Fast food in North America
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.
"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, 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, hot dogs and hamburgers have German roots, and pizza comes from Italy), 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). There are even today some fast food restaurants that are owned by a single family and only present in one place, with no intent to form franchises elsewhere, and those are sometimes the best fast food there is.
- Pizza — While invented in southern Italy as a "poor people's food", pizza has become a fast food staple. New Yorkers and Chicagoans argue endlessly over whether thin-crust or deep-dish is better, but most of the country favors a middle-of-the-road doughy crust with lots of cheese and a variety of toppings. The fastest (and most authentic) pizza joints tend to be local, though chains are widespread and fairly quick with the deliveries. Some pizza takeaways in high-traffic locations prepare a few pizzas in advance to sell as individual slices, a quick alternative if you aren't looking for an entire made-to-order pie.
- Hamburgers — Probably the most popular 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. McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are the dominant players but there are many others. 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, which makes the lone piece of lettuce seem like a fig leaf.
- 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 hot dogs, but lots of local joints serve them up, mostly adhering to the local style.
- Corn dogs are made by putting a hot dog wiener on a stick, wrapping it in corn bread 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 barrel of fried chicken is one common format, but a hamburger joint will most often offer at least one sandwich in which a breaded chicken or fish patty replaces the beef and a salad place may offer a "chicken Caesar" in which strips of white meat top a reasonably healthy salad. Another reasonably healthy option offered by many hamburger joints is to replace the beef with a grilled chicken patty without breading. Chicken "fingers" or "nuggets", strips of breaded white meat which are fried, are also common; Buffalo-style chicken wings may turn up anywhere from sports bars to deliveries from take-out pizzerias.
- 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. Taco Bell is the ubiquitous chain, though Chipotle and its "fast-casual" service are becoming more popular.
- 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 of a variety of sliced meats (such as chicken, beef, ham), topped with your choice of cheeses, vegetables and often sauces.
- Seafood — While fish and chips as takeaway food originated in Great Britain, cod-and-chips has become common regionally in North American coastal areas, such as the Atlantic provinces and New England. Further south, the dominant local species change, with shrimp popular in New Orleans. Seafood quick-service restaurants have adapted to local markets with food along the lines of Long John Silver's: popcorn shrimp, hush puppies and combo baskets of miscellaneous fried stuff, including fish served with fries.
- Express Asian — Not just noodles but various fried vegetables and meat dishes.
- Soup and salad — A few chains offer a reasonably healthy option.
- French fries, onion rings and poutine — French fries, while Belgian in origin, are a mainstay in seemingly every fast food venue and every street food "chip truck", to the point that upselling "Would you like fries with that?" is an annoyance synonymous with a dead-end minimum wage job in any North American fast food eatery. Most menus offer a "combo" of a burger, fries and a soft drink; a few allow same-price substitution of onion rings or (more rarely) salad. The "chips" in a "fish and chips" takeaway will also be French fries, not the crisps sold as "potato chips" in North American convenience stores. Poutine is a Québécois regional dish of French fries, brown gravy and cheese curds common at the independent "casse-croûte" roadside stands there and occasionally seen throughout Canada.
- Slider — Basically a small hamburger, although it can sometimes be a small bun-based sandwich. Two regional chains are most famous for sliders—White Castle in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states (also with one location in Las Vegas), and Krystal in the South (with the two overlapping only in Atlanta, Kentucky, and Tennessee). White Castle is probably the best known in popular culture, thanks in no small part to it being a major plot point in the first Harold & Kumar movie (titled in the U.S. as Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle).
- Wraps and pitas — Can be Mexican burrito influenced but also Mediterranean/Middle East pita bread based.
- Ice cream and soft serve — Dairy Queen in particular is known for dispensing a "soft-serve" vanilla ice milk which is topped with jam or jelly 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. Breakfast is not available at all locations.
- Baked goods — American variants of British, German and Polish baked cake and bread products such as muffins, donuts and bagels are available at fast food restaurants, though better examples can often be found at dedicated bakeries. Doughnut shops tend to remain open late (or even 24/7) dispensing coffee to keep police and night watchmen awake until the dawn.
Types of service
While most fast food establishments rely upon a "fast in fast served fast out" model of some sort, there is a more or less fluent transition (especially in the US) from street food on the one side via "classical" fast food to "normal" restaurants on the other side. While some companies offer several kinds of service, usually whether sitting down to eat is common is part of the brand identity and sometimes (though not necessarily always) it gives a hint towards price and (perceived) quality.
- Drive-through (often spelled "drive thru" on signage) — Order your food from the car and get it handed through the window without ever leaving your vehicle.
- Counter service — Line up for food at a counter or window to bring back to your table; the meal is served on a cafeteria-style plastic tray for consumption on-premises. A food court is a group of these counters, each operated by a different fast food vendor with a different style or genre of food, all arranged around a common indoor seating area. A common retail fixture, these were added to most major indoor shopping malls in the early 1980s. The food court design also appears at many highway rest stops. A fast casual restaurant offers a level of service comparable to "quick-service restaurants" aka "fast food", where the client brings their own meal to the table on a cafeteria-style tray, but with a slightly better quality of cuisine.
- Take-out or takeaway — While you have to physically go to a place, you can or even have to take the food with you, often in some type of special box or package to keep it warm and fresh. A variant is to call for pick-up; a telephone call to a local pizzeria gets dinner into the oven, so when you drive up 10-15 minutes later a meal freshly cooked to order is waiting at the takeaway window. Special take-out places have few opportunities to sit down, if any. May overlap with street food and food trucks somewhat, especially in more informal street stall kind of places.
- Sit-down restaurant — While some or even most of these places offer take out or drive through, it is more or less common to sit down at least for a couple of minutes with your foods. Where these chains exist outside North America, they are often the only places with free refills for soft drinks. Pizza places sometimes offer an all-you-can-eat buffet option.
- Drive-in or car hop is 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 takeaway window for consumption in-vehicle or at a picnic table on-site. Like drive-in cinema, these operations are inherently seasonal, especially in Canada. (A&W Canada abandoned this system in the 1980s. One might still see it in the US, with the Sonic chain being by far the most common example, but it has long been losing ground to the newer drive-through system.)
- Food delivery (sometimes called "call a ..." in advertising) is popular with pizza and Asian takeaway food. A local telephone call brings a meal to your doorstep, most often within half an hour to anywhere within a specified delivery area. Some pizzerias include delivery in their base prices (minimum amount ordered may apply); others apply a small surcharge. Tipping the delivery person is common and expected. Super Bowl Sunday is the busiest food delivery day in the year, so tip accordingly for the poor people working those shifts.
In general, most fast-food eateries do not solicit tips; the two notable exceptions are sit-down restaurants where a server brings food or drink to your table (such as a Pizza Hut) or food delivery services. A tip is intended as a reward for above-average service; a takeaway window (even if attached to what is otherwise a sit-down restaurant) or a cafeteria-style eatery is inherently self-service. Some eateries, mostly self-service sit-down restaurants that market themselves as "fast-casual", will have a "tip jar" at the checkout station, but tipping is not expected there.
- Panda Express — Americanized Chinese food.
- Dunkin' Donuts — A popular supplier of calories in the USA; a few exist in Canada, but Tim Hortons largely owns the Canadian market.
- Einstein Bros. Bagels — Wide selection of bagels and cream cheeses. Breakfast and lunch sandwiches available, but bagels are the main attraction here.
- Krispy Kreme — Another highly-popular donut chain, noted for having freshly glazed donuts in the morning, when you can get them hot out of the oven.
- Panera Bread — Good bakery for breads and cakes such as muffins, as well as Soup and Salad meals.
- Tim Hortons — A Canadian institution with a few locations in the USA. 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), so take the opportunity to try other chains.
- A&W – One of the better Canadian fast food chains, though a different company from the identically named U.S. chain. They serve burgers, chicken sandwiches, and everything else you'd expect, but the star of the show here is A&W root beer served to you on draft in glass mugs that they keep frosty cold for you in a freezer tucked behind the counter. (Free refills, too!)
- Carl's Jr. and Hardee's – Two burger chains owned by the same company, operating in different parts of the country (Carl's Jr. in the West and Southwest, Hardee's in the Midwest and South) but offering mostly identical menus. Distinguish themselves from most of the majors by flame-broiling burgers (BBQ style) instead of frying (Burger King also flame-broils). The parent company has started to open locations in Canada, 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.
- 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.
- Five Guys – Made to order burgers, hot dogs and fries. This place is pricier than the other burger chains on this list, but noted for its quality and large portions — a "regular" burger has two patties while a "little" has one, and a large order of fries will practically fill up the paper bag they serve them in. Each Five Guys restaurant has a bucket of complimentary peanuts for you to enjoy while you wait for your order.
- Fuddruckers – Order your burger at the counter then go to the salad bar to fill the bun how you like.
- Harvey's – Canadian regional hamburger (and hot dog) chain; like Burger King and Carl's Jr./Hardee's, flame-broils its burgers. Also distinguishes itself by offering a wide selection of toppings and condiments so that there are nominally 223 different variants of the same basic burgers.
- In-N-Out Burger – A California must visit; now expanding to a few other Western states, plus Texas. Simple short menu (although there is a semi-secret extra list). You have to wait for your order, but it is made fresh.
- Sonic Drive-In – 50s-style drive-in restaurants serving burgers, sandwiches, fries, and shakes.
- Wendy's – Hamburgers and salads; a marginally healthier choice than the other burger joints as any combo may substitute salad for fries on request.
- Whataburger – Regional chain that started in Texas and has its biggest presence in that state, but has expanded to other parts of the South.
- White Castle – The oldest fast-food burger chain in the United States, predating McDonald's by a good thirty or forty years. The specialty at White Castle then as now are sliders: miniature burgers with thin, square patties about three inches long, generally sold by the sack. You'll find them in the Great Lakes and upper South, as well as the New York City area.
- Bojangles' – A regional chain found mostly in the South specializing in biscuits and fried chicken.
- 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), not as breasts, wings, legs, etc. Historically a Southern chain, and also frequently found in food courts at shopping malls, though has dramatically changed in both respects in recent years. 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 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".
- Chicken Express – Popular across the South from Texas to Georgia.
- KFC – The world's largest and most recognizable fried chicken chain, known for its buckets of chicken, but also sells chicken sandwiches, strips, and various sides.
- Louisiana Fried Chicken
- Popeyes – Based in Atlanta, but claims a New Orleans heritage of spicy and mild fried chicken, chicken tenders, seafood, red beans and rice. Mostly found in the South, but is beginning to appear as far afield as Canada.
- Swiss Chalet – Unlike most other chicken chains, the poultry at this Canadian chain is roasted on a rotisserie, rather than deep fried. Many locations have large dining rooms with full table service in addition to take-out counters, but some are takeout (or drive-thru) only. If you're in Quebec, you won't find any Swiss Chalet locations there, but the homegrown Saint-Hubert chain is much the same concept (and, since April 2016, the same parent company).
- Wienerschnitzel - If you know any German or have even a passing knowledge of Austrian cuisine the name will make you cringe as it doesn't refer to hot dogs at all, but the food is not affected by that.
- Rubios – One of the better cheap eats, "New Mex" fish tacos
- Taco Bell - Tacos and other Mexican-style fast food.
- Taco Bueno - Among the cheapest Tex-Mex options, it has locations across Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
- Taco Cabana - Popular chain spread across Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma.
- Cici's Pizza — Sit-down all-you-can eat restaurants with carry-out option (no delivery). The pizza won't win any awards for quality, but it's popular with kids and dirt cheap.
- Chuck E. Cheese — Pizza chain with game arcade and entertainment, aimed primarily at small children and their families.
- Domino's — The second-largest pizza chain in the U.S. and the world, also with a major presence in Canada. Primarily a delivery chain that also offers carry-out (no dine-in).
- Gatti's Pizza — Most locations offer both delivery and sit-down, usually with an all-you-can-eat buffet.
- Jet's Pizza — A Michigan-based chain with locations in 18 states (mainly in the Midwest and South) that's most famous for Detroit-style pizza: a square-shaped, deep-dish pie with a crunchy, buttery crust and sauce baked over the cheese. If that doesn't sound like your thing, they have regular pizzas (and even New York-style thin crust) too, as well as other pizzeria standards like garlic bread, salads and submarine sandwiches.
- Little Caesars — Some of the cheapest pizza available. Most locations are carry-out only; a few also offer delivery. Many offer a "hot and ready" option in which a few commonly-ordered pizzas (such as medium pepperoni or cheese) are pre-made and already waiting during peak times.
- Papa John's Pizza — Essentially the same business model as Domino's (delivery and carry-out, with only a tiny number of dine-in locations). Heavily boasts about the quality of its ingredients in its advertising, but your mileage may (and almost certainly will) vary.
- Pizza Hut — The largest pizza chain in the U.S. and the world. Mostly sit-down restaurants, often with an all-you-can-eat buffet option on weekdays, but all offer carry-out, and the vast majority offer delivery.
- Pizza Pizza — A Canadian chain established in Toronto in the 1960s but now increasingly found in other parts of the country. Unlike Pizza Hut (which is a sit-down restaurant), these are bright-orange takeaway counters with a limited seating area. Particularly notable for two things — extensive advertising of one central number city-wide for delivery (which traditionally ends in "-1111", originally sung ad infinitum on Toronto radio as "nine six seven, eleven eleven, call Pizza Pizza, hey hey hey!") and a name which ensures Little Caesars can't use its "Pizza! Pizza!" slogan in Canada.
- Sbarro — NY-style pizza by the slice, although New Yorkers would likely scoff at this stuff. Typically located in shopping mall food courts.
Soup and salad
They tend to be regional rather than national chains
- Souplantation – Select your own salads to stack on the plate and all you can eat soups, cakes and ice cream.
- Arby's - Sandwiches with a focus on roast beef/ham/turkey, brisket, corned beef, and the like.
- Jimmy John's - Sub sandwiches and wraps. Faster service but not as good as Subway
- Mr. Sub - Submarine sandwiches, soups. Canadian regional chain (300 locations) in direct competition with Subway.
- Quiznos - Specializing in toasted sub sandwiches.
- Subway – Sub sandwiches, plus salads, wraps, and a small breakfast menu.
- Long John Silver's - Fried fish and shrimp platters, sandwiches, and sides.