United States of America
The cuisine of the United States of America has a history dating back before the colonial period when the American Indians had a rich and varied cooking style for an equally diverse amount of ingredients. With European colonization, the style of food preparation changed vastly, with numerous ingredients introduced from Europe, as well as cooking styles and modern cookbooks. The style of cookery continued to expand into the 19th and 20th centuries with the influx of immigrants from various nations across the world. This influx has created a rich diversity and a unique regional character throughout the country.
American food in the 20th and 21st century - Hamburger is really a very common food in the United States. One characteristic of American cooking is a fusion of multiple ethnic or regional approaches into totally new cooking styles. Asian cookery has played a particularly large role in American fusion cuisine. Similarly, while some dishes considered typically American many have their origins in other countries, American cooks and chefs have substantially altered them over the years, to the degree that the dish as now enjoyed the world over are considered to be American. Hot dogs and hamburgers are both based on traditional German dishes, brought over to America by German immigrants to the United States, but in their modern popular form they might be reasonably considered American dishes.
The variety of restaurants throughout the US is remarkable. One thing that a traveller 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.
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 neighbourhood 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.
Barbeque, BBQ or barbecue is a delicious American specialty. At its best, its 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 traveller 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.).
Etiquette - 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.