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Shake Shack
Photograph: Courtesy Shake Shack

The best fast food restaurants in America

From classic burgers to tasty tacos, these are the best fast-food restaurants in the US

Written by
Tim Lowery
Patty Lee
Clara Hogan
Virginia Gil
Scott Snowden

Fast food can get a bad rap. Sure, it's usually not the healthiest option for something to eat—but it's always there when you need it, like when you're on a road trip, are hungover, have a case of the late-night munchies or simply need food that's quick—and cheap. 

And out of all the countries in the world, America has fast food on lock. We're home to the OGs like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell. But across the country, there is a slew of smaller-scale regional favorites, like Maid-Rite and Culver's in the Midwest, Zaxby's and Whataburger in the South, or In-N-Out in California. Then we have the higher class breed, like Burger haven Shake Shack.

Out of the many fast-food chains, we've ranked our favorites—and called out the must-order dishes at each from the potato olés at Taco John's to the spicy chicken sandwich at Popeyes. Read our list of best fast food restaurants, and prepare to get hungry.

Top fast food restaurants in the U.S.

Photograph: Jakob N. Layman

1. In-N-Out

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. Besides, who can argue with the tastes of The Dude from The Big Lebowski? 

Must-order: Double-double

Shake Shack
Photograph: Shutterstock/Manu Padilla

2. Shake Shack

Shake Shack is both a fast-food spot and a destination restaurant, depending on where you live. Make the queue at its original location in Madison Square Park for a leisurely (read: the lines are long) meal amid one of NYC's most beautiful green spaces. One thing is true of all Shake Shack locations (of which there are about 300 in the U.S.): the burgers are excellent and made from 100-percent, all-natural, Angus beef. And so are the all-beef hot dogs, crispy crinkle-cut fries and the milkshakes. If we’re being honest, we love it all.

Must-order: Shack Stack

Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
Photograph: Courtesy Popeye's

3. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

It’s all about the spice, people. Popeyes’ hush-hush blend imbues Cajun flavor into many of its beloved dishes, from the signature fried chicken and creamy mashed potatoes to those generously-seasoned fries. It’s no wonder the New Orleans-born restaurant has amassed an uber-passionate following. 

Must-order: Spicy chicken

Raising Cane's
Photograph: Courtesy Raising Cane's

4. Raising Cane's

Out of all the types of fast-food chains, those focused on chicken dishes are most in demand as of late. And none are expanding as quickly as Raising Cane's, which got its start in Baton Rouge, Louisana in the 1990s. The restaurant has found success by never straying from its original fan favorites: crispy chicken tenders, crinkle-cut fries, coleslaw and buttery Texas toast. This tried-and-true menu is working out, with plans to open another 100+ stores this year across the country. 

Must-order: Chicken fingers

Photograph: Courtesy Zaxby's

5. Zaxby's

Speaking of fried chicken, Zaxby’s is one of the rulers of the roost—at least in the South. Dreamed up by two childhood pals on a Statesboro, Georgia basketball court, the comfort-food spot slings out crispy bird in a number of forms (tenders, wings, etc.), plus a house-made, addictive Zax sauce. 

Must-order: Chicken finger plate

Taco Bell shows no sign of slowing down, debuting a new item seemingly every week. Hell, even its boozy cantinas are continuing to expand. But despite all the additions and newfangled spins on its Mexican fast food, one thing remains a constant: a stoner-friendly, late-night-worthy and cheap menu that hits all the right notes—if you’re stoned…or out super late…or broke.   

Must-order: Burrito Supreme 

Burger King
Photograph: Courtesy Burger King

7. Burger King

Two words: flame broiled. Miami-born Burger King has made its mark with this signature cooking style since it first opened back in 1954. It's one of the few burger chains to use fresh toppings, was among the first to feature plant-based options and is known for its innovation. Anyone remember the black Whopper? And who could resist the rodeo burger? Surely, not us.

Must-order: Whopper

Photograph: Courtesy Biscuitville

8. Biscuitville

As its name suggests, Biscuitville family-owned chain in North Carolina and Virginia is obsessed with biscuits. 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-order: Ultimate country ham biscuit 

Photograph: Tom Dubanowich

9. Wendy's

Fun fact for young folks: Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas starred in more than 800 commercials for the brand, hawking its burgers in a soft-spoken, grandfatherly demeanor. He passed away in 2002, but his signature never-frozen beef patties and iconic Frosty desserts live on. 

Must-order: Chocolate Frosty

Photograph: Courtesy Maid-Rite

10. Maid-Rite

If you haven't spent much time in the Midwest, you may have never heard of Maid-Rite. Let us introduce you. This chain started in Iowa in the 1920s and is famous for its "loose meat" sandwiches. While that may not sound particularly enticing, trust us—a bite of the seasoned ground beef served on a warm bun will change your mind. The restaurant is still mainly in Iowa but has 11 locations outside of the state, including Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio. 

Must-order: Maid-Rite sandwich

Photograph: Courtesy Whataburger

11. Whataburger

Down south, Whataburger’s orange and white stripes are almost as iconic as McDonald’s golden arches, 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-order: Patty melt

Taco John's
Photograph: Courtesy Taco John's

12. Taco John's

For many Americans, the belief that Taco John's is far superior to Taco Bell is a hill they will die on. What started as a taco stand in Cheyenne, Wyoming back in 1969 is now a major fast-food chain with more than 400 restaurants across 23 states. The company has won hearts and stomachs with its crispy tacos and famous potato olés (round bites of crunchy potato, sprinkled with spices). Taco John's claims to have started the term when its owner marketed the phrase “Taco Twosday” for its 99 cents-for-two tacos deal. The company then actually trademarked "Taco Tuesday" for more than 40 years but recently gave it up after a legal dispute with Taco Bell. 

Must-order: Potato olés

Photograph: Courtesy Arby's

13. Arby's  

While the fast-food powerhouse's slogan may be “we have the meats,” no meal at Arby's complete without a side of tough-to-quit curly fries. And 58 years into its run, Arby's still serves up those classic Roast Beef and Beef 'n Cheddars. 

Must-order: Smokehouse brisket sandwich

Dairy Queen
Photograph: Courtesy Dairy Queen

14. Dairy Queen

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)? Psst: The burgers ain't too shabby here either. 

Must-order: Oreo Blizzard 

Photograph: Courtesy Culver's

15. Culver's

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 delicious package that’s best paired with another Midwest specialty: frozen custard. 

Must-try: ButterBurger


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