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Recession's over, so who forgot to tell diners?

The recession may be over, but diners apparently haven't gotten the message.
The recession may be over, but diners apparently haven't gotten the message.Scott Olson / Getty Images File

Despite aggressive restaurant promotions, Americans aren't eating out more.

Restaurant visits have been flat this year, while growth in average check size fueled a 2 percent increase in spending, according to data from market research firm The NPD Group.

"It was said the recession was officially over in 2009, but consumers aren't behaving that way," said NPD restaurant analyst Bonnie Riggs, adding that people are practicing caution and control in their spending.

Consumer confidence declined again last month after a sharp drop in October. Until that metric rebounds and the employment situation improves, Riggs said, industry watchers shouldn't expect to see much traffic growth.

Nicole Miller Regan, a senior restaurant analyst at Piper Jaffray, said restaurants have had "minimum growth" in overall sales, which is "basically at the pace of GDP" growth.

"The employed people just don't feel great about spending," Regan said. "It's tightening the wallet. They're going out, but maybe they're spending less or using a coupon."

Christine Caraway, a 27-year-old systems coordinator for a bank, falls into this category. While waiting for her order at a Manhattan McDonald's, Caraway said higher meal costs drove her to cut her restaurant visits in half beginning in 2012.

"I'd rather just cook at home," the Brooklynite said. "They've gotten more expensive and the quality's gotten worse."

Full-service casual dining and midscale or family dining spots have continued to struggle this year. The sectors' names include Cracker Barrel, Denny's, DineEquity's IHOP and Applebee's, Darden Restaurants' Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and Brinker International's Chili's.

Fast-food sales rose 1 percent, with gourmet coffee, doughnuts and bagel companies driving much of the growth.

Still, there is a bright spot in the industry this year. Fast-casual restaurants that serve more premium options relatively quickly, such as Chipotle Mexican Grill and Noodles & Co., had an 8 percent traffic jump in the 12 months through September.

Fast-casual growth has been driven by diners like James Gold, a 28-year-old recent graduate school graduate.

Gold eats out about four to five times per week, frequenting Chipotle along with restaurants that serve pizza and ramen.

"It's convenient — it's not terrible fast food," Gold said about the Mexican chain. "So it's almost my go-to for convenient food."

Millennials cut back on their spending, even though restaurants continue to test mobile ordering and innovative food items aiming at attracting them.

As that age group struggles with record student loan debt and higher relative unemployment, per-capita restaurant visits by 25- to 34-year-olds dropped to 207 this year from 251 in 2008.

In the total population, by comparison, per-capita visits fell to 193 from 208 in that time frame.

"The thing that's really interesting about the industry right now is what's keeping it afloat are not the millennials," Riggs said. "It's the boomers ... who are visiting restaurants more."

Restaurants are making a number of changes to accommodate older diners, including providing more comfortable seating, quieter locations, better lighting and healthier items, she said.

Looking ahead, NPD expects some improvement. By year-end, it estimates, visits on a rolling 12-month basis will rise 1 percent and spending 3 percent.

—By CNBC's Katie Little. Follow her on Twitter @KatieLittle.

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