Sandra Pedicini
Orlando Sentinel

Mike Parson didn’t feel as if he were in a fast-food joint at a newly renovated Orlando, Fla., Wendy’s with a lounge, faux fireplace, Wi-Fi and separate counters for orders and pickup.

“It feels more like a hangout,” said Parson, a 22-year-old University of Central Florida student.

That’s exactly what Wendy’s was aiming for — more of a Panera Bread vibe — with its design in the restaurant, which will be used in new and remodeled restaurants from now on.

“We’re moving a little bit toward the fast-casual,” said Craig Madanick, a Wendy’s field marketing manager. “We feel it’s necessary for us to stay competitive and gain the upper edge to offer a new environment to our consumers.”

America once had very specific kinds of restaurants. There was fast food for a quick bite, casual dining for a fun night out, and fine dining for that really special occasion. But now those lines are getting fuzzier.

As they struggled to lure more customers during the Great Recession, some chains began looking to broaden their appeal.

“The blurring is definitely occurring,” said Bonnie Riggs, restaurant analyst for the research company NPD Group. “They’re trying to find all kinds of ways to drive visits.”

Wendy’s changes are happening even as Panera Bread Co. has turned to one of fast food’s standard features: the drive-through lane.

Red Lobster is trying pay-at-the-counter service.

Fine-dining restaurants have become more casual, Riggs said, and more focused on their bar business.

Two new categories have evolved and flourished the past few years: fast casual and polished casual. Fast-casual restaurants such as Panera Bread are a step up from fast food and a tad more expensive. Customers order and pay at the counter, but the food tends to be fresher and more sophisticated.

Polished-casual restaurants such as the Cheesecake Factory, meanwhile, offer more contemporary fare and atmospheres than a typical TGI Friday’s or Olive Garden. So, as casual-dining restaurants lose to quicker, cheaper competitors, some say, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Red Lobster, owned by Darden Restaurants, has begun testing “Seaside Express,” a pay-at-the-counter lunchtime option, in two Orlando-area restaurants. Applebee’s is trying a similar concept. The lunchtime options are quicker, and there’s no obligation to tip. Menus are also getting expansive. At Red Lobster last year, nearly 25 percent of its items were not seafood — up from 8 percent previously.