The Ultimate Ranking Of American Fast Food Restaurants

Fast food: It's one of the cornerstones of the global economy and, to the chagrin of nutritionists everywhere, it's the backbone of quite a few people's diets, too. But despite medical science's low opinion of virtually every chain, not all fast food restaurants are equal, and everybody who's spent any time out there in the lunch-hour trenches already knows that some are much better, and much worse, than others.

Everybody's got their fast food favorites as well as foes, but here we will attempt to put forth the ultimate ranking of the most notable, popular, and long-lived chains out there. I've tried to hew close to nationwide rather than regional chains, although not every spot listed here has locations across the entire country. As to the metrics being considered, they come down first and foremost to how good the food is, with other incidental factors being noted as needed. For more on the methodology used to rank these fast food chains, you can see a breakdown at the very end of the piece.

32. Panera Bread

The cult of Panera certainly has its adherents, but in my view, it has declined considerably from whatever peaks of glory it might have once occupied. Bland, cafeteria-caliber food and a dining experience that seems to trend more toward getting people in and out quickly have replaced the comfortable relaxation and study spot I remember from years gone by. A typical Panera sandwich (such as the one pictured above) is unlikely to clear the low bar of satisfaction reached by Subway or Arby's, and attempting to redeem the soup by having it poured into a bread bowl isn't a very practical option for a daily or weekly meal. 

31. Pizza Hut

The decline of Pizza Hut has been observed by many with fond memories of feasting in the red checkerboard-tableclothed paradises of the 1990s, and I concur — I feel its delivery offerings simply don't taste as good as they did when I was a young man. Soggy crusts and poorly proportioned sauce, cheese, and other toppings are killers for any pizza, and they've served to drag the Pizza Hut brand down for years, in my view. But I admit I still like the Hut's breadsticks.

30. Starbucks

Some may argue that Starbucks is not truly fast food, since its central product is not food at all but a beverage. In a ranking of coffee chains, it would place much higher, but in the realm of fast food, it just seems to belong here in the lower tier. Should you go to Starbucks in need of actual food, you'll find an array of skimpy sandwiches and other snack-ish items that seem more appropriate for an airport grab-and-go than a proper meal, even by fast food standards. 

29. Subway

The Subway Diet has to rank as one of the most successful fast food ad campaigns ever conceived, although more recent developments have given it an unpleasant aura in retrospect. But putting aside the notion of whether or not an all-sub-sandwich diet is a good idea nutritionally for a typical person, the actual flavor and texture of Subway's meats and breads have been surpassed by multiple other chains in the fast food sandwich realm. In a pinch, though, a decently assembled Subway sandwich can still hit the spot and fill you up.

28. Hardee's/Carl's Jr.

Few fast food burger chains are as dispiriting as Hardee's (aka Carl's Jr., depending on where you live), and numerous customers lament that it's in its own slow decline from a not particularly lofty heyday. One thing that Hardee's burgers are supposed to have in their favor is their size, as once indicated by their former (and very fun to say) name, "Thickburgers." But customers complain that even the burgers have gotten smaller, with ⅓-pound patties being replaced with more standard-sized ¼-pounders.

27. Jack in the Box

Jack in the Box is one of those fast food chains that's probably more beloved for its ad campaigns than for its food. While its burgers, sandwiches, and fries are simply average at best, it does go above and beyond other chains by offering variety in the form of items like tacos and egg rolls as part of its munchy-friendly menu. I also have a fondness for Jack in the Box's limited-edition milkshakes — hey Jack, when are we going to see the Pineapple Express make a comeback?

26. Taco Bell

This will almost certainly be one of the most controversial placements on this list, as Taco Bell has its share of ride-or-dies who are loyal to the Bell no matter what beloved menu items the chain discontinues. For me, though, the brand's signature flavors and attempts at spicy provocations fall flat, and the last couple burritos I've had there have been on the bland side. The days are few and far between when I would rather have a Burrito Supreme instead of, say, a comparably stuffed burrito from Chipotle, and the Taco Bell menu sometimes strikes me as a puzzle to be mastered with substantial trial and error, rather than a dependable go-to for a quick lunch or late-night snack. 

25. Little Caesars

The crux of the Little Caesars empire is its Hot-N-Ready pizzas, available more or less instantly, as long as supplies last and within the proper time window. They used to cost $5, though now they're a little more. Still, if convenience and raw, animal hunger come together in just the proper proportion, Little Caesars can be tough to beat, and outside the Hot-N-Ready arena, the chain has quite a few offerings that some might not be aware of. I haven't gotten to try its Detroit-style pizza, but a review by Dennis Lee from The Takeout calls it an ideal entry point for newcomers to the parallel pizza dimension that is the Motor City method. 

24. Papa Johns

Past public relations disasters aside, Papa Johns does have a few big assets in its favor, its garlic butter sauce chief among them. The company has even figured out a way to bake that sauce into a stuffed crust, which goes to show the experimental lengths a fast food chain can turn to when it's really up against the wall. The addition of a fresh pepperoncino pepper on the side is also a welcome innovation in delivery pizza. As for the pizza itself, quality can vary, but the toppings tend to be pretty flavorful, and I like its somewhat dense and chewy crust, particularly when it's dipped in that garlic sauce!

23. Burger King

Who didn't love a nice Burger King Kids Meal as a child? And you have to hand it to the Whopper (using two hands, of course), one of the most iconic of the giant fast food burgers. BK has also innovated in the field of sides, particularly with its "Frings" concept, a half-and-half order of french fries and onion rings. Then there's the BK breakfast menu, which includes the mighty Croissan'wich, a contender for best fast food breakfast sandwich of all time. And yet, it's rare that I find myself actively craving BK, which has to be taken into consideration as well.

22. Domino's

Domino's hasn't sunk as far as Pizza Hut compared to those halcyon pizza delivery days of the 1980s and 1990s, possibly because it was always pretty focused on delivery rather than dining in. And on a purely economic level, it's some of the cheapest food you can get, particularly with some strategic coupon usage. If the pizza doesn't satisfy, the menu also offers baked sandwiches and several variations of chicken wings for you to feast upon, and just in writing this paragraph, I've decided to move it up a bit in the rankings versus the other pizza chains.

21. Chick-fil-A

Chick-fil-A has courted controversy over the years that has nothing to do with food. But how do the chain's actual menu offerings hold up? I know a lot of people swear by Chick-fil-A's Southern-style chicken sandwich, so much so that it's inspired plenty of imitators from rival chains, but to me, it's never tasted like anything special. Same goes for the waffle fries and the chicken nuggets, which are good but not irreplaceable elsewhere. That sauce is pretty tasty, though. 

20. Panda Express

Chinese food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world, but for whatever reason, it hasn't taken off in American fast food. Panda Express is a notable exception, so if you're looking a spicy General Tso's in a fast food context, it's pretty much your best bet. There's something about a Panda Express entrée that just feels more substantial than a burger and fries, and let's not forget that while leftovers from McDonald's or Burger King are rarely a good idea, Panda Express' Kung Pao Chicken and many of its other dishes can taste pretty good the next day.

19. Arby's

Nationwide fast food establishments tend to hew to a handful of basic formulaic templates, with burgers and fries, pizza, subs, and variations on international cuisine being the most popular. But Arby's deserves credit for serving as a unique, one-of-a-kind place in the fast food world. There are no hamburgers, but the chain's roast beef sandwiches don't taste quite like anything else in the game, especially when smothered in cheese sauce. While we're on the subject of sauces, Arby's also has Horsey Sauce and its own signature Arby's Sauce to keep things a little spicier than typical fast food fare, and its assortment of other (as Ving Rhames might say) meaty sandwiches provide a welcome bit of experimentation and variety on the menu.

18. Dairy Queen

Across the country, Dairy Queen is beloved for its upside-down Blizzard soft serve concoctions that mix ice cream with all manner of sweet solid matter. In the field of fast food desserts, it's hard for me to think of anything better than a Blizzard, the treat that even McDonald's has attempted to imitate with its own McFlurry. But if you insist upon eating an actual meal before your dessert, DQ has you more than amply covered there, with a decent line of Signature Stackburgers and crispy chicken fingers that satisfy even if they don't always stand out from the pack. With DQ's delicious Blizzards, Dilly Bars, Dipped Cones, and wide variety of sundae flavors, the chain doesn't have to do much more than that to secure its position in the fast food canon.  

17. White Castle

Not too many fast food chains have a whole Hollywood feature film devoted to their appeal among users of certain psychoactive substances during late-night hours when other options are closed. At the end of the day, though, White Castle is all about the unique flavor of those signature tiny hamburgers known as sliders. There are few decadent fast food pleasures more satisfying than munching on a sack of hamburgers as if they're potato chips, as many a White Castle addict can attest. Nonetheless, I feel credit must be given to the true fast food masters of the slider formula. The fact that I happen to prefer Krystal's sliders to White Castle's could just be a by-product of where I grew up, but the preference remains all the same.

16. Dunkin'

America, it has been said, runs on Dunkin'. That's certainly true of the city of Boston, where Dunkin' locations dot the landscape like Christmas lights in December. Its coffee is particularly beloved, which is probably part of the reason the company decided to drop the "Donuts" from its name, and for coffee and donuts, Dunkin' has to be one of the major fast food players. On top of that, the chain's breakfast sandwiches and bagels can fix you up with a more savory breakfast or even lunch and dinner if need be. Does a Dunkin' breakfast sandwich fill the morning craving as well as one from McDonald's or Wendy's? Doubtful, but throw in a coffee and donut on the side, and you've got something special, if possibly inadvisable as part of a daily balanced breakfast.

15. McDonald's

The quintessential American fast food restaurant occupies a sphere of its own, and it's probably the first place most people all over the world think of when they hear the phrase "fast food." And look, the fries are great. Even the Coke and Sprite seem to taste better at McDonald's. But on a fundamental level, does it belong in the top tier of fast food places? If you had to go the rest of your life without a Big Mac or a Chicken McNugget, would you miss them like you might miss KFC's biscuits or Culver's root beer? It's the ketchup of fast food, the Least Objectionable Programming of burgers and fries.

14. Jimmy John's

Jimmy John's specializes in good sandwiches served with almost inhuman speed, and it has cornered the market on lightning-fast deliveries as well. This is all a matter of personal preference, of course, but in my estimation, the sandwiches themselves are probably a little better than Subway's, but they still fall a little short of the Jersey Mike's high water mark. Still, for a quick lunch on a time crunch, a nearby Jimmy John's can be a real godsend.

13. Sonic

As its name suggests, Sonic prioritizes the "fast" in fast food. But there's more to the chain's appeal than simple expediency. Sonic has some of the best breakfast sandwiches in the game, and its beverage customization options put the typical Coke Freestyle machine to shame. Burgers, hot dogs, tots, onion rings, milkshakes, and more are available as well, all in a vintage drive-in style. Sonic is also no stranger to experimental food novelties like Buffalo Chicken Dip Bites, and it's variety like that which keeps people coming back for more.

12. KFC

Another fast food chain that shortened its name for catchy marketing purposes is KFC, formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken. And if you're in the mood for fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits, it's hard to go wrong with the Colonel. If those aren't your thing, you'll also find some newer offerings on the KFC menu, from the good (grilled chicken) to the bad (KFC Famous Bowls) and sometimes the ugly. (Need I remind you of the KFC Double Down?)

11. Raising Cane's

There are many fast food chains that specialize in fried chicken, and many others have various chicken offerings in addition to their signature fare, but at Raising Cane's, chicken fingers are the entire name of the game. This is an example of doing one thing and doing it well, rather than trying to overextend one's menu and allowing quality to suffer as a result. You may not get a ton of variety on the Raising Cane's menu, but you will get a (figurative) ton of chicken fingers, and pretty good ones, too.

10. Jersey Mike's Subs

Fast food sandwiches can be a dirty game, but Jersey Mike's Subs plays it as clean as you can, slicing meats and cheeses fresh in the store. The superior texture and taste of these sandwiches make Subway seem more like Subpar, and the more premium price point is balanced out by better-tasting ingredients across the board. 

I myself am not a huge fan of oil and vinegar toppings on subs, but I have sampled a few sandwiches done "Mike's Way," which includes oil, vinegar, salt, and oregano in addition to the veggie lineup of lettuce, tomato, and onions, and I have to admit they do add a little something to sandwiches that are already well above standard in terms of quality and flavor. Throw in some of those generously thick-cut pickles, and you really have a proper meal on bread. 

9. Popeyes

Debates rage on which fast food chicken joint is the best, and even though I would rank KFC first in the biscuit wars, I have to give the overall title to Popeyes. The flavor of the chain's signature crispy fried chicken provides a welcome kick in an often spice-averse fast food landscape. On top of that, Popeyes hasn't been resting on its laurels, either, introducing such game-changers as wings and its own variety of chicken sandwiches to the menu. Popeyes even does Cajun turkeys for Thanksgiving.

8. Chipotle

I'm old enough to remember when Chipotle was relatively new on the scene, and a lot of people didn't even know how to pronounce the name. Now, the chain is a Tex-Mex fixture, several steps above Taco Bell in terms of quality, with an emphasis on customization over prefabricated kitchen lab oddities. Then, of course, there's the guacamole, which is pretty tasty for what is essentially a condiment. Chipotle imitators trying to replicate its success in different culinary areas are a testament to its popularity, and it deserves credit for changing the fast food game in a way that few newcomers have been able to in the last few decades.

7. Wendy's

The hamburgers are square at Wendy's because the restaurant never cuts corners, but you get more than just clever wordplay as part of your Wendy's meal. Chili, baked potatoes, spicy chicken, and sometimes controversial french fries are some of Wendy's signature items. For my money, the only way to find a better burger than Wendy's is to go to one of the more premium restaurants like Five Guys or In-N-Out. If the Wendy's people see this and want to improve their standing, I would give them this bit of free advice: Bring back the salad bar!

6. Krystal

White Castle beat Krystal to the slider punch, opening its first location in 1921, while Krystal first opened its doors in 1932. And the two restaurants observed their own territory for generations, with White Castle serving the Midwest's slider needs while Krystal provided sacks of sliders to the Southeast. 

Which one you prefer probably has a lot to do with where you grew up, but the sliders that hold a place in my heart will always be Krystal's. This could be controversial, and I admit I haven't had a chance to try the two side by side, but my slider experience tells me that Krystal's are a little closer to a compact, miniaturized version of a traditional cheeseburger, while White Castle's sliders have a lighter and more snackable texture. Both are good, but I have to hand the slider crown to Krystal for now. Sorry, Harold. Forgive me, Kumar.

5. Five Guys

A typical order at Five Guys will demonstrate that sometimes in the fast food business, it's possible to prioritize both quality and quantity. The burgers and fries at FG tend to be a cut above typical such fare, in terms of both quality and price, and the chain certainly doesn't skimp on the volume, either, at least when it comes to the french fries. Not only do you get a full order, but the employees tend to fill some of the leftover space in your bag with still more fried potatoes. It's nice to know that even in these cruel times, a business founded on such generosity can prosper. 

4. In-N-Out Burger

Whenever I take a bite of one of those perfect (and cheap!) gooey cheeseburgers, I am reminded why In-N-Out Burger has achieved such legendary fast food burger status throughout the country, arguably subpar french fries and all. Much like Raising Cane's, In-N-Out has elevated the art of simplicity to elegant and delicious heights, and what the menu lacks in variety, it makes up for in foundational quality. 

Then, of course, there are its "secret menu" variations, probably the most famous and treasured secret menu in all of fast food. The towering 3x3s and 4x4s will fill you up when a Double-Double somehow isn't enough, but the real unique flavor comes by ordering your burger "Animal Style" (or, if you're cutting carbs, "Protein Style"). A consistent secret menu is something to be treasured in the world of fast food, and In-N-Out has perfected the practice, much as it has perfected its burgers. If it could only perfect its french fries, we could be looking at a new GOAT. 

3. Whataburger

In some ways, Texas occupies its own parallel dimension of fast food, with spots like Torchy's Tacos and P. Terry's making up much of the fast food ecosystem. But at least one Texas chain has gone nationwide and earned a certain amount of respect from non-Texans for its 24-hour glowing utopias of Whataburgers, chicken sandwiches (on Texas toast, naturally), and Dr. Pepper shakes. The Whataburger breakfast menu is pretty good, too, especially if you appreciate cinnamon rolls.

Even as a die-hard Whataburger fan, there was a time when I wouldn't have placed its cheeseburgers too high in any ranking. But I recently discovered that a typical Whataburger's mustard-forward flavor profile can be buttressed by custom additions of ketchup and mayo, a small change that, for me, has propelled it much closer to the top.

2. Culver's

Burgers, fried cheese curds, and frozen custard are some of the menu items that keep people coming back to Culver's, but for my money, the best thing at Culver's comes out of the soda fountain: Culver's root beer, the best root beer I've ever tasted, a creamy, rich delight that's more like a dessert than a beverage. How many other fast food chains have their own proprietary beverage? Panera's caffeinated lemonade comes to mind, but that's probably a bad example. 

You do need a sandwich or something to go with that root beer, though, and Culver's has never let me down in that department. The chain's line of Midwest-style ButterBurgers are juicy and satisfying, holding up nicely next to places like In-N-Out and Five Guys.

1. Checkers/Rally's

That's right folks, the greatest fast food restaurant in the game is Checkers, as it's known in the South, and Rally's, as it exists in the Midwest. Its menu is a cornucopia of classic staples like the Big Buford and, of course, those trademark seasoned french fries, as well as esoteric experimentation that includes stuff like fry-seasoned cheese sticks and Kool-Aid. At the risk of overstating the point, the real Checkers/Rally's killer appetizer is the fries, which are, in my estimation, the best in the entire fast food universe, virtually impossible to resist as they sit in the bag on the car ride home. I've even sampled the Fry Lover's Burger, which shoves those fan-favorite fries into a cheeseburger for a treat that Shaggy Rogers would approve of. 


The above list was compiled according to the writer's own personal opinions, based on years of extensive research, which is to say, eating too much fast food. I tried to draw in some other opinions from both regular customers online and food experts, but the list ranking and most of the subjective statements within it are my own and based on my own taste buds and olfactory nerves, unless otherwise specified. The restaurants were selected in an attempt to give a broad overview of the major fast food dining options across America, with major chains favored over more regional specialties, although some of those were selected for inclusion as well.