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What does 'hole in the wall place' mean in the US?

In the UK (to the best of my knowledge and experience) a hole in the wall place is a wall, with a hole in it. (i.e. a serving hatch). But many US posts seem to imply that a hole in the wall place has seating and so perhaps has a door, and tables.
So what, from a US point of view, is a 'hole in the wall place'?

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  1. Just a small, inconspicuous shop/eatery.

    1. In the US, a hole in the wall generally means a local, small, indistinct place. Like a small restaurant run out of a place that wasn't always a restaurant, with little to no ambiance and usually a quite casual place where you wouldn't imagine a restaurant.

      I most frequently use the phrase when describing something like mexican or thai "yeah, that great little hole in the wall has great margaritas". You don't go there for the atmosphere, or the decor, or service, but because the food is great. If it was what you are describing, I describe it as a carry out or even "walk through" (versus "drive through"

      1. I like this post because it just highlights how words and phrases change meaning as you move around the world.

        in the us - a "hole in the wall" is typically a small, local, not fancy at all, "place". It could be a restaurant or it could just be a bar.

        In my opinion, they are typically dark, not particularly clean, definitely local hangouts. I would use it to describe a bar or restaurant that if you didn't like or have any affection for you might call a "dump" (which might be another word that doesn't translate all that well to the Queen's English - haha)

        I'm curious how others will define it!

        6 Replies
        1. re: thimes

          Maybe more 'dive' than 'dump'?
          Or if there's no bar - a 'caff' (as opposed to a 'cafe').

          ARE there actual hatch serveries in the US? I know of a few in my home town in the UK - basically buildings with no public access, just a serving hatch that opens in the evening.

          1. re: Peg

            Yes - "dive" is a much better word than "dump" - correction noted!

            Honestly I don't know of any "hatch" places in the US. There may be a few in New York City that are in more community neighborhoods but I couldn't name any.

            I have been to a few places that do have walk-up hatches but they almost always have an inside area (even just a very small one) as well. We do have food trucks - which are kind of like hatch serveries but out of a truck - so not exactly the same but probably the closest thing we have in the US on any large scale.

            1. re: Peg

              Does a "hatch" mean a restaurant where there is no seating indoors? In Southern California, there are numerous roadside, fast food restaurants where one places and receives orders at a window. Sometimes, there is limited outdoor seating. Other times, there isn't any seating at all.

              1. re: Peg

                Miami is full of Cuban "coffee windows" where you walk up and get the best sugary espresso shots or cafes con leche or guarapo (fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice), always with croquetas de jamon or empanadas or pastelitos or quesitos. No public entrance or seating, just the window.

                1. re: Peg

                  Your description of hatches makes me think of the set up at many ice cream shops here- order at the window, eat at a picnic table if you aren't getting back in your car right away.

                  1. re: Peg

                    I can think of a few fast food stands in Chicago - serving stuff like Italian beef, gyros, burgers, and Chicago hot dogs - that don't have seating. Some custard stands are like that too. And there are quite a few chain pizzeria locations which are strictly take-out. But we don't have an overall category of seatless eateries like you do.

                2. My personal US definition is it's a small owner operator place that usually specializes in a specific type of food. Not very big, basic tables or booths, paper napkins and utensils. They may or may not speak English very well. Not a lot of frills. The glasses and dinner ware aren't necessarily going to match.

                  So yes, not completely a take out (or take away I believe is the UK term?) window only. It will have tables and seating.

                  1. And sometimes, a hole-in-the-wall is not any old hole-in-the wall. . .

                    1. Has no literal relevance to the term "hole". My definition is a place that has established itself over the decades with respect to its food. As for the decor, it isn't necessarily a primary concern, so it may lack the glamor or pizzazz of a more upscale place while still giving you a memorable dining experience.

                      1. It can by dive-y, dirty...and delicious (at least when used in a positive tone of voice; if a negative tone of voice, ditch the last adjective).

                        1. Oh, I don't know... in Boston we had a real Hole in the Wall, in the alley between Devonshire and Washington. We'd line up in the alley for sandwiches and soups - very good food, reasonably priced, open only for lunch. There was a sister operation somewhere behind the Woolworth's. This was in the 80's so I don't know if either of them are still there. Nowadays, i suppose we have mobile hole-in-the-walls in the form of food trucks.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: applehome

                            I loved the Hole in the Wall, back in the early 90's. They had the best oozing egg salad sandwiches. I never saw the sister operation in Woolworth's and was in that area often, though, so I think that was gone by then.

                          2. Sometimes a hole - in the - wall is 5*s , sometimes its O*s

                            1. I probably have a history of slumming it down more than most hounds, but my favorite holes in the wall have had these common elements: 1) Most are/ were bars. 2) Walls are discolored from decades of smoke, when smoking in public was lawful. 3) Customers and staff have known each other for many years. Everyone knows each other, has heard everyone's story many times, often times talk about who died in the past 10 years and what a great guy he was, and knows who among the living are full of shit, and who never buys you a drink after you buy him one. 4) Restrooms are cleaned every leap year, faithfully, whether they need it or not. 5) A lot of light bulbs are out, including parts of the flourescent sign in the window, and it hums. 6) Darts and bar dice. 7) Usually has a flea bitten resident dog. 8) Barmaid tips the Toledo's at around 200, but she always smiles and cooks surprisingly well and has daily specials. 9) The winning lottery number is prominently posted. 10) There is a collection jar for the most recent local tragedy, well stuffed with wrinkled bills by hard working folks with calloused hands.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: Veggo

                                Yep, that's my local hole-in-the-wall of my twenties. Add loud singing of rock anthems and Sinatra and truly bad pizzas/burgers/dogs and we're there. Always a collection jar for the latest victim.

                                I am so glad I'm now in my forties ;)

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  That's what I would call a dive--using that term in the best possible sense.

                                2. In Connecticut it means a legacy left through Paul Newman:


                                  1. Like everyone said, 'a hole in the wall' refers to the simplest looking restaurant/dining place. Nothing fancy.

                                    1. Ah, my mother's defination: Not a place she intends to partake of the dining experience. In other words, a dive, a greassy spoon, or somplace that either the establishment or staff is thought to be to her standards.

                                      Granted, this is a rather narrow defination, but it's the one I grew up with, so that's what it means to me. She was first generation Italian American that grew up in the Italian neghborhood of Chicago, in many cases, it just meant it wasn't Italian and wasn't fancy.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: mikie

                                        Yes, my mother's definition would be much different than mine. My favorite was in Albany, NY, a former "beanery" where folks would line up during the 1930's depression for a nickel for beans, In the 1980's they were known for excellent corned beef and cabbage sandwiches. Brown paneling, Pabst Blue Ribbon in quarts, and a *insert non PC ethnic name here* serving window 8' off the ground they had me at hello. The corned beef and rye were sublime, we went there for all work birthday parties and I was the only person in town that could get a reservation for lunch.

                                      2. Peg

                                        Reading the threads, it's what in the UK we'd call a "back street place".