The UK's 26,416 restaurants served 734 million meals last year, up from 721 million in 2004, at a value of £5.27b (or £7.61b when drinks are included), according to the research consultancy Horizons/Foodservice Intelligence.
Consumer spending on eating out in restaurants, pubs and cafes now totals around £12b a year, says researcher KeyNote, but has stayed relatively static since 2003, partly because of concerns over obesity and healthy eating on the fast-food market.
Yet, overall, Britons continue to dine out more often than their European and American counterparts, according to market researcher Datamonitor, buying an average of 633 meals outside the home a year, compared with 614 in the USA, and spending an average of £1,224 a head.
The biggest player on the UK restaurant scene, according to the British Hospitality Association's latest Trends and Statistics research, is Beefeater, Brewer's Fayre and TGI Friday's owner Whitbread, with some 1,603 outlets.
McDonald's also remains a big presence, with 1,203 outlets, while the Spirit Group's Chef & Brewer brand has 798 outlets and Burger King 724.
Other prominent players include PizzaExpress (386), Wimpy (274), Mitchell & Butler's Harvester brand (263) and the Restaurant Group's Garfunkels and Frankie and Benny's chain, on 253.
But there are also a number of relative newcomers beginning to make their presence felt, including Loch Fyne, on 33 outlets, Wagamama (34), La Tasca and Prezzo, both on 52.
According to Horizon's Peter Backman, the sector has experienced steady growth since 2002, which shows no sign of faltering.
"There is a long-term trend towards more casual eating out, people are more relaxed. They may go for a meal, then go out somewhere and come back to a different restaurant for the dessert."
Overall, the sector is buoyant at the moment, agrees Trevor Watson of property consultancy Davis Coffer Lyons.
"Trading conditions are good and most operators are doing pretty well. There is nothing out there that is really making the market feel weak," he says. "If an operator is not making money now then they should really be looking at what they are doing."
Last year, the Harden's guide reported that restaurants in the capital were opening at an unprecedented rate, with 142 opening in 2005 and prices in the £50 a head market rising by 5.7%.
One interesting facet is that, while many high-street retailers are reporting belt tightening by consumers, the British love affair with eating out shows no sign of diminishing.
"Eating out has become a much more convenience event that it used to be. Even in the current climate, where spending is under pressure, people do not want to compromise on eating out. They are also getting much more value for their money," says Watson.
The heart of the industry is still, inevitably, in London but other city centres, particularly Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham, are becoming more important as time goes on.
The growing interest of private equity and City investors is one of the key talking points within the industry today, say City and industry commentators.
The sector has experienced a frenzy of City activity over the past two years with, among others, Gordon Ramsay, Gondola Holdings (owner of Ask, Zizzi and PizzaExpress), Carluccio's, Clapham House Group, La Tasca, Image Restaurants and Prezzo taking their chances on the markets.
"The weight of private equity money looking to develop or roll out casual dining brands is looking very strong," explains DCL's Watson.
But it is important to get such a change in perspective, cautions Backman. "It is important to bear in mind that there are about 20,000 restaurants in the sector but not that many of them are group owned."
When it comes to property prices, restaurants reported growth of 4.7% last year, according to agent Christie & Co, and finding, and affording, good sites is now a serious issue within the industry.
Another challenge is disabled access, both in terms of customers and employees. Caterer research in 2005 suggested the hospitality sector lost £5b a year by failing to cater for disabled customers.
Age is another factor, with anti-age discrimination legislation coming into force from this autumn, meaning all employers should be re-assessing how they hire and retain people.
Other ongoing challenges are skills shortages, rising costs (including wages), soaring energy bills and consumer demands for healthier, fresher foods putting pressure on margins.
The restaurant trade, like so much of the hospitality industry, is vulnerable to unforeseen shocks, such as terrorist attacks. After the July 2005 bombings in London, shopper numbers (including for restaurants) fell by 12.6% before bouncing back.
This aside, the prospects look good. One possible cloud, cautions Watson, is the demand for scarce sites leading to corner cutting.
"The number of people looking for sites is increasing. The danger is that, when people are hungry for sites they start to compromise on the quality of the sites they take in order to roll out the business, which can end up undermining the brand values and the roll out," he warns.
Even with the current buoyancy of the market, independent operators in marginal locations will continue to be under pressure from quality corporate operators, he predicts, and, if anything, this is likely to get worse.
"Most towns now have a large number of quality corporate operators within them that make it hard for others to compete," he warns.
Other brands that are also looking likely to increase their foothold include Prezzo (set to open its 100th outlet this year), Loch Fyne, Caffe Uno, Fishworks, Wagamama, Ask, and Nando's.
But there are also many promising new players coming into the market, such as Leon or Chow Baby, suggests DCL's Watson.
"There is a whole clutch of operators emerging and from that probably one or two larger players will come about who may merge or acquire other companies," forecasts Backman.
"Their emergence will probably be to the detriment of older brands such as Beefeater or Harvester that have been, to be honest, in decline for some time now," he adds.
UK restaurant sector
|Year||Outlets||Meals (millions)||Food purchases||Food sales (£m)||Food and drink sales (£m)|
|Owner||Number of outlets||Brands|
|Whitbread||1,603||Beefeater, Brewer's Fayre, TGI Friday's|
|Spirit Group||798||Chef and Brewer|
|Mitchells & Butler||263||Harvester|
|The Restaurant Group||253||Garfunkel's Frankie & Benny's|
|Tragus||160||Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia|
|Out of Town Restaurant Group||97||Bitz and Pizza, Bradwells|
|Greene King||90||Hungry Horse|
|DPP Restaurants||54||Deep Pan Pizza|
|Noble House Leisure||30||- Jim Thompson's, Arbuckles|