In continental Europe, cafs often serve alcoholic beverages and light food, but elsewhere the term "caf" may also refer to a tea room, "greasy spoon" (a small and inexpensive restaurant, colloquially called a "caff"), transport caf, or other casual eating and drinking place. A coffeehouse may share some of the same characteristics of a bar or restaurant, but it is different from a cafeteria. Many coffeehouses in the Middle East and in West Asian immigrant districts in the Western world offer shisha (nargile in Greek and Turkish), flavored tobacco smoked through a hookah. Espresso bars are a type of coffeehouse that specializes in serving espresso and espresso-based drinks.
From a cultural standpoint, coffeehouses largely serve as centers of social interaction: the coffeehouse provides patrons with a place to congregate, talk, read, write, entertain one another, or pass the time, whether individually or in small groups. Since the development of Wi-Fi, coffeehouses with this capability have also become places for patrons to access the Internet on their laptops and tablet computers. A coffeehouse can serve as an informal club for its regular members. As early as the 1950s Beatnik era and the 1960s folk music scene, coffeehouses have hosted singer-songwriter performances, typically in the evening.
The most common English spelling, caf, is the French, Portuguese, and Spanish spelling, and was adopted by English-speaking countries in the late-19th century. As English generally makes little use of diacritical marks, anglicisation tends to omit them and to place the onus on the readers to remember how it is pronounced without the presence of the accent. Thus the spelling cafe has become very common in English-language usage throughout the world, especially for the less formal, i.e., "greasy spoon" variety (although orthographic prescriptivists often disapprove of it). The Italian spelling, caff, is also sometimes used in English. In southern England, especially around London in the 1950s, the French pronunciation was often facetiously altered to and spelt caff.
The English words coffee and caf derive from the Italian word for coffee, cafffirst attested as cave in Venice in 1570 and in turn derived from the Arabic qahuwa (). The Arabic term qahuwa originally referred to a type of wine, but after the wine ban by Mohammed the name was transferred to coffee because of the similar rousing effect it induced. European knowledge of coffee (the plant, its seeds, and the beverage made from the seeds) came through European contact with Turkey, likely via Venetian-Ottoman trade relations.
The translingual word root /kafe/ appears in many European languages with various naturalized spellings, including; Portuguese, Spanish, and French (caf); German (Kaffee); Polish (kawa); Ukrainian (, 'kava'); and others.