The UK eating-out market is worth more than £25b a year, according to market research firm Mintel.
Stand-alone restaurants (as opposed to pub, hotel, in-store and roadside restaurants) account for about a fifth of the total, or £5.4b.
And the fast-food restaurant sector accounts for a further £6.7b.
With an estimated 56,000 restaurants employing some 500,000 full and part-time staff, the industry is hugely dynamic.
The British Hospitality Association (BHA) calculates that 70% of restaurants are owner-operated, meaning the sector is a key part of Britain's enterprise economy.
The golden arches of McDonald's are still the biggest presence on the UK restaurant scene, with some 1,235 outlets, according to the BHA's Trends and Statistics 2004.
Burger King is next, on 700, followed by Whitbread, owner of Pizza Hut (578) and TGI Friday's (41). Next comes TDR Capital, owner of Pizza Express (340), Ask (170) and Nando's (93).
Further dominant players include the Restaurant Group - which owns the Garfunkel's, Caffe Uno and Frankie & Benny's brands - and Conran Restaurants.
In 2004 food and drink sales in the restaurant sector, as opposed to fast-food outlets and pubs that served food, grew by about 3%, according to market analyst Horizons. In the other two sub-sectors, growth was pretty much static.
Mintel has calculated that the market has grown by 18% since 1999, but this equates to just 2% when the effects of inflation are stripped out.
As for most of the hospitality sector, 11 September and the Iraq war have had a significant impact over the past four years, but the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak was the crisis that most left restaurateurs in a cold sweat at night.
Nevertheless, the market has bounced back since then and, according to agent Christie & Co, the property market for pubs, restaurants and hotels was buoyant in 2004, with demand outstripping supply throughout the UK.
Even with the recent cooling off in property prices and rising interest rates, this situation was likely to continue during 2005, predicted Christie in January. Restaurant prices, it said, rose by 3.3% during 2004, compared with 2.6% in 2003.
An important trend for restaurateurs has been the arrival of external funding in the shape of venture capital firms, such as Pizza Express owner TDR Capital and Legal & General Ventures, which in January 2005 bought Tragus, owner of Café Rouge and Bella Pasta.
The arrival of new funding has led to a high level of merger and acquisition activity, but there remain plenty of opportunities for smaller, independent operators to enter the sector, suggests David Coffer of property agent Davis Coffer Lyons.
"We have never seen so much funding. There is now such a wide range of funders," he says.
"It has never been such a competitive market but there has never been such diversity on offer either," adds Stefan Breg of consultancy Tribe.
Restaurants are having to respond to changes in population behaviour and demographics.
Britons may be Europe's biggest spenders when it comes to eating out, as a survey by Datamonitor reported in January 2005, but supermarket and chef-led ready meal and other eating-in options have also improved immeasurably.
The market has to respond to an increase in dual-income households, more working women and a rise in older consumers, Breg says.
"Five or six years ago you could almost open any old pap on a high street, now you have to be a lot sharper," he adds.
There has also been a blurring of the market at the edges, with the rise of the gastro-pub and tougher competition from pubs on food at one end and improving quality among fast food restaurants at the other, argues Peter Backman of Horizons.
London is still very much the hub of the UK restaurant scene, and is likely to remain that way, but other big cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol are making more of a mark.
Margins will continue to be eroded, suggests Breg. Increasingly demanding customers are already an issue and will become more so in the future, adds Coffer.
"Even organisations such as McDonald's have had to address that problem. People are becoming far more sophisticated," he says.
How to improve levels of service, particularly outside the capital, will also need to be addressed, he suggests
Economically, a sharp increase in interest rates or a steep downturn could affect the market but, generally, prospects for the next four to five years are good, Coffer adds.
While merger and acquisition activity will undoubtedly continue, there is also likely to be an increasing segmentation of the market, suggests Backman, perhaps with the creation of a "fast casual" sector such as in the US.
This will essentially be restaurants that are one level up from fast-food, offering a more comfortable "restaurant-type" dining experience at a slightly higher price than traditional fast-food outlets.
This trend is already being seen in operations such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen, bought by Clapham House Group last November, Backman argues.
Food and drink sales (provisional)
|Pubs (food and drink sales associated with the food offer)||£5.2b||£5.1b|
|Operator||Brands||Number of outlets|
|Whitbread||Pizza Hut/TGI Friday's||619|
|TDR Capital||Pizza Express, Ask, Nando's||603|
Source: BHA Trends and Statistics, 2004