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1839, American English, from Mexican Spanish cafeteria "coffee store," from café "coffee" (see coffee) + Spanish -tería "place where something is done" (usually business). The ending came to be understood popularly as meaning "help-yourself" (as though café + -teria) and was extended to new formation with that sense from c.1923.
Allowing a range of choice; Smorgasbord: cafeteria insurance plans (1980s+)
self-service restaurant in which customers select various dishes from an open-counter display. The food is usually placed on a tray, paid for at a cashier's station, and carried to a dining table by the customer. The modern cafeteria, designed to facilitate a smooth flow of patrons, is particularly well-adapted to the needs of institutions-schools, hospitals, corporations-attempting to serve large numbers of people efficiently and inexpensively. In addition to providing quick service, the cafeteria requires fewer service personnel than most other commercial eating establishments.