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United States of America (USA) - Food and Drink
The variety of restaurants throughout the US is remarkable. One thing that a traveler from Europe or Latin America will notice is that many restaurants do not serve alcohol. Another is the sheer number and variety of fast food and chain restaurants. Most open early in the morning and stay open late at night; a few are open 24 hours a day. A third remarkable fact is the size of the portions generally served by US restaurants. Although the trend has moderated in recent years, portions have grown surprisingly large over the past two or three decades.
Types of restaurants
Fast food restaurants such as McDonald's and Burger King are ubiquitous. But the variety of this type of restaurant in the US is astounding: pizza, Chinese food, Mexican food, fish, chicken, barbecued meat, and ice cream only begin to touch on it. Alcoholic beverages are not served in these restaurants; “soda” (often called “pop” in the Midwest through the Northwest, or generically “coke” in the South) or other soft drinks are standard. The quality of the food varies, but because of the strictly limited menu, it is generally good. The restaurants are usually clean and bright, and the service is limited but friendly.
Take-out food is very common in larger cities for food that may take a little longer to prepare than a fast-food place can accommodate. Place an order by phone and then drive to the restaurant to pick it up and take it away. Many places will also deliver. Pizza is easier to get delivered than by visiting a restaurant.
Chain sit-down restaurants are a step up in quality and price from fast food, although those with discerning palates will probably still be disappointed. They may specialize in a particular cuisine such as seafood or a particular nationality, though some serve a large variety of foods. Some are well-known for the breakfast meal alone, such as the International House of Pancakes (IHOP), which serves breakfast all day. A few of the larger chain restaurants include Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Applebee's and T.G.I. Friday's, to name a few. These restaurants generally serve alcoholic beverages, though not always.
Very large cities in America are like large cities anywhere, and one may select from inexpensive neighborhood eateries to extravagantly expensive full-service restaurants with extensive wine lists and prices to match. In most medium sized cities and suburbs, you will also find a wide variety of restaurants of all classes. In “up-scale” restaurants, rules for men to wear jackets and ties, while once de rigueur, are becoming more relaxed, but you should check first if there is any doubt.
The diner is a typically American, popular kind of restaurant. They are usually individually run, 24-hour establishments found along the major roadways, but also in large cities and suburban areas. They offer a huge variety of large-portion meals that often include soup or salad, bread, beverage, and dessert. They are usually very popular among the locals for breakfast; some serve breakfast all day. Diner chains include Denny's and Norm's, but there are many non-chain diners. Cost is comparable to a chain restaurant.
No compendium of American restaurants would be complete without mentioning the truck stop. You will only encounter these places if you are taking an inter-city auto or bus trip. They are located on interstate highways and they cater to truckers, usually having a separate area for diesel fuel, areas for parking “big rigs,” and shower facilities for truckers who sleep in their cabs. These fabled restaurants serve what passes on the road for “plain home cooking”: hot roast beef sandwiches, meatloaf, fried chicken, and of course the ubiquitous burger and fries. A general gauge of how good the food is at a given truck-stop is to note how many truckers have stopped there to eat.
Some bars double as restaurants and open late at night. Note, however, that bars may be off-limits to those under 21 or unable to show photo I.D., and this may include the dining area.
American restaurants serve soft drinks with a liberal supply of ice to keep them cold (and fill the glass). Asking for no ice in your drink is acceptable, and the drink will still probably be fairly cool. If you ask for water, it will usually be chilled and served with ice, unless you request otherwise. In many restaurants, soft drinks will be refilled for you at no extra charge.
Types of food
Barbeque, BBQ, or barbecue is a delicious American specialty. At its best, it's beef brisket, ribs, or pork shoulder wood-smoked slowly for hours. The brisket and ribs are usually sliced thin, and the pork shoulder can be shredded into a dish known as pulled pork. Sauce of varying spiciness may be served on the dish, or provided on the side. Various parts of the US have unique styles of barbeque. The big regions are Kansas City, Texas, Tennessee, and North Carolina; however, barbeque of some variety is generally available throughout the country. Barbeque restaurants differ from many other restaurants in that the best food is often served at very casual establishments. A typical barbeque restaurant may have plastic dinnerware, picnic tables, and serve sandwiches on cheap white bread. Barbeque found on the menu at a fancy chain or non-specialty restaurant is likely to be less authentic.
With a rich tradition of immigration, America has a wide variety of ethnic foods; everything from Ethiopian cuisine to Laotian food is available in major cities with large immigrant populations.
Chinese food is widely available, though a traveler from China might find it quite “Americanized.” Japanese sushi, Vietnamese, and Thai food have also been adapted for the American market in recent years. Fusion cuisine combines Asian ingredients and techniques with more traditional American presentation. Indian food outlets are available in most US cities and towns.
Mexican food is very popular, but again in a localized version. Combining in various ways beans, rice, cheese, and spiced beef or chicken with round flatbread loaves called tortillas, dishes are usually topped with spicy salsa, sour cream, and an avocado mix called guacamole. Small authentic Mexican taquerias can be found easily in the Southwest and increasingly in cities throughout the country.
Vegetarian food is easy to come by in big urban areas. As vegetarianism is becoming more common in the US, so are the restaurants that cater to them. Most big cities and college towns will have vegetarian restaurants serving exclusively or primarily vegetarian dishes. In smaller towns you may need to check the menu at several restaurants before finding a vegetarian main course, or else make up a meal out of side dishes. Meat-free breakfast foods such as pancakes or eggs are readily available at diners.
People on low-fat or low-calorie diets should be fairly well-served in the US, as there has been a continuing trend in calorie consciousness since the 1970s. Even fast-food restaurants have “lite” specials, and can provide charts of calorie and fat counts on request.
For the backpacker or those on very restricted budgets, American supermarkets offer an almost infinite variety of pre-packaged/pre-processed foods that are either ready or almost ready for consumption (e.g., breakfast cereal, ramen noodles, canned soups, etc.).
It is usually inappropriate to join a table already occupied by other diners, even if it has unused seats; Americans prefer this degree of privacy when they eat. Exceptions are cafeteria-style eateries with long tables, and at crowded informal eateries and cafés you may have success asking a stranger if you can share the table they're sitting at. Striking up a conversation in this situation may be unwelcome, however.
Table manners, while varying greatly, are typically European influenced. Slurping or making other noises while eating is considered rude in most restaurants, as well as loud conversation (including phone calls). It is fairly common to wait until everybody at your table has been served before eating. Except in fast food restaurants, it is common to keep your napkin on your lap. Offense isn't taken if you don't finish your meal, and most restaurants will package the remainder to take with you, or provide a box for you to do this yourself (sometimes euphemistically called a “doggy bag,” implying that the leftovers are for your pet). Visitors wishing to use this service option should ask the server to get the remainder “to go”; this term will be almost universally understood and will not cause any embarrassment. Some restaurants offer an “all-you-can-eat” buffet or other service; taking home portions from such a meal is either not allowed or carries an additional fee.
Many fast food items (sandwiches, burgers, pizza, tacos, etc.) are designed to be eaten by hand.
Drinking customs in America are as varied as the backgrounds of its many people. In some rural areas, alcohol is mostly served in restaurants rather than dedicated drinking establishments, but in urban settings you will find numerous bars and nightclubs where food is either nonexistent or rudimentary. In very large cities, of course, drinking places run the gamut from tough local “shot and a beer” bars to upscale “martini bars.”
While most American beer-drinkers prefer light lagers (until the 1990s this was the only kind commonly sold), a wide variety of beers are now available all over the US It is not too unusual to find a bar serving a hundred or more different kinds of beer, both bottled and “draft,” though most will have perhaps a dozen or three, with a half dozen “on tap.” Microbreweries, some of which have grown to be moderately large and/or purchased by one of the major breweries, make every kind of beer in much smaller quantities with traditional methods. Most microbrews are distributed regionally; bartenders will know the local brands. Some brew pubs make their own beer in-house, and generally only serve the house brand.
Wine in the US is also a contrast between low-quality commercial fare versus extremely high-quality product. California wines are some of the best in the world, and are available on most wine lists in the country. These are labeled by the grape (merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay) rather than the regional appellation, although wine producers are trying to give names like Napa Valley some more clout on the market. Imports are widely available in better stores and establishments. Many other US regions have also undertaken wine-making, with varying levels of success and respect. Sparkling wines such as champagne and prosecco are available by the bottle in up-scale restaurants but are rarely served by the glass as they often are in western Europe. The wines served in most bars in America are unremarkable, but wine bars are becoming more common in urban areas.
Hard alcohol is usually drunk with mixers, but also served “on the rocks” or “straight up” on request. Their increasing popularity has caused a long term trend toward drinking light-colored and more “mixable” liquors, especially vodka, and away from the more traditional darker liquors such as whiskey and bourbon that older drinkers favor.
Nightclubs in America run the usual gamut of various music scenes, from discos with top-40 dance tunes to obscure clubs serving tiny slices of obscure musical genres. Country music dance clubs, or honky tonks, are laid fairly thick in the South and West, especially in rural areas and away from the coasts, but one or two can be found in almost any city. Also, gay/lesbian nightclubs exist in nearly every medium- to large-sized city.
While most Americans drink alcohol, there are some often peculiar legal restrictions left over from the country's experiment with Prohibition in the 1920s. (Also, religion can influence alcohol restrictions, particularly in the American South and in Utah.) Although laws regulating alcohol sales, consumption, and possession vary somewhat by state and county, the drinking age is 21 throughout the US except in most of the outlying territories (where it is 18). Enforcement of this varies, but if you're under 30 you should definitely be prepared to show photo I.D. when buying alcohol in a store or entering a bar (which often refuse admittance to “minors” under 21).
A foreign passport or other credible I.D. will probably be accepted, but many waiters have never seen one, and it may not even be legally valid for buying alcohol in some places. It's worth noting that most American I.D.s have the date of birth laid out as month/day/year, while frequently other countries' I.D.s use year/month/day or day/month/year which may cause further confusion. Using false identification to misrepresent your age is a criminal offense in all 50 states, and while most alcohol vendors will simply refuse to sell or take a blatantly fake I.D. away, a few also call the police, which may result in prosecution.
Selling alcohol is typically prohibited after a certain hour, usually 2 AM. In some states, most stores can only sell beer and wine; hard liquor is sold at dedicated liquor stores. Several “dry counties” – mostly in southern states – ban some or all types of alcohol in public establishments; private clubs (with nominal membership fees) are often set up to get around this. Sunday sales are restricted in some areas.
Most towns ban drinking in public (other than in bars and restaurants, of course), with varying degrees of enforcement. Almost all communities have some sort of ban on “drunk and disorderly” behavior. Drunk driving comes under fairly harsh scrutiny, with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08% considered “Under the Influence” and many states considering 0.05% “Impaired.” Drunk driving checkpoints are fairly common during major “party” events and on holidays, and although privacy advocates have carved out exceptions, if a police officer asks a driver to submit to a blood-alcohol test or perform a test of sobriety, you generally may not refuse. Penalties for DUI (“driving under the influence”) can include thousands of dollars in fines and a jail sentence. It is also usually against the law to have an open container of alcohol within reach of the driver. Some states have “open bottle” laws which can levy huge fines for an open container in a vehicle, sometimes several hundred dollars per container.
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