Best fast food restaurants in America
Originally established as a seasonal cart, Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack became a permanent resident of New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2004, slinging snappy hot dogs, hand-spun milkshakes and griddled burgers inspired by the restaurateur’s hometown of St. Louis. With a focus on top-notch ingredients, the one-time stand has transformed into a formidable empire, boasting 100 outlets across the world and six more U.S. shops in the works this year.
There’s nothing clandestine about the “secret” menu at In-N-Out—it even has a page on the Cali chain’s website. But the not-so-covert items still garner a cult-like following by those who make the pilgrimage out west for smashed burgers and animal-style fries. The rest of the country’s been eagerly awaiting the patty-slinger’s expansion, but there’s no word on when—or if—it’ll move eastward.
It’s all in the spice mix. Popeyes’ top-secret blend imbues Cajun flavor into many of its beloved dishes, from the signature fried chicken to creamy mashed potatoes to its generously-seasoned fries. It’s no wonder the New Orleans-born restaurant has amassed a passionate following, including celebrities like Beyonce. Rumor has it, the Lemonade songstress loves the juicy, crackly bird so much, she served it at her wedding to Jay-Z.
Must-try: Spicy chickenPhotograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/osseous
You could call Five Guys a build-your-own pioneer. Founded by Virginia’s Murrell family—with, you guessed it, five guys—the 20-year-old burger joint offered customizable toppings long before it became the dining trend du jour. According to the eatery’s math, 250,000 dizzying combinations exist—luckily, there’s only one variation of the impeccably crisp hand-cut fries worth trying: Five Guys-style with a sprinkle of salt.
Must-try: Five Guys fries
Reverence for Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwich—a succulent fried breast and dill pickles tucked inside buttery toasted buns—is only rivaled by founder S. Truett Cathy’s dedication to his faith. Despite a company mandate that shuts down all franchises on Sunday (for church-going, not hangover-nursing, mind you), and a string of controversies that have seen boycotts and terrible publicity for the brand, the Atlanta-based poultry purveyor remains one of America’s fastest growing chains, boasting 2,000 franchises across the country.
Must-try: Chicken sandwich
Steve Ells’ burrito-slinging Chipotle ushered in a new wave of fast-casual dining, proving that quality ingredients and speedy service can go hand-in-hand. Hard-core fans even developed ways to hack the mix-and-match menu (nachos = burrito bowl - rice + chips; quesaritto = burrito + cheese quesadilla) and despite last year’s health fiasco, they’re returning to stores in full force—e-coli scares be damned.
Must-try: Carnitas burrito
As any stranded traveler will tell you, flight delays require a consolatory trip to the nearest cinnamon-scented kiosk. We can’t trust airlines to get us to our destination in a timely, frustration-free manner, but there’s no doubt our Cinnabon will arrive warm and gooey, shellacked in a rich coat of cream cheese frosting. Sugar high, here we come.
Must-try: Cinnabon classic roll
Fast food and healthy may seem contradictory, but they co-exist peacefully at Panera, the popular bread shop-turned-cafe headquartered in St. Louis. Options like the Power Hummus Chicken Bowl and Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich often garner a nutritionist seal of approval, though diners willing to make a caloric splurge should try the broccoli cheese soup served in a sourdough bread bowl.
Must-try: Mediterranean veggie sandwich
Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas was as much a television icon as he was a restauranteur. He starred in more than 800 commercials for the 47-year-old brand, hawking its burgers and iconic Frosty dessert in a soft-spoken, grandfatherly demeanor. In 2011—nine years after his death—Wendy’s dedicated a new line of Dave’s Hot N’ Juicy burgers to Thomas featuring a heftier quarter-pound patty that’s still available today.
Must-try: Chocolate Frosty
There’s no question that when it comes to fried chicken, Zaxby’s rules the roost—at least in the South. Dreamed up by two childhood pals on a Statesboro, Georgia basketball court, the comfort-food specialist knows its way with a fryer, sending out crispy bird in a number of forms (tenders, wings, etc.), plus a house-made Zax sauce with an equally passionate following.
Must-try: Chicken finger plate
Whether you’re seeking a road trip pit-stop or late-night booze-soaking fare, the Golden Arches have been dependable and satisfyingly greasy since 1954, when Ray Kroc stumbled upon—and later purchased—a small California restaurant run by brothers Dick and Mac McDonald. As McDonald’s grew into a global franchise, the Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish and Chicken McNuggets morphed into beloved American icons.
Must-try: French fries
As its name suggests, it’s all about biscuits at this family-owned joint housed only in North Carolina and Virginia. According to the company, the made-from-scratch pucks only call for three ingredients (flour, buttermilk and shortening) and get turned out every 15 minutes, guaranteeing warm, fluffy biscuits at all hours.
Must-try: Ultimate country ham biscuitPhotograph: Yelp/Stephen M.
The Texan eatery dethroned Chipotle and Qdoba as the country’s best Mexican restaurant in the latest survey by industry analyst Market Force Information, proving that size doesn’t always matter. With 175 locations across seven states (Chipotle has 1,500 nationwide), Taco Bueno has won over diners with its standout house-made salsa, refried beans and other Tex-Mex fare.
Must-try: Big Freak’n Taco (BFT)Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Mike Kalasnik
True to its Wisconsin roots, the secret to Culver’s exceptional burger is butter. The patties come sandwiched between buns that get a swipe of dairy before hitting the grill, resulting in a deliciously greasy package that’s best paired with another midwest specialty: frozen custard, a softer, silkier cousin to ice cream.
Thanks to recent menu tweaks, Arby’s has reemerged as a fast-food powerhouse. While competitors constantly add new products, the sandwich shop has only introduced one in recent years: a smokehouse brisket sandwich that went from limited-edition to part of the permanent rotation. While its slogan may be “We got the meats,” no meal is complete without a side of curly fries.
Must-try: Smokehouse brisket sandwich
There are few things as nostalgic—or satisfying—as watching a Dairy Queen clerk do the obligatory Blizzard flip. The hard part is, of course, deciding which add-in best complements DQ’s lusciously thick vanilla soft serve—the straightforward classics (Oreos, M&Ms) or the over-the-top combos (Turtle Pecan Cluster, Peanut Butter Cookie Dough)?
Must-try: Oreo BlizzardPhotograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/m01229
Down south, Whataburger’s orange and white stripes are nearly as iconic as McDonald’s yellow M, signaling meaty goodness in the form of wide, thin patties on a toasted five-inch bun. They’re not just skilled with beef, however—as much as its namesake hits the spot, Whataburger devotees will tell you that there’s no better hangover cure than the honey butter chicken biscuit.
Must-try: Patty melt
Opened by former Florida smoke eaters, the restaurant dispatches subs with firehouse-inspired names like Hook & Ladder and New York Steamer. The theme carries through in the decor as well, with Dalmatian-spotted table tops and bright yellow firemen jackets. Firehouse’s founders have even formed a foundation that donates to first responders around the country.
Must-try: Firehouse MeatballPhotograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Rusty Gillespie