Travel topics > Food and drink > Fast food in the United States and Canada
While part of the joy of travel is experiencing new cuisines and expanding one's epicurean horizons, sometimes a hungry traveller just wants something familiar, with consistent quality, quick service, and a low price. This is where the fast food restaurant shines. And even with fast food there are some "hidden gems" that you can't get just anywhere. Finally, foreign visitors might find it interesting to try out some fast food restaurant they've seen in American media.
"Street food" has been a staple of civilization dating back millennia, to the dawn of cities and personal commerce, but it was only in North America that the mass-produced, quickly prepared meal moved indoors and was refined into the modern, efficient fast food restaurant of today, allowed through the industrialization of the United States, the rise of automobile travel and the colonization of the "Wild West".
While it is often scoffed at by health advocates and gourmands on the one hand and by locavores, traditionalists, and promoters of local cuisines on the other, fast food is today often seen as the quintessentially American food. While fast food as a concept — or, indeed, many of its components — are by no means American inventions (French fries were invented in Belgium, while hot dogs and hamburgers have German roots), American chain restaurants have undoubtedly perfected and globalized this style of food.
As is so often the case with local cuisines, the best examples of fast food are found where they were developed: in North America. While some chains are available almost everywhere, others are highly localized even within the U.S. and may only have restaurants in small parts of the country or a handful of states (for example, White Castle in the Midwest and the New York City area, Krystal in the South, and In-N-Out Burger on the West Coast). Even today, some fast food restaurants are owned by a single family and only present in one place, with no intent to form franchises elsewhere or expand. These locations sometimes serve the epitome of fast food and tend to be popular with locals.
- Hamburgers — Arguably the most well known fast food dish in the world, a hamburger comprises (at minimum) a bun and a ground beef patty, usually with other ingredients like lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles, bacon, or cheese piled within. Marketing for these chains tend to emphasize the bacon and cheese variations and there are indeed some truly heart-stopping combinations with quadruple patties, double bacon and double cheese, making the lone piece of lettuce seem like a fig leaf.
- Sliders — Miniature hamburgers with thin, square patties about three inches long, generally sold by the sack. Can also refer to any miniature bun-based sandwich of similar size.
- Hot dogs — A sausage (usually mixed beef and pork, or pure beef, known as a wiener or frankfurter) in an elongated white flour roll (called the bun). The hot dog was allegedly named for its resemblance to a dachshund. Chili, mustard, ketchup, relish, and other items are added to taste, with great variations from city to city (Chicago, in particular, is noted for its variation). Very few large chains serve them — hot dogs are still largely the province of independent mom-and-pop stands and small local chainlets that often specialize in some of the myriad regional variations on the dish, and indeed the hot dog vendor with a mobile or semi-permanent stall has long been a staple of U.S. street food.
- Corn dogs are made by putting a hot dog wiener on a stick, wrapping it in cornbread batter, and deep frying it. Most often found at sports events and fairs or carnivals.
- Chicken is served in various formats, many of them fried and greasy. A box or bucket of fried chicken is one common format, but a hamburger joint will most often offer at least one sandwich in which a breaded chicken replaces the beef and a salad place may offer a "chicken Caesar" in which strips of white meat top a reasonably healthy salad. Another moderately healthy option offered by many hamburger joints is to replace the beef with a grilled chicken patty without breading. Chicken fingers or nuggets, of breaded chicken meat which are fried, are also common.
- Tacos — Along with other Americanized versions of Mexican traditional dishes (like nachos and burritos), tacos are part of what's known as "Tex-Mex" cuisine. It's especially popular in Texas, the Southwest and California.
- Subs — A submarine sandwich (also known as a hero, hoagie, grinder, or po' boy in various regions) is made with a French or Italian-style bread roll. The sandwich is filled with one or more of a variety of sliced meats (such as chicken, beef, ham), topped with your choice of cheeses, vegetables and often sauces.
- Chinese food — Westernized versions thereof which would likely be borderline unrecognizable to folks from China. Offerings include various stir-fried vegetable and meat dishes, often with noodles or rice.
- Soup and salad — A few chains offer a reasonably healthy option. Be warned, however, that some salads contain as much or more salt and fat as the burgers on the menu.
- French fries and onion rings — French fries are a mainstay in seemingly every fast food venue, to the point that the phrase "would you like fries with that?" has become a cliché in North America referring to dead-end service-sector work. Most menus offer a "combo" or "value meal" of a burger, fries and a soft drink. Onion rings are another popular fast-food side dish: the outer layers of an onion are sliced into a ring shape, dipped in batter, and deep-fried until crispy.
- Poutine is a Québécois regional dish (also occasionally seen elsewhere in Canada and, increasingly, in the far northern tier of the United States) where French fries are smothered in brown gravy and cheese curds, and sometimes additional toppings. At Harvey's and A&W, it's a side dish with only the three classic ingredients; some places serve portions large enough to be considered a main course; others serve portions in both sizes.
- Wraps and pitas — Can be Mexican burrito influenced but also Mediterranean/Middle East pita bread based.
- Ice cream — Dairy Queen, in particular, is known for dispensing a soft-serve vanilla ice cream topped with caramel, hot fudge, or other toppings to make sundaes, dipped in melted chocolate to make "dip cones", or used as an ingredient in milkshakes or other sugary treats.
- Breakfast foods — Some fast food operators serve traditional breakfast foods (toast, bacon, eggs, pancakes, muffins or pastry) for part of the morning (usually 6-7AM until 10:30 or 11AM, after which the menu board is flipped to show lunch items). Often these are packaged to fit the chain's assembly-line model, so what was a hamburger assembly line mid-day builds breakfast sandwiches in the early morning, where an English muffin is filled with bacon, ham or egg. Most chains also serve coffee; a few serve orange juice.
- Baked goods — Though better examples can often be found at dedicated bakeries, American variants of British, German and Polish baked cake and bread products such as muffins and bagels are available at fast food restaurants, principally at breakfast time. Doughnut shops are an exception: they tend to remain open late (or even 24/7) dispensing coffee to keep police and night watchmen awake until dawn.
- Soft drinks — most of these restaurants, aside from those that specialize in coffee or smoothies, offer a variety of soft drinks, mostly fizzy. Typically, the cashier gives you a cup and you serve yourself from a soda fountain—usually with free refills. Water is always an option and usually free. Some restaurants will give you a different-looking cup if you ask for water, to stop you (or at least firmly discourage you) from getting a different drink that you didn't pay for.
Vegetarian travellers may have trouble finding a filling meal at many of these restaurants, though some increasingly have options. Burger King notably has introduced a veggie burger, Panera and Pita Pit have several vegetarian options, and Mexican, pizza, and sub places typically have something. Vegans can be confident in getting a decent meal without difficulty at Chipotle, Subway, Pita Pit, Qdoba, or Taco Bell (which even has an official page explaining their vegan options).
While most fast food establishments rely upon a "fast in, fast served, fast out" model of some sort, there is a more-or-less fluid transition (especially in the U.S.) from street food on the one side, to classic fast food, to so-called "fast-casual" restaurants (see below), and onward to "normal" restaurants. While some companies offer several kinds of service, usually brand identity, price, and (perceived) quality hinge on the question of whether sitting down to eat is common.
Ordering your food
Unless you're using a drive-thru or a carhop (see below), counter service is almost always the procedure at fast food restaurants: you stand in line at a counter or window near the entrance, place your order, pay the cashier, and when it's ready, staff will hand your food to you. Also, counter service is invariably the norm in the case of fast food restaurants located within convenience stores, gas stations, office building lobbies, hospitals, large department stores such as Walmart, and other institutions rather than in freestanding buildings. In shopping malls, university dining halls, and highway rest areas, you'll often find what are called food courts, where several fast food counters — each representing a different chain that together offer a variety of different styles or genres of cuisine — are all arranged around a common indoor seating area.
Types of service
Traditionally, the three main types of fast-food service have been:
- Drive-thru, which is the most popular type of service associated with fast food, almost to the point where it's become a cliché. At the entrance to a restaurant's parking lot, signs will direct you to drive your car into a specific lane where you'll soon find a menu board and a set of two-way speakers. Open your car window and call out your order into the speaker to a worker in the kitchen who's listening through a radio headset, then pull your car up further to one or a pair of windows on the side of the restaurant, through which you'll pay the cashier and your food will be handed to you.
- Takeout (also called "carryout" and, in some countries outside North America, "takeaway"), whereby you physically enter the restaurant and order at the counter, but rather than on a tray as below, your food will be given to you to take home, generally in some type of special box or package to keep it warm and fresh.
- While takeout or drive-thru service is offered in almost all fast food restaurants, most (but not all) also allow customers to "eat in" — that is, to sit and enjoy their meal in a dining room within the restaurant itself. In this case, restaurant staff will serve your food on a plastic tray that you carry from the counter to your table, and you're expected to tidy up your own table after you're finished eating: you'll see one or more sets of trash bins placed prominently around the dining room in which to discard your food containers, used napkins, plastic silverware, and the like, and there's usually a built-in shelf above the bin where you place your tray to be cleaned and reused. To discourage loitering and encourage table turnover where space is limited, you may see signs posted within the restaurant limiting customers to a certain length of time in the dining room (usually between 15 and 30 minutes), though enforcement of these time limits is generally lax.
You'll also see:
- Carhop or drive-in service, a dying breed in which a server brings your meal to your parked car — often on a tray which attaches to a car window — for consumption in your vehicle. Another variant is to buy food at a takeout window for consumption in-vehicle or at a picnic table on-site. Like drive-in cinema, these operations are inherently seasonal; drive-in eateries have virtually disappeared in Canada, but a few still survive Stateside.
- Fast-casual restaurants, an increasingly popular phenomenon that occupies a sort of middle ground between fast food and casual sit-down restaurants. Generally, customers come to the counter to order (see "counter service" above), then take a number and, when the food is ready, staff delivers it to the table. They also usually feature a slightly better quality of cuisine, and somewhat higher prices.
In the U.S. and Canada, a tip of at least 15% (and, in parts of the U.S., ideally more like 20-25%) might as well be mandatory for most sit-down restaurants, but the rules for fast food places are different and a bit more complicated. The key thing to remember is that tipping is associated with table service, which few if any of the restaurants listed in this article provide. The procedure for takeout (even from what is otherwise a sit-down restaurant) or at a cafeteria-style eatery is inherently self-service, therefore tipping is not necessary. Some eateries, mostly in the fast-casual sector, will have a "tip jar" at the checkout station, but tipping in that scenario is purely optional, and you won't be expected to contribute much more than the coins you're handed back as change.
Coffee and breakfast
Starbucks is a coffeehouse chain with an international presence, but it's ubiquitous across North America — so ubiquitous, in fact, that in some American cities you're likely to happen across several different locations within a few blocks of each other. However, they also have a lot of competition from other breakfast-oriented chains:
- Au Bon Pain — Founded in 1976 as a stall at Boston's Faneuil Hall, Au Bon Pain is now a worldwide chain of over 300 café-bakeries, with U.S. locations concentrated heavily in the big Northeastern coastal cities from Boston to D.C., with a few outliers elsewhere. True to its name, which translates to "good bread", the menu at Au Bon Pain is a bit more refined than at your typical coffee-and-doughnut operation, with a selection of gourmet breakfast sandwiches, croissants, and pastries to go with your morning coffee. At lunchtime the menu transitions to a full spread of hot and cold sandwiches, soups and salads, and a few more elaborate main courses. Most Au Bon Pain locations can be found embedded in places like shopping malls, subway stations, office building lobbies, airport terminals, and hospitals, though there are a few freestanding ones here and there.
- Bruegger's Bagels — Bruegger's serves New York-style bagels about as authentic as any you'll ever find at a fast food chain (that is to say, a notch above Einstein Bros. and light-years ahead of Dunkin' Donuts and Tim Hortons, but still no comparison to revered NYC-area institutions like Ess-a-Bagel and H&H). Bagels come either plain, slathered with tangy cream cheese or smoked lox, or else as the bread in a variety of specialty breakfast sandwiches. At lunchtime you'll find more sandwiches, salads, as well as an interesting selection of seasonal soups. Bruegger's locations can be found mainly in the Northeastern U.S. (with the understandable exception of Metro New York), the coastal South, the Midwest, and Southern California.
- Caribou Coffee — A coffee chain with locations spread across the Midwestern and Eastern USA. Menu offerings are substantially similar to Starbucks, but generally regarded as being of slightly higher quality.
- The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf — A specialty coffee chain mainly limited to California but with locations in some other U.S. cities. Their coffees and teas are frequently regarded as much better than Starbucks, but with a much more limited food selection.
- Coffee Culture — An upscale Canadian coffeehouse chain very much in the vein of Starbucks, with a somewhat more extensive food menu to go with the coffee: gourmet panini sandwiches and wraps, salads, pastries, and breakfast fare are served fast-casual style (order at the counter, take a number, and they'll bring it to your table when it's ready). Locations are concentrated in Southern Ontario (mostly in the Greater Toronto Area and points west), with a few in Manitoba as well. They once had a rather formidable U.S. presence in areas near the border, but they're now down to one remaining Stateside holdout in Erie, Pennsylvania.
- Dunkin' Donuts — The prototypical American fast food breakfast chain, found all over the U.S. but especially in the Northeast; a few exist in Canada, but Tim Hortons largely owns the Canadian market. A hot coffee and a box of doughnuts from Dunkin' is a morning ritual for millions of Americans. For those with an appetite for a heartier breakfast, you've got a range of breakfast sandwiches that are served variously on croissants, bagels, English muffins, flatbreads, or wraps, and a limited menu of lunch fare.
- Einstein Bros. Bagels — A US nationwide brand featuring a wide selection of bagels and cream cheeses for its namesake, from basic toppings to specialties such as apple cinnamon or cheesy hash brown. Basic selection of drinks, but they can be a good accompaniment to the warm piece of toasted bagel.
- Krispy Kreme — Another highly-popular doughnut chain, noted for having glazed doughnuts. Its best-seller is the original glazed doughnut: which is a warm doughnut covered with a coating of sugar that gives it a modestly sweet taste compared to its counterparts. Look for the "Hot Now" lights that turn on when a warm fresh batch has just come out of the oven; even its website has information on the hours when each store's light is on. They are usually open between 5 and 6AM to around midnight.
- Peet's — A coffee chain with locations mainly in California, though with a smattering of stores in a few other cities around the USA. Peet's is noted for being one of the first gourmet coffee chains in the U.S., even serving as a model for the founders of Starbucks. Noted for excellent coffee and teas, with a small pastry and breakfast sandwich selection.
- Robin's Donuts — Placing a distant second behind Tim Hortons on the list of largest Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chains, Robin's nonetheless remains a formidable presence in the Prairie Provinces and the Maritimes, and if you're traversing the Trans-Canada Highway through their home region of Northern Ontario you're indeed far more likely to spot a Robin's than a Tim's. (On the other hand, they're completely absent from Quebec and have been supplanted in the Toronto area by Coffee Time, now owned by the same parent company.) The menu has no surprises on it — coffee, doughnuts, bagels, breakfast sandwiches, some lunch items — but portions are a lot more generous than the competition for essentially the same price. Perhaps taking a page from Starbucks' playbook, Robin's also serves a range of smoothies and more upscale pastries including not-half-bad cheesecake by the slice.
- Second Cup — Once Canada's dominant coffeehouse chain, Second Cup's market share was eroded by competition both from mass-market coffee-and-doughnut outfit Tim Hortons, and by upscale chain Starbucks. You'll still find locations across Canada, concentrated in large urban centres. They have a good selection of fair-trade coffees from around the world and loose-leaf teas. Prices but also quality and variety (especially of non-coffee items, limited here to a few premade sandwiches and baked goods) are all lower than at Starbucks, however hours tend to be longer — many Second Cups remain open 24 hours a day.
- Tim Hortons — A Canadian institution, now with about 700 U.S. locations as well. Long famous for its coffee and doughnut options, Tim's menu includes a wide variety of drinks and food, including lattes, hot chocolates, sandwiches, soups and bagels. It is under the same ownership as Burger King and Popeyes, though the chains operate separately. You should get a box of "Timbits" at least once on your road trip.
McDonald's and Burger King are almost the same the world over (though there are some variations to accommodate religious dietary laws and local tastes in which meat is used and several other things), so take the opportunity to try other chains.
- A&W is the name of two separate burger chains, in the U.S. and Canada respectively. Both chains are notable for serving the eponymous brand of root beer on draft in glass mugs that they keep frosty cold for you in a freezer tucked behind the counter. Aside from that, the menus and other specifics of each chain are similar but not identical:
- A&W USA — Along with White Castle (see below), this is one of the oldest fast food chains listed in this article: Roy Allen opened up his first walk-up root beer stand in Lodi, California in 1919, later taking on Frank Wright as a partner, expanding to a full-service restaurant, and selling franchises by 1925. Back in the old days, each franchisee was charged with formulating their own menu, with the only stipulation being that they had to serve A&W root beer — a unique system that still holds largely true, with menus that differ to a sometimes significant degree from location to location. Generally speaking, though, by comparison with its counterparts north of the border, U.S. A&Ws tend to devote more menu space to non-burger items such as hot dogs (either regular all-beef franks or "Coney dogs" with chili sauce, onions, and sometimes cheese), "corn dog nuggets", loaded fries, and elaborate dessert menus of shakes, floats, and soft-serve ice cream. As well, though most locations have converted to the standard fast food service model of dining room and drive-thru window, there are still quite a few remaining A&Ws with carhop service. Over 900 locations across the U.S., with the notable exception of the Northeastern coastal megalopolises.
- A&W Canada — The first north-of-the-border locations of the original A&W chain opened in 1956; 16 years later, the company's Canadian division was sold to a new owner, and from there the identities of the two chains began to diverge. On A&W Canada's menu (which, unlike its American counterpart, is the same at each location), you'll find no hot dogs, but you will find the "Burger Family" (the "Mama", "Papa", and "Grandpa" burgers boast one, two, and three patties, respectively, plus a variety of toppings; the "Teen" burger comes topped with bacon and additional premium toppings, and other "relatives" with additional specialty ingredients come and go), as well as chicken sandwiches, KFC-esque fried chicken buckets, and a full breakfast menu. One of Canada's most widespread chains, you'll find A&W's 950 locations (2019) spread out from British Columbia to Newfoundland and everywhere in between — there's even one in far-flung Labrador!
- Carl's Jr. and Hardee's — Two burger chains owned by the same company, operating in different parts of the U.S. — Carl's Jr. in the West and Southwest, Hardee's in the Midwest and South, with minimal overlap — but offering mostly identical menus. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's distinguish themselves from most of the majors by flame-broiling their burgers instead of frying, and by offering a selection of baby-back rib burgers glazed in tangy barbeque sauce. The parent company has started to open locations in Canada (21 in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan), using only the Carl's Jr. name there because of the existence of Harvey's (see below).
- Checkers and Rally's — Like Carl's Jr. and Hardee's listed above, these were originally two separate chains that merged together and now have identical menus but different names. Checker's and Rally's are drive-in burger joints whose decor is based around an "auto racing" theme. You can also get chicken and fish sandwiches, hot dogs, wings, and other such fare here. Locations are concentrated in the South, Southwest, and Great Lakes regions.
- Culver's — The specialties for which this fast-casual chain is most famous — delicious soft-serve frozen custard, deep-fried cheese curds, and a line of "ButterBurgers" (served on a buttered, toasted bun) — pay homage to the company's home state of Wisconsin (they don't call it "America's Dairyland" for nothing!) Culver's also serves a variety of chicken and fish sandwiches, main-course salads, crinkle-cut fries, and a surprisingly wide variety of vegetable sides too. Locations are mostly concentrated in the Midwest and Great Plains, with additional clusters in Texas, the Phoenix metropolitan area, and a few scattered elsewhere.
- Fatburger — Not only did this chain pioneer the fast-casual service model that was later taken to the next level by chains such as Fuddruckers and Five Guys, but it was also notable for being founded by Lovie Yancey, an African-American female entrepreneur at a time in history (1947) when either of those things, let alone both at the same time, were rare phenomena indeed. As a Los Angeles-based business well-known as a favorite hangout of the Hollywood crowd, Fatburger had achieved near-legendary status by 1990, when Yancey sold the business and retired; it was around that time when the chain began to expand outside of Southern California (its 150 or so locations are still heavily concentrated there, but you'll also find clusters in Las Vegas, Seattle, and Phoenix, as well as further locations widely scattered elsewhere in the U.S.; Canadian restaurants are concentrated in the Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton areas, with one lonely eastern outpost in suburban Toronto). As for the food, think of Fatburger as the midpoint between McDonald's and Five Guys in terms of food quality, price point, and portion size (of standard-sized burgers; Fatburger actually serves five sizes of burgers, from the pint-sized, two-and-a-half-ounce Small Fatburger to the XXXL Triple King, a three-patty heart attack on a bun containing a pound and a half of meat). The burgers come made to order with your choice of a wide range of unlimited toppings, and they also serve onion rings, French fries (regular or chili cheese), and milkshakes on the side.
- Five Guys — This fast-casual chain serves food that's a good sight more expensive than most of the other places listed in this section, but you get what you pay for: huge burgers that are among the tastiest, and made with among the highest-quality ingredients, in the entire fast-food world, and huge portions of hand-cut fries (regular or spicy "Cajun-style") that will almost overflow the bag they're served in. Five Guys' standard burger comes with two patties (order a "little" if you only want one) and is made to order with your choice of as many toppings as you like. An equally good if far less renowned Five Guys offering are their all-beef Kosher hot dogs, whose flavor is imbued with an herby aroma that's light-years ahead of, say, Nathan's Famous in terms of tastiness. And while you're waiting for your order to come up, you can nosh on unlimited complimentary peanuts. Founded in 1986 in the Washington, D.C. area, Five Guys has locations across the U.S., and is also well represented across Canada from Montreal through to the west coast.
- Fuddruckers — An upscale fast-casual burger chain where the accent is on fresh, homemade ingredients: all meat-grinding and bun-baking is done onsite for maximum tastiness, and fresh-sliced vegetables make up the lion's share of the options at the self-service condiment bar customers stop at after ordering their burger from the counter. At Fuddruckers, portions are some of the largest in the fast-food world — they offer four different sizes of patties, from a third of a pound to a full pound — with fries, homemade milkshakes, and an interesting selection of dessert goodies on the side. If you're not hungry for a burger, they also offer a host of other bun-based sandwiches including crispy chicken, and those with adventurous palates can try out various "Fudds Exotics": a selection of specialty burgers that vary between locations, with buffalo, elk, wild boar, and other unusual ground meats in place of beef. Fuddruckers counts about 175 U.S. locations spread out nationwide, but they're most numerous in California, the Southeast, and their home state of Texas. They also have two Canadian locations, in (of all places) Saskatchewan.
- Harvey's — Canada's second-largest fast food chain (behind Tim Hortons), Harvey's flame-broiled burgers are famous for being customizable with your choice of fourteen different veggie toppings and a similar number of condiments — as many as you want of each, added to your patty on demand at the counter, Subway-style. You've got your choice of regular or premium Angus burgers, which are by reputation not quite as good as Burger King's but still a great deal more flavorful than what you can get at McDonald's and other places that don't flame-broil their meat, as well as a full range of veggie burgers, grilled and crispy chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, hot dogs, and wraps, to which the "Made The Way You Want It" policy applies equally. On the side you'll find specialties such as fried pickles, homemade doughnuts, and various poutines alongside the standard fries, onion rings, and milkshakes. Harvey's has locations spread out across Canada, but the chain is concentrated most heavily in the Windsor-Quebec corridor.
- In-N-Out Burger — Though it's by no means one of the U.S.'s largest or most widespread chains, In-N-Out has a reputation that's elevated to almost mythical proportions, especially outside its home range. The menu is a deceptively short and simple roster of burgers, fries, and shakes (augmented by a "Not-So-Secret Menu" of additional add-ons and variations, of which the "animal-style fries", drenched in a concoction of melted cheese, grilled onions, and Thousand Island dressing, is the most famous selection), but the food quality is impeccable, the ingredients are fresh and never frozen, and prices are reasonable. Aside from In-N-Out's home state of California, where it's been in operation since 1948, you'll find locations in Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and along the I-35 corridor in Texas between Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio.
- Jack in the Box — The other burger joint with a clown mascot. Jack in the Box is one of the most widespread fast food chains in the U.S., with over 2,000 locations spread out nationwide: concentrated most heavily in California, Arizona, and Texas, but relatively absent from the Midwest and Southeast and completely so from the Northeast. There are also 30 locations in Hawaii and one in Guam. Jack in the Box has a mediocre reputation as far as food quality goes, but also an oddly diverse menu that encompasses not only burgers, fries, and all the other usual suspects but also breakfast burritos, tacos (one of the most popular items they serve, cited by many as a guilty pleasure), egg rolls, and cream cheese-filled jalapeño poppers.
- Krystal — With 360 locations stretching between Texas and Virginia, Krystal is known as the Southern version of White Castle (see below), and indeed the two chains' slider-based menu are essentially identical, as is the food quality. Krystal makes up for its more limited range of sides — regular and loaded fries, tater-tot sticks, grits, and chili — by offering pint-sized hot dogs ("pups") to go with its selection of sliders and other miniature grilled sandwiches, as well as (full-sized) chicken wings and boneless tenders.
- Shake Shack — It's almost the prototypical American fast-casual story: from lowly beginnings as a food cart in Manhattan's Madison Square Park, Shake Shack's extraordinarily explosive growth in 2014 and 2015 earned it a degree of press exposure and headlines usually reserved for companies the size of McDonald's, and the company's stock quadrupled in value during its first four months on the New York Stock Exchange. Wherefore all the fuss? Simply put, Shake Shack is the Cadillac of burger chains, with an upscale touch that screams "trendy hipster foodie" way more than "fast food". For instance, in the burgers that reign supreme on their menu, 100% grass-fed, hormone-free Angus beef is employed for an end result that's juicy, tender, exuberantly though not excessively seasoned, and (ideally) topped with their secret-recipe "Shacksauce" that's similar to McDonald's Big Mac sauce, but with an ineffable hint of something extra. Elsewhere on the menu, fried chicken sandwiches (free-range, of course) come served on the same non-GMO Martin's potato bun as the burgers, Shake Shack's all-beef "flat-top dogs" ape Five Guys' and then go them one better by also offering a respectable rendition of a Chicago-style hot dog, and the milkshakes that give the place its name are made with house-churned frozen custard from hormone-free cows. To drink you can choose from all the usual soda pop brands or else house-squeezed lemonade, artisanal root beer from Louisiana's Abita Brewing Company made using 100% cane sugar, or Shackmeister Ale, brewed exclusively for the Shake Shack by the Brooklyn Brewery. Despite the chain's aforementioned rapid growth, the majority of Shake Shack's 130 or so locations can still be found in New York City, but they've got a presence in 18 states and the District of Columbia, and 11 foreign countries (not including Canada... at least for now).
- Smashburger — Though they remain a close second behind Shake Shack in food quality, this Denver-based fast-casual chain can boast an even faster growth spurt: only 10 years as of this writing after the first location opened, Smashburger now has almost 400 restaurants in nine countries. Their North American geographic range covers most of the U.S. as well as seven Canadian locations. The name of this place comes from the practice of "smashing" a ball of 100% Angus ground beef onto the grill to sear the meat before cooking, making for a juicier burger, and that goes a long way in summarizing Smashburger's high-end, foodie-friendly approach. Expect smaller portions than Five Guys but a far wider range of options to choose from — maybe too wide; premium ingredients such as truffle oil and fresh avocado make for a sometimes daunting customer experience — as well as craft beer served at each location, for prices not nearly as high as you'd expect. Burgers come as specialty creations or you can build-your-own, and Smashburger also serves chicken sandwiches, a decent variety of specialty fries, salads, and milkshakes made with premium Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
- Sonic Drive-In — Sonic is best described as a fast-food approximation of a '50s diner, with Atomic Age motifs prevalent in the decor and a service model that's based on rollerskating carhops, one of the last major chains to do so. (Nearly all locations also offer drive-thru, and some of the newer, larger ones have indoor dining rooms, though this remains the exception rather than the rule.) Sonic's menu is extensive to an almost overwhelming degree, comprising various permutations of burgers, crispy chicken sandwiches, regular and loaded fries, onion rings, tater tots, chicken tenders, and a huge dessert menu of soft-serve ice cream and milkshakes that are each further customizable with a wide range of tasty toppings and add-ins. Deserving of special mention are the hot dogs: Sonic's menu includes surprisingly good Chicago-, New York-, and Detroit-style dogs, each made with all-beef franks. The chain has over 3,500 locations spread out nationwide, though most densely so in the Deep South, Texas, and adjacent areas.
- Wendy's — The third-largest burger chain in the world, with locations throughout both the U.S. and Canada. Wendy's differentiates itself from rival multinationals McDonald's and Burger King with better quality food (their famously square-shaped burger patties are made from fresh, never-frozen beef) for correspondingly higher prices. Almost as much as burgers, crispy chicken sandwiches and wraps are a cornerstone of Wendy's menu as well, and they're a marginally healthier choice than the other burger joints, with side salads offered upon request as a substitute for fries in any value meal.
- Whataburger — Whataburger nowadays boasts 800 locations spread out along the southern tier of the U.S. from Arizona to Florida, but the vast majority of them can still be found in Texas, where the chain was first founded in 1950. They say "everything is bigger in Texas", and that adage certainly holds true for this place's namesake specialty, which dwarfs McDonald's and Burger King's in size even if it's not quite up to the rarefied heights of Five Guys or Shake Shack. Aside from burgers, Whataburger's menu features the usual slate of crispy and grilled chicken sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes but also a range of diner-style melt sandwiches (try their Patty Melt, smothered in a spicy pepper sauce and served between two thick slices of grilled Texas toast) and a breakfast menu where homestyle Southern specialties like biscuits and sausage gravy abound.
- White Castle — The oldest fast food burger chain in the United States, White Castle's first location opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, thus predating McDonald's by a good thirty or forty years. The specialty then, as now, are sliders: miniature hamburgers smothered in grilled onions and most commonly served in sacks of ten. Grilled or crispy chicken, fish, veggie, and even breakfast sliders (a miniature Belgian waffle replaces the bun) are also available. Aside from that, the menu doesn't deviate much from standard fast food burger joint territory: you can enjoy (regular-sized servings of) fries, shakes, onion rings, chicken and fish nuggets, and cheese sticks alongside your slider. You'll find White Castle locations mainly in the Great Lakes and upper South as well as the New York City area; Kentucky and Tennessee are the only states where they come into head-to-head competition with the South's slider purveyor of choice, Krystal (see above).
In the early days of McDonald's, founding father Ray Kroc famously forbade his company from ever selling hot dogs (he considered them unsanitary), setting a trend in the world of North American fast food that largely continues to this day: leaving aside a few halfhearted incursions into the genre from the likes of Sonic, Checkers/Rally's, and Burger King, hot dogs are noticeably hard to find in the big chains, especially compared to the ubiquitous hamburger. Here are a couple of exceptions to that rule.
- Nathan's Famous — Nathan Handwerker served up his first hot dog on the Coney Island boardwalk in 1916; a century later, there are over 300 hot dog stands bearing his name (not to mention hundreds of grocery stores stocking Nathan's products to cook at home). You'll find Nathan's Famous most often in the major Northeastern megalopolises of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, with two or three dozen more in Florida and further locations scattered widely across the U.S. The signature product is a skinless, all-beef frankfurter infused with a secret seasoning mix, grilled up and served with your choice of toppings, including chili and cheese sauce. Also on the menu are burgers, Philly cheesesteaks, grilled or fried chicken (wings, tenders, or sandwiches), and crinkle-cut French fries.
- Wienerschnitzel — If you know any German or have even a passing knowledge of Austrian food, the name will make you cringe: the specialty of the house isn't schnitzel, but rather hot dogs. "The World's Most Wanted Wiener" is either a regular hot dog, an all-beef frankfurter, or a Polish sausage that comes dressed in your choice of about ten different topping schematics, including various permutations of chili cheese, a "Kraut Dog" with mustard that's a rudimentary approximation of New York City's preferred variety, and a much more faithful stab at the Chicago dog. Elsewhere on Wienerschnitzel's menu is a modest range of burgers, crispy chicken sandwiches (referred to on the menu as "chicken schnitzel", but again, aficionados of Teutonic cuisine shouldn't get their hopes up), a slate of side dishes where rather ordinary platters of regular and loaded fries rub elbows with specialties such as bite-size breaded corn dog nuggets, and a dessert menu cribbed from the popular Tastee-Freez chain of soft-serve ice cream stands. About 350 locations, clustered most densely in California (especially the southern half thereof) and scattered more widely in the Southwest, the Las Vegas and Salt Lake City metro areas, and Texas.
Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) is known all over the world. If you're visiting from overseas and in search of something you can't get at home, here are some competitors that are more-or-less specific to North America.
- Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits — The stomping grounds of this chain is the coastal Southeast (especially the Carolinas and Georgia), and appropriately enough, Bojangles' serves some of the best Southern cuisine to be found anywhere in the fast-food world. Eschewing the trendy innovations that competitor chains like KFC and Church's have been known to dabble in, the foundation of the menu here has never strayed far from its namesake Dixie standards of fried chicken (made Cajun style, noticeably spicy but not as much so as at Popeyes) and biscuits (very buttery and not too crusty, served either on their own as a side or as the bun for a selection of crispy fried chicken sandwiches), alongside homestyle "fixin's" such as mac & cheese, mashed potatoes, grits, coleslaw, and Louisiana-style dirty rice.
- Chicken Express — Chicken Express is so named because they were the first fried chicken chain to offer delivery. They no longer do this (most locations are the standard eat-in-or-drive-thru setup, though there are a few that offer carhop service), but if you find yourself in Texas or one of the states that border it, or Metro Atlanta, these folks are still at your service with a menu that consists entirely of individual- or family-sized combo buckets of chicken, fried fish filets, and a range of Southern-style sides such as mac & cheese, fried okra, green beans, fried pickles, and hush puppies. You can get the namesake poultry item fried bone-in or in the form of spicy wings, but the number one reason people flock to Chicken Express is their tenders: crispy yet juicy, with a subtle but delicious flavor that shines through despite the lack of overbearing seasonings or spotlight-stealing dipping sauces. Wash it all down with classic Southern-style sweet tea (and if you like it, buy a gallon to take home!) As well, though they don't insinuate themselves into high-profile political debates like Chick-fil-A is notorious for doing (see below), the Bible verses printed on the bottom of each receipt attest to the owners' Southern Baptist religious convictions — present said receipt at any subsequent visit and quote the verse from memory and you can get 50% off your bill!
- Chick-fil-A — While this chain sells chicken, it's in the form of sandwiches (with biscuits for breakfast), nuggets or strips (in salads and wraps), rather than as breasts, wings, legs, etc. Historically a Southern chain that's mostly been found in food courts at shopping malls, this has dramatically changed in both respects: today Chick-fil-A has locations, many stand-alone, in 46 of the 50 U.S. states, plus one Canadian one in Toronto. Its most unique distinction is that all of its locations are closed on Sunday. (The founder, whose family still controls the chain, was a devout Southern Baptist — which may explain the chain's tendency to land in the crossfire of the same-sex marriage debate instead of staying apolitical.) Also notable for its advertising, featuring spelling-impaired cows urging customers to "EAT MOR CHIKIN".
- Church's Chicken — Think KFC, but bigger portions, better quality food, and with a focus on a more well-rounded fast-food approximation of Southern cuisine than the Colonel's strict emphasis on fried chicken. Yes, Church's serves original-recipe as well as spicy marinated chicken in a delightfully crunchy, not-too-greasy buttermilk batter, but there's also mac & cheese, "jalapeño bombers" breaded and fried with melted cheese, fried okra bites, and sticky-sweet honey butter biscuits. Church's 1,700 locations are spread throughout most of the United States (concentrated most densely in Texas and the Deep South, while relatively absent in the Northeast); they're also present in Canada (a handful in the Vancouver and Toronto areas) and widespread in Puerto Rico.
- Pollo Campero — A fried chicken chain founded in Guatemala in 1971 and now widespread in Central America, Pollo Campero broke into the U.S. market in 2002 and now has a nationwide network of locations in various different regions where there is a high Latino population. Campero is most famous for their hand-breaded chicken, but they also offer other Latin-inspired recipes such as chicken empanadas, plantains, yucca fries, horchata, and flan.
- El Pollo Loco — With a menu given over in large part to tacos, burritos, stuffed quesadillas, tostadas, and other south-of-the-border favorites, El Pollo Loco is a chain that could just as easily have been included in the "Mexican" section of this article. But the meat used in all of these recipes is chicken — not fried as in many of the other chains here, but seasoned in a zesty citrus garlic marinade and then grilled slow and low, locking in all the juices and flavor. Side orders eschew French fries, onion rings, and the usual deep-fried fare in favor of beans and rice, coleslaw, and steamed vegetables: while the service model is not exactly fast-casual, the emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients has earned El Pollo Loco comparisons to Chipotle (see below). If Mexican fare isn't what you're after, regular- and family-sized chicken platters (cooked the same way, marinated and fire-grilled) and a selection of fresh salads are also available. 430 locations mostly in California but also with a presence in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Texas.
- Popeyes — A distant second on the list of the world's largest fast food fried chicken chains, Popeyes is based in Metro Atlanta but was founded in New Orleans by restaurateur Al Copeland, who, taking a page from the local culinary tradition, envisioned it as a Cajun-styled competitor to KFC. Accordingly, you can expect the place's signature-recipe fried chicken to pack a spicy zing, with an extra-crispy breading that belies the extraordinarily juicy and flavorful meat that lies underneath. (For those who don't like it spicy, they offer a mild version too, which is actually a good deal blander than what the Colonel serves up.) Chicken tenders are available in an identical choice of mild vs. spicy, and Popeyes is also a great fast food option for fans of seafood: breaded fried shrimp and Cajun-style fish filets are on the menu both as platters with your choice of side (Louisiana specialties such as jambalaya, red beans & rice, and "Cajun fries" predominate, as well as more generically Southern ones such as mac & cheese and buttermilk biscuits) or served together as a seafood po' boy. Popeyes' 2,000 locations are spread throughout all regions of the U.S. and in Puerto Rico; in Canada they're present mostly along the Highway 401 corridor in Ontario between London and Kingston, with smaller clusters in the Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Niagara Falls, and Ottawa areas.
- Raising Cane's — The menu here consists of one and only one specialty: chicken fingers, available only in the form of combo meals with fries, a soft drink (with free refills), and the company's secret dipping sauce. You have a choice of three adult sizes and one kids' size of finger combos (with, variously; "Texas toast" and/or coleslaw; kids' size contains neither) and a chicken finger sandwich combo. Over 300 locations concentrated mainly in Louisiana and the eastern half of Texas, with additional ones widely scattered throughout the Midwest, the Southwest, and Southern California.
- Zaxby's — Think of Zaxby's much like a fast-casual, apolitical, open-on-Sundays version of Chick-fil-A, with one big exception: while the lion's share of its menu consists of chicken served in pretty much every form you can think of except for the traditional bone-in fried chicken that's the flagship offering of most of the other chains listed here, the one thing Zaxby's is most famous for is something Chick-fil-A doesn't have on its menu at all: wings, which are available boneless as well as traditional-style and come slathered in your choice of nine sauces including traditional Buffalo-style, barbecue, honey mustard, teriyaki, and house-special "Tongue Torch". Elsewhere on the menu you'll find chicken fingers that can be ordered with all of the above sauces or plain (and ideally with the indescribably delicious Zax Sauce on the side for dipping), a selection of sandwiches and salads that in many cases come with (or on) thick, buttery slabs of Texas toast, and an appetizers menu that includes some fairly unusual options such as spicy fried mushrooms and fried cheese balls with marinara sauce. Dining rooms are filled with often-whimsical decor; in college towns, many decorations pertain to the local school. You'll find the vast majority of Zaxby's locations in Texas, the South, and neighboring states, with additional clusters in the Salt Lake City and Indianapolis areas.
Broadly speaking, there are two distinct experiences to be had in North America when it comes to Mexican fast food. Cheaper and more basic places like Taco Bell offer simplified, Americanized versions of Mexican street foods like tacos and burritos, while fast-casual outfits like Chipotle and Moe's have embraced a concept widely known as Fresh-Mex: a marginally more authentic and markedly healthier model that's slanted toward abundant fresh vegetables and herbs, rather more adventurous flavors, and (especially in Chipotle's case) organic, unprocessed, GMO-free, etc. ingredients. In general, the further north you go, the less spicy the food is.
- Chipotle — The biggest fast-casual chain in the Mexican-derived category, with a Fresh-Mex menu that's been likened by many to a fast-food version of Whole Foods (a well-known organic/natural supermarket chain). The specialty of the house is the so-called "Mission burrito", a heavily stuffed burrito originally developed in the San Francisco neighborhood of that name; there's also a full range of other burritos, hard- and soft-shell tacos, and taco salads to choose from.
- Del Taco — With locations concentrated in the Pacific Coast, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain regions as well as a cluster in Metro Detroit, this chain has an odd hybrid American/Mexican menu: tacos, burritos, and the like but also burgers, fries and milkshakes.
- Moe's — Besides being rated the highest-quality Mexican fast food restaurant in a 2016 survey of U.S. diners, this fast-casual Fresh-Mex outfit also provides what is easily the most quirky dining experience of any Mexican food chain in North America, starting when you walk in the door to a thunderous greeting of "Welcome to Moe's!" shouted in unison by the entire staff (a cute idea, but the constant din gets annoying at peak hours, as you can imagine) and continuing with a menu full of obscure pop-culture references selected seemingly at random (the nickname of one of Elaine's ex-boyfriends on Seinfeld, "Close Talker", has been repurposed here for a taco salad, while "Who Is Kaiser Salsa?", a reference to the '90s detective movie The Usual Suspects, refers to their house-special medium-heat salsa). As well, each location is dotted with posters of look-alikes of deceased popular musicians; at one time, the background music consisted exclusively of songs performed by dead artists (or bands in which at least one member was deceased). Foodwise, you might call Moe's the Subway of Mexican: you order at the counter and the staff makes your tacos, burritos, quesadillas, taco salad, etc. in front of you, assembly line-style, adding various meats, vegetables, and other toppings to the customer's specifications. Moe's was founded in the South in 2000 but also has widespread presence on the East Coast.
- Qdoba — Qdoba's slate of fast-casual offerings are basically indistinguishable from Chipotle's, with one big difference: queso dip, which Qdoba offers in several popular varieties and its competitor lacks completely. There's also a full breakfast menu. Qdoba's 600+ restaurants are located across the U.S.; there are also three in Canada.
- Rubio's — A pioneer in the fast-casual Fresh-Mex model (beating Chipotle to the punch by a decade or so), Ralph Rubio's first taste of fish tacos in Mexico, while on vacation in Baja California in 1983, was enough to inspire him to open his own taquería in his hometown of San Diego. Nowadays, there are about 200 Rubio's locations all over the Southwest (plus a dozen or so in Florida), and fish tacos are still the specialty of the house: the original one that started it all is a filet of beer-battered Alaska pollock served in a stone-ground corn tortilla and topped with house-special white sauce, mild salsa, and shredded cabbage, but you also have your choice of some ten other fish and seafood tacos, as well as a similar size selection of seafood burritos. Those who don't like fish needn't fear — Rubio's also has an equally creative range of chicken and steak options, along with enchiladas, surprisingly authentic chicken tortilla soup, nachos and quesadillas, and arguably the best desserts of any restaurant listed in this section.
- Salsarita's — A small-ish chain centered mostly in the South with a few outlier locations in the Dallas, Detroit, and Buffalo areas, Salsarita's is a fast-casual Fresh-Mex chain with a menu that's almost identical to Moe's (minus the random pop-culture references). The main differences are that at Salsarita's they don't offer tofu as a substitute for meat, they offer shrimp as a meat option, there's no self-serve salsa bar (staff ladles it out to you at the counter), and also many locations have bars where alcohol is served.
- Taco Bell — As McDonald's is to fast-food burgers, Taco Bell is to fast-food Mexican: the oldest, best-known, most widespread, and in many ways the prototypical exemplar of its subgenre, but with a mediocre reputation that means it's a place that's generally defaulted to based on its omnipresence, rather than sought out in particular. Tacos, burritos, nachos, and other heavily Americanized fare await you; however, perhaps Taco Bell's best-known option is the "Doritos Locos taco", with a hard tortilla shell made from the same material as Doritos corn chips.
- Taco Bueno — If you're in Texas or adjacent states, Taco Bueno is the next step upscale from Taco Bell in terms of both food and price point: while not straying far from the usual roster of fast-food Mexican standards like tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and nachos, the menu is quite a bit more extensive than the Bell's, and the food quality generally regarded as better. Taco Bueno also takes a page out of the fast-casual playbook with a self-serve salsa and condiment bar at each location. If you're especially hungry, or if you're a family looking to order something to split, go for one of the combo platters which feature various permutations of menu items plus rice, refried beans, and guacamole on the side.
- Taco Cabana — For Texans, Taco Cabana is yet another step up the Mexican fast-food ladder from Taco Bueno and Taco Bell (see previous listings) into a realm that's somewhere between classic fast food and fast-casual. Though they don't exactly follow the vegetable-heavy Fresh-Mex formula espoused by Chipotle, Qdoba, and Moe's, the emphasis at Taco Cabana is indeed on fresh food made to order from high-quality ingredients. Besides the usual tacos, burritos, and the like, the menu here also includes chicken, steak, or shredded beef fajitas served on a sizzling cast-iron skillet with tortillas on the side, king-sized burrito bowls with your choice of meat, and a full breakfast menu. Many locations are open 24 hours a day, and most offer al fresco dining on an outdoor patio. Aside from the 160 or so locations spread across Texas, there are also four Taco Cabanas in the Albuquerque area and one in Oklahoma City.
- Taco John's — This Cheyenne, Wyoming-based chain serves inexpensive Tex-Mex (or "West-Mex", in their parlance) fare that's even more Americanized than Taco Bell — Taco John's seemingly most popular menu item, "Potato Olés" (basically hash browns dusted with taco seasoning and optionally topped with melted nacho cheese) may be delicious, but they certainly bear no resemblance to anything actually eaten in Mexico. They're also famous for their seasonal holiday menu: the "Apple Grande" is basically a deep-fried taco shell repurposed as the crust to a mini-apple pie, while the "Nachos Navidad" feature tortilla chips dyed red and green. And if you don't like spicy food, Taco John's might be the Mexican fast food chain for you: there's pretty much no heat to their salsa, nor anywhere else on the menu for that matter. By reputation, Taco John's food is a touch fresher than at Taco Bell (everything is cooked to order), and portions a bit larger. You'll find nearly 400 locations in the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and western Great Lakes.
- Taco Time — A smallish chain of Americanized Mexican fast food restaurants that, like Taco Bueno in Texas, is a slightly more upscale version of the ubiquitous Taco Bell (though with steeply higher prices than either of those two). The menu doesn't deviate much from the usual lineup of tacos, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, et cetera, but the food is noticeably fresher, with more flavorful ingredients and a much wider variety of meat fillings to choose from, including some not-half-bad options in the realm of "Baja-style" fish and seafood tacos. However, Taco Time's signature specialty is their "crispy burritos", where your choice of ground meat is rolled thinly inside a flour tortilla and then deep-fried into what aficionados of Tex-Mex cuisine might otherwise know as a flauta. Sides include the usual chips, beans, and guacamole, plus "Mexi-Fries" (comparable to a less spicy version of Taco John's "Potato Olés") and a fairly impressive rendition of chicken tortilla soup that comes garnished with fresh avocado slices. Though the chain is headquartered in the Phoenix area, the bulk of Taco Time's 300 locations can be found in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains, as well as in Canada from Vancouver Island through to the Prairies and Northern Ontario.
- Manchu Wok — A fixture of shopping mall food courts, airport terminals, military bases, and similar non-freestanding settings, Manchu Wok serves a range of stir-fried meat and vegetable dishes and rice/noodle bowls that's typical of American Chinese cuisine. You'll find them across the U.S. and Canada, especially along the Windsor-Quebec corridor and in the Seattle/Vancouver megalopolis.
- Panda Express — A fast-casual American Chinese food chain with locations in all 50 states and a few in Canada too (mainly in and around Edmonton). A standard order includes rice (plain or fried) or fried noodles with up to 3 entrees (mostly either chicken or beef). Its orange chicken is the chain's signature dish and the "tea bar" has an interesting selection of drinks that, while (like the food) unlike anything you're likely to find in China, are tasty all the same.
Pizza and Italian
Similar to hot dogs, pizza is one of those foods you'd think would make for a natural fit with the concept, yet there are surprisingly few "classic" fast food restaurants that serve it. For many years, North American pizza lovers were limited, broadly speaking, to one of two types of options: either full-fledged sit-down restaurants like Pizza Hut and Uno Chicago Grill, or else places like Domino's and Little Caesar's that offer takeout and delivery, but have no dining rooms. These two categories remain dominant — see our article on Pizza in the United States and Canada for a rundown of those — but many fast-casual pizza chains have sprouted on the national scene, alongside longtime shopping mall food court mainstay Sbarro.
- Blaze Pizza — Founded in the Los Angeles area in 2011, Blaze's service (like the other two of the "big three" fast-casual pizza chains listed below) is based on the Chipotle model, with customers choosing their own crust, sauces, and toppings, and then having the pizza baked in an open-flame oven in about 3 minutes. In terms of food quality and culinary creativity, Blaze is in the middle of the pack relative to its competitors: foodies aren't cared for quite as artfully as at MOD, but the whole cloves of roasted garlic and hand-cut basil Blaze puts in their food, for example, are a step above Pieology's crushed processed garlic and pre-shredded basil, respectively. There's also a wider range of toppings, as well as custom main-course salads for those who may not be hungry for pizza. Blaze's geographic footprint is rapidly spreading outside its California homebase: additional locations can be found in the Northeast and Great Lakes, and a few in Canada too — two each in Calgary and Edmonton, plus one in Toronto.
- MOD Pizza — The largest, oldest (founded in Seattle in 2008), and fastest-growing of the trio of fast-casual pizza chains to emerge at the dawn of the 21st century, with 200+ locations across the country but especially along the Mid-Atlantic coast, in the Chicago, Detroit, and Phoenix areas, in Texas, and (above all) splayed along the Interstate 5 corridor on the U.S. West Coast. By comparison with the competition, MOD's emphasis on fresh, high-quality ingredients and relatively more upscale preparation (for instance, all dough is made fresh in-house daily, and ingredients are sourced sustainably from eco-conscious suppliers) gives it the strongest claim to the coveted "artisanal" buzzword all three chains employ heavily. Though you can build your own pizza at MOD, the menu here also places more emphasis on their selection of ten specialty pizzas (augmented by a changing seasonal selection or two). Order "double crust" (a nominal upcharge) for the closest thing to Chicago-style deep dish you can find anywhere in the fast-food world. Outside the realm of pizza, build-your-own salads following a similar Chipotle-style service model are offered, or you can enjoy a "pizza salad" served on a warm asiago crust.
- Pieology — Largely seen as a poor man's Blaze — the same basic concept except fewer topping choices and cheaper-quality ingredients — Pieology redeems itself somewhat by offering a selection of "After Bakes", or optional toppings that can be added to your pizza after it comes out of the oven: everything from barbeque sauce to roasted red peppers to an olive-oil drizzle. As well, if you like your pizza well-done, Pieology may be the fast-casual option for you: pizzas are cooked for a full five minutes, making for a nice crispy texture. You'll find Pieology in basically the same geographic area as Blaze, but even more heavily concentrated in California.
- Sbarro — Sbarro is almost universally derided as the bottom of the pizza barrel: descriptors in a particularly uncharitable Slate article included "America's least essential restaurant", "devoid of atmosphere, charm, and gustatory relevance", and "Sboring". However, its status as by far the largest fast food Italian chain (800 locations worldwide; in North America you'll find them mostly in shopping malls, highway rest stops, and airport terminals) means that if you absolutely need a fix and aren't in an area served by the above fast-casual options, Sbarro may be the only game in town. Is the food really that bad, though? Consensus says it's hit-and-miss, but in the best-case scenario their New York-style pizza by the slice gets the job done sufficiently if not particularly artfully (the crust is even thin enough to fold!) Other options include thicker-crust, Sicilian-style "double duo pepperoni" slices, stromboli, and a few pasta dishes. Locations are spread out all over the U.S. and Canada (yes, that includes New York City, where pizza diehards scoff at Sbarro's food yet the Times Square location is reliably packed with tourists!)
Apart from pizza, Italian food has little presence in the fast food or fast-casual marketplace. Some of the few exceptions to this rule are:
- Fazoli's — A hybrid between fast food and fast-casual, featuring a wide array of Italian-American dishes; all entrees come with unlimited breadsticks. While the chain operates in about 25 states, its largest presence is in the greater Ohio Valley, especially its home state of Kentucky.
- Villa Italian Kitchen — With a history that stretches back to 1964, when Italian immigrant Michele Sciotto opened the original Villa Pizza in midtown Manhattan next door to the Ed Sullivan Theater, you'll find this fast-casual chain spread out in over 300 non-freestanding locations across the U.S. — shopping mall food courts, university dining halls, highway rest stops. While pizza remains the cornerstone of Villa's menu (the various selections come in regular, Neapolitan-style, or thicker-crust pan pizzas) as well as stromboli and other pizza-adjacent specialties, you can also get a variety of pasta dishes and main-course salads.
Subway is of course known all over the world, but why not take the opportunity to try a chain that's uncommon outside North America?
- Arby's — Roast beef sandwiches are the star of the show at this chain: the flagship item on the menu is the "Beef 'N Cheddar", with roast beef sliced fresh in-house (Arby's is the only fast food chain that does this, which goes some way toward accounting for the higher prices) topped with melted cheese and, ideally, a generous dollop of Arby's Sauce (sort of a hybrid of a barbeque and steak sauce — it's delicious). They're also famous for their seasoned curly fries, and Arby's now offers turkey, crispy breaded chicken, and corned-beef Reuben sandwiches onto their menu. Arby's has locations all over the United States, and across Canada except for Quebec.
- Blimpie — Founded in Hoboken in 1964, Blimpie vied with Subway through the 1990s for the title of the largest sub chain in the U.S., but they're now down to about 700 locations (from a high of about two thousand back in 2002). You'll still find them all across the country, though. Basically the same deal as Subway, except the ingredients are a notch or two fresher and higher-quality. Try the "Blimpie's Best", their souped-up answer to Subway's Italian B.M.T. with ham, capicola, prosciutto, and provolone cheese.
- DiBella's Subs — This fast-casual outfit isn't the biggest chain in the world — DiBella's has 43 locations stretching from Indiana to Connecticut — but it's noteworthy due to the quality of the ingredients they use, which is head and shoulders above any of the other restaurants listed here, as well as the sheer size of their portions. For instance, you'd think there'd only be a marginal size differential between DiBella's large (14-inch) sub and a Subway foot-long, but at DiBella's they pile the meat and veggie toppings so high that the former ends up being easily twice as big as the latter. On the side you can get some of the best whole Kosher dill pickles you've ever eaten, as well as huge, mouth-watering, fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. You order at the counter, pay, take a number, and then they bring the food to your table when it's ready.
- Firehouse Subs — The name of this fast-casual sandwich chain is no gimmick: it was founded by a pair of retired firefighters, the decor and menu follow a firefighting theme, and they're active in fundraising for local fire departments. As for the food, the huge, mouth-watering, made-with-premium-ingredients submarine sandwiches Firehouse serves don't quite reach the rarefied heights of DiBella's, but they're still a good sight better than anything you can find at Subway or the other big chains. Though they do serve cold cuts, hot subs are the specialty of the house; they also offer a choice of hot sauces to go with. Though Firehouse has expanded all across the United States, and into Puerto Rico and north of the border with more than 30 locations in southern Ontario (as of Jan 2020), and more planned, you'll find the densest concentration of them in the Southeastern U.S., from Florida to North Carolina.
- Jersey Mike's — Founded as a neighborhood sub shop on the Jersey Shore in 1956, it first franchised in 1987, and has since expanded to over 1,000 locations, though its greatest concentration is still in the eastern third of the country. Similar to Firehouse in quality of ingredients, but its flip side in terms of the menu — while it serves cheesesteaks (with your choice of steak or chicken) and a couple of other types of hot subs, the specialty is cold subs, with the meats and cheeses sliced in front of you.
- Jimmy John's — A chain of sandwich shops widespread across the United States, Jimmy John's differentiates itself from the competition by offering delivery service, which — much like their counter service — is renowned for being lightning-fast. The food quality is also a cut above what you'll find at Subway, but the flipside is that it comes in smaller portions, there are fewer toppings to choose from, prices are higher, and they tend to be less flexible with substitutions and other special customer requests. Notable as well are the chronic bad PR and periodic boycotts this place continues to earn due to its owner's widely-documented-on-social-media penchant for African big-game hunting, which have been dogging the business for several years despite Jimmy John Liautaud's assurances that he's since given up his controversial hobby.
- Mr. Sub — A direct rival to Subway. Mr. Sub had essentially a lock on the Canadian market from its 1968 launch as "Mr. Submarine" in Yorkville, Toronto until the 1990s, when Subway first began to expand north of the border. Mr. Sub now has some 200 locations that are widespread across Central and Western Canada, but lacks any presence east of the Ontario-Quebec border save for a quartet of Prince Edward Island locations. The sandwiches are a bit smaller and flimsier, the ingredients a tad lower in quality, and the bread not quite as fresh (it's shipped to each location pre-baked in plastic bags, while Subway bakes theirs in-house daily), but Mr. Sub makes up for this by offering a somewhat wider and more interesting range of sandwich toppings, some of which are particular to certain markets or even individual locations — mushrooms and pineapple are a couple of examples.
- Panera Bread — Also known as the St. Louis Bread Company in its eponymous homebase, Panera is a chain of over two thousand fast-casual bakery-cafés whose menu is based on the roughly two dozen varieties of breads, bagels, flatbreads, and pastries fresh-baked daily in-house. In the morning, breakfast sandwiches and bagels with a variety of cream cheese spreads rule the day; at lunchtime you have a slate of sandwiches made from high-quality, additive-free ingredients, as well as salads (served in a house-baked bread bowl on request), homestyle soups, and pasta bowls. For healthy eaters, Panera is one of the best options in the North American fast food and fast-casual world — they were one of the first chains to list calorie counts on their menu. You'll find locations across the United States and in a swath of Ontario from Toronto east to Kingston.
- Pita Pit — Basically the Subway of pita wraps, with, if anything, even more of an emphasis on fresh, healthy ingredients to provide a more nutritious alternative to the usual fast food menu. The procedure should be familiar: go up to the counter and either build your own wrap with your choice of meat and veggie toppings, or else order one of their pre-formulated specialty options. Not surprisingly, Pita Pit offers a bevy of Greek- and Lebanese-inspired fillings (souvlaki chicken, falafel, gyro meat, hummus) alongside the usual sandwich-shop classics like ham, turkey, Philly cheesesteak, and the like — and if you're a vegetarian, you've got a much wider selection to choose from than in most other fast food places. Pita Pit was founded and is still headquartered in Canada, but nowadays they've got an almost equal number of outlets in the U.S.; locations are widespread across both countries.
- Potbelly Sandwich Shop — A fast casual submarine sandwich chain originally from Chicago, and still has the highest concentration of branches in Illinois. It has, however, expanded nationwide, with branches in most major American cities, as well as a few branches in Toronto.
- Quiznos — Briefly a major player in the sub shop scene alongside Subway, Blimpie, and Jimmy John's, Quiznos' restaurant count has shrunk to about 750 locations in 2020 (down from about 5,000 before the Great Recession). That's a shame, because they handily beat those aforementioned competitors in pretty much every category imaginable. While the other places mainly deal in cold-cut sandwiches that come topped with your choice of veggies and other toppings, Quiznos' strong suit is specialty subs with predetermined toppings, usually made with chicken or steak and always served toasted. Food quality, portion size, and flavor are all a cut above what you'll find at Subway or Blimpie, for prices only a little bit higher. On the other hand, there are far fewer options here for vegetarians, and bread is shipped to the stores frozen rather than baked in-house (though you can't really tell the difference with toasted subs like Quiznos serves). Despite the chain's ongoing decline, you'll still find Quiznos locations across Canada and throughout the eastern two-thirds of the U.S., though they're relatively absent from New England, the inland Mid-Atlantic, and the Deep South.
- Which Wich? — A Dallas-based fast-casual chain that serves "superior sandwiches" a good sight bigger than Subway's or Jimmy John's, with locations widely scattered throughout the U.S. The ordering process at Which Wich? is unique: you walk into the store and up to a dispenser in front of the counter, from which you take a red Sharpie marker and an empty sandwich bag numbered 1 through 10 corresponding to the ten different broad categories of sandwiches they offer (e.g. "beef" is bag #3 and "Italian" is bag #7), then you fill out a checklist printed on the bag to further customize your order (choosing from three sizes and some 60 different toppings including cheeses, veggies, dressings, spices, and premium toppings) and present it to staff at the counter. When the sandwich is ready, they'll serve it to you at your table in the same bag — and you can keep the Sharpie to doodle on your bag; customer artwork is proudly hung on the walls at most Which Wich? locations.
- Auntie Anne's — Soft pretzels with a variety of sweet and/or savory toppings, as well as "pretzel dogs" (Nathan's Famous hot dogs baked in a shell of pretzel dough with a variety of toppings) served up at malls, university dining halls, highway rest stops, and other non-freestanding locations across the United States, plus two in the Toronto area.
- Captain D's — Along with Long John Silver's (see below), one of the last two significant holdouts of what was once a handful of fast food chains specializing in seafood (Arthur Treacher's was another major one). While Captain D's menu is still largely dominated by breaded and deep-fried fish and shrimp, it also offers several grilled fish options, and even offers some lobster and crab on the menu. The traditional "whitefish" (typically pollock or whiting) isn't the only fish species on the menu; catfish, tilapia, and salmon are also available. Also, Captain D's leans more to the fast-casual side than Long John Silver's, claiming to have fresher and higher-quality fare, and in addition offers a greater variety of sides. They also offer breaded chicken tenders as a substitute for fish. Like its main rival, it started well away from the ocean (in Nashville), and is most popular in the heartland, though more skewed toward the South. However, it has only about half as many locations as Long John Silver's (about 520 to over 1,000).
- Dairy Queen — They started out as a chain of walk-up ice cream stands famous for their sundaes, dipped cones, and soft serve, and many older locations retain that format to this day. However, most newer Dairy Queens are more elaborate affairs that have dine-in seating and also serve burgers and fries, chicken strips, and the like. DQ locations in Texas offer many menu items not available at DQs outside the state—among them chicken-fried steak, tacos, nachos, taco salads, Texas-only burger options, and even chicken and dumplings at some locations.
- The Halal Guys — A uniquely American fast casual halal chain that serves rice with meat (chicken or lamb), lettuce, tomatoes and a choice of their hot sauce or white sauce (or both), with its flavors being largely inspired by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Started as a food truck in New York City, but has since expanded to a nationwide franchise, with branches located across the U.S. as well as one in Toronto.
- Jamba Juice — Founded in 1990 as the "senior project" of a California Polytechnic University student, Jamba Juice serves up a range of fresh, blended-to-order fruit juice mixes and smoothies, as well as oatmeal bowls, whole-grain flatbreads, sandwiches, and other non-juice options that are a healthier alternative to usual fast food fare. The smoothies are mostly frozen fruit and frozen vegetables puréed with juices, to which you can add "shots" and "boosts" of wheatgrass, soy protein, and various vitamin and nutrient blends for added nutrition. Upon request, they will let you substitute similar ingredients (maybe you'd rather have mango than peaches in that?) or split any smoothie into two cups to share, which can help keep both costs and sugar intake under control. Jamba Juice is a nationwide presence in the U.S., with the densest concentration of locations on the West Coast; there's also a single Canadian location in the Toronto suburbs.
- Long John Silver's — The other major holdout in the fast-food seafood arena, Long John Silver's menu is a panoply of things plucked from the sea, breaded, and deep-fried: fish filets and shrimp come served in large individual and even larger family-sized platters with French fries and a variety of other sides, à la KFC (the latter include onion rings, coleslaw, and perhaps most interestingly, Southern-style hush puppies), and the same fish filets also make appearances inside sandwich buns and even tortillas in the form of (decidedly not Mexican-style) fish tacos. If seafood isn't your thing but someone else dragged you here anyway, take heart: in many cases, breaded chicken patties are available as a substitute for fish. Though there are over a thousand Long John Silver's locations across the U.S., they're ironically most popular in the Heartland (not that surprising once you know the chain started in Lexington, Kentucky): the further away you are from the actual ocean, the more likely there's a Long John Silver's nearby!
- Roy Rogers — Named for the famous star of old-time cowboy movies, Roy Rogers was once one of the largest fast food chains in the United States, with over 600 restaurants at its 1980s-era height. Today there are less than a tenth of that number, scattered through the Mid-Atlantic coastal states from New York to Virginia (you'll mostly find them in highway rest stops, especially north of the Mason-Dixon line), but its customers' loyalty is such that Roy Rogers remains an iconic presence on the fast-food landscape in its home region. The menu is an odd pastiche of different fast-food concepts — Roy Rogers seems to be one part McDonald's (a selection of burgers including the "Double R Bar" which comes topped with sliced ham and Cheddar cheese), one part Arby's (roast beef sandwiches that most consider superior to the competition), and one part KFC (family-size crispy fried chicken buckets).
- Smoke's Poutinerie — The only chain solely dedicated to Canada's native fast-food specialty, Smoke's offers a respectable choice of about thirty different specialty poutines where a variety of meat, veggie, and other toppings are added on to the standard fries/cheese curd/gravy template. Smoke's has become an ambassador of sorts for poutine, especially these past few years: though the vast majority of their restaurants are still located in Canada (nationwide, but concentrated in southern Ontario; ironically, there's only one location in Quebec, where the dish originated), they opened their first U.S. poutinerie in 2014 (there are now three: one in the Bay Area, one outside Detroit, and one in Tampa) and have ambitious plans to take the operation international.
- Pizza in the United States and Canada — a phenomenon all its own, occupying a niche in North American cuisine that's similar in some ways to fast food
- Chain restaurants in the United States and Canada — prefab dining experiences a bit more elaborate than what you've read about here
- Street food — North American-style fast food is but one facet of this much broader worldwide phenomenon