couple of Blackboard Specials (roast chicken, meatloaf, hot dogs and beans).

                  Starbs is neither. It's a place to buy coffee.

                  1. I wonder if there is a source for some authentic recipes from any of these diners? Meatloaf, or maybe pie? Would "blue plate special" be the same as "blackboard special"?

                    3 Replies
                      1. re: blue room

                        Lots of sites out there have recipes posted - just Google "diner recipes".

                        http://www.dottysdiner.com/ (220 recipes!


                        Also some books have been published:


                        And using Amazon's Online Reader, you can read through that cookbook (although you might have to use the "Surprise me!" link to see some recipes.)

                        1. re: LindaWhit

                          Thanks to you both, I'll check into these. The "Dotty's" site says it's Canadian, though, hmm.. diners in Canada too in '50s? I'll read more.

                      2. I always think of diners as places that have juke boxes and malts, shakes, sundaes, etc. IMO, they serve standard American grub. Burgers, fries, omelettes, sandwiches, cold and open-face, and some traditional chicken/steak dinners, along with a no-frills dessert menu of classic cakes and pies.

                        A coffee shop to me has less kitch, no juke boxes. Also, not all coffee shops serve breakfast all day. Malts and shakes aren't common orders. I also tend to associate coffee shops with lower lighting, and never themed waitstaff or traditions. Not a place for fancy coffees either.

                        To me, places like Starbucks, Bean, Peet's, etc. are "coffee places," never a coffee shop.

                        But, who am I?

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Emme

                          I don't know what to call Starbucks, et al. I can't call them coffee shops because that term has a completely different connotation to me (basically a diner w/o the cool architecture).

                          Coffee bar seems ridiculous. Cafe doesn't do it either. Maybe coffee places is the best term, because it's so generic and these joints are too.

                        2. The different regions will reply differently here. In the LA area, a coffee shop to a great extent meets all of the criteria for a diner, except for the cute streetcar architecture: it is a stand-alone establishment (i.e. not a part of any other concern such as a hotel or bus station), often with distinctive architecture, offering both counter and table service. The food ranges from the usual short-order items - burgers and the like - to plated meals of meat loaf, liver and onions, whatever. It is, in other words, exactly what I have in mind at least 70% of the time when I get hungry, which is as good a reason as any for me to settle down in the LA area...

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Will Owen

                            I forgot the most important criterion: the line on the menu that says "Breakfast Served Anytime"!

                            1. Diner = menu that is at least 6 pages long that spans from typical breakfast food to pastas to veal saltimboca to broiled fish. Also must serve breakfast all day and is open 24 hours.

                              Coffee shop = restaurant that serves the three meals, breakfast, lunch and dinner, but not all day, i.e., getting pancakes at 10pm. Usually a smaller menu with standard "american" food. Also, when I think of a "coffee shop" I think of the casual restaurants in hotels and resorts.

                              1. seriously, i think it's regional-- around here i don't think ANYONE would think they could get a burger at (what around here is called)a coffee shop. maybe a saran-wrapped sandwich, a big muffin, and if you're lucky a cup of hot soup. for sure there isn't going to be a waitress, nobody cooking at a griddle or grill, and chances are no kitchen AT ALL. coffee. that's why i guess we call them coffee shops.

                                diners are, like others say, places with breakfast, burgers, and american short-order, they have a long bar with stools, 1 or 2 waitresses working & pouring a lot of black coffee, and someone who's cooking, that's their whole job. Usually a combination busser/dishwasher as well.

                                Coffee shops are often not liscensed as restaraunts round here-- though there are a few coffee shops with full kitchens, they serve plated sandwiches (never burgers!) & maybe 1 or 2 breakfasty things like hot oatmeal or waffles, & soup, maybe they've got some desserts & pastries from the bakery down the street. I think what you guys call coffee shops would probably be called diners or cafes here (Twin Cities). :)

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: soupkitten

                                  btw "coffee shop" implies independant ownership, so Starbucks is not a coffee shop, it is a Starbucks (or first portal to hades, as you will)

                                2. Thanks for all the great responses.

                                  What's interesting is that -- as it applies to the diner thread on the L.A. board -- diners and coffee shops are essentially the same.

                                  In other words, when suggesting diners, no one suggested a Starbucks-like place. Everyone suggested diner-type places, though some thought that there was a finer distinction between the two.

                                  No consensus, but great replies. My sense is that it's largely regional. Personally, I see the two as being largely the same -- at least as far as the menu goes. As for the architecture, well, I know less about architecture than I do about trigonometry -- and my high school trig teacher would attest that that ain't saying much.

                                  1. Putting it in terms of TV shows, I think of Mel's diner, from Alice ( 1980's show?). For coffee shop, think of that place in Seinfeld where they used to hang out. They're similar ,but the diners around here ( NY- tristate area) have evolved, striving to become fancy schmancy and now have very extensive menus, ( most of which is not worth ordering, aside from breakfast, some soups and sandwiches. The diner is usually a stand alone and is open 24 hours.

                                    1. Does the term "greasy spoon" figure into this somewhere?

                                      1. Starbucks and its ilk are coffee bars.

                                        Coffee shop vs. diner is largely an architectural distinction; both keep long hours and serve mostly simple food, with all-day breakfast looming large.

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: Bill on Capitol Hill

                                          After reading this thread, I agree. I think I agreed before the thread, but this confirmed it.

                                          FWIW, this is the thread that peaked my curiosity:


                                          As you can see, at least two posters make a distinction between coffee shops and diners and my read is that they are talking cuisine, not architechture.

                                          Interesting topic, at least I thought so ...