Americans love to eat out, but the weak economy could be testing their appetite for restaurant food, reports.

Rather than just an infrequent treat, a restaurant meal has become a daily ritual for many people. Almost half the money spent on food in the U.S. is spent at restaurants, a number that's been rising steadily for decades, says the National Restaurant Assn. And on any given day, almost one in two Americans patronizes a restaurant, the group says.

The dining landscape in the U.S. is increasingly varied and complex, ranging from independent restaurants of all stripes to fast-food chains such as McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King (BKC); newer "fast casual" restaurants including Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG) and Panera Bread (PNRA); inexpensive casual dining chains such as Applebee's, recently acquired by IHOP (IHP); and more expensive options like the Cheesecake Factory (CAKE).

A competitive environment for restaurants is getting tougher as hungry consumers spend more time cooking at home. The economy is the main culprit in the shift, analysts say. As the unemployment rate rises and home prices fall, Americans feel both less wealthy and more insecure about their future income. Also, high gas prices leave less money in the weekly budget for an evening out.

Price Hikes

Even if customers do decide to eat out or order in, they're increasingly likely to experience sticker shock when the bill arrives. Prices of many food commodities have skyrocketed, meaning restaurants are paying more and more for their raw materials, especially corn and wheat but also meat and dairy products.

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