EBM News English
Leading News Portal in English

Cafeteria vs. Canteen: Dining Establishment Differences

People often interchange the words ‘cafeteria’ and ‘canteen’ to describe eating places, although there is minimal difference in their meanings. However, distinctions in usage exist between British English and American English. Here’s a brief explanation of these terms and the types of establishments they typically refer to.


McDonald’s and KFC exemplify cafeterias, where customers order and retrieve their food. These establishments typically feature a counter where patrons queue to view the menu, place their orders, and sometimes pay simultaneously. Meals are then carried on trays to tables equipped with chairs for dining. The defining characteristic of a cafeteria is self-service, distinguishing it from traditional restaurants where waiters take orders and serve meals at the table.


In British settings, ‘canteen’ is more commonly used compared to American usage, where it mainly serves as a term for a military facility catering to armed forces personnel.  In Commonwealth countries, a canteen denotes a simpler eating establishment often found in colleges, factories, and hospitals, offering a basic menu at lower prices than cafeterias. In the US, ‘canteen’ also refers to a water container used by hikers and soldiers. Canteens typically subsidize food prices to benefit employees or workers, aiming to discourage them from leaving the premises to eat, which would waste time and money.