In a country as large and diverse as the U.S., it should be no surprise that every region has a local favorite or two.
Coming out of the pandemic, one travel trend we see is that y’all are staying close to home, and sometimes doing a deep dive into local dining. And that’s often the best way to experience the culture.
Now we’re not promising these are the most gourmet (or healthy) of choices, but we can promise a high “yum” quotient, as well as sentimental value since many of these chains bring back memories of childhood. Take your kids!
We figured it best to just dive in with this 100% cult favorite that originally hails from California. Famous for its “secret” and not-so-secret menus, the chain has such strict quality control measures they don’t allow locations more than 500 miles from a commissary location. Right now you can order the classic double double in only 5 states – California, Arizona. Nevada, Utah and Texas. Their classic menu hasn’t changed in 20 years (the last addition was to add Dr. Pepper back in the 90’s). Basically, don’t come for In n Out if you know what’s good for you. Californians especially take it very seriously.
We had to include the Waffle House, especially if you’re on a road trip across America. Founded by two neighbors in Avondale Estates, Georgia it’s now known for classic, cheap and hearty breakfasts for folks on the road. Waffle House buys 2% of all eggs produced in the U.S. and is the world’s leading server of the T-bone steak.
Texas’ entry into the regional fast food pantheon has to be Whataburger, the burger joint that prides itself on its incredibly customizable menu. Whataburger also has its own ketchup that can also be bought in national grocery chains. One particularly Texas touch might be that you can park your horse in the parking lot or order and ride him right through the drive-thru.
Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits
Known for flaky biscuits, Cajun chicken and chicken all day, Bojangles has cultivated a legendary rep around it’s menu. Everything (and we mean EVERYTHING) is cooked fresh each day – biscuits whipped up every 20 minutes! Most locations are found in the south (with an international outlier in Honduras), so don’t forget to make a pitstop when you find one.
Pal’s Sudden Service
Everything about a Pal’s location screams kitsch. The slightly off kilter name – what’s “sudden service” anyway, to the building design – a bright blue box (drive-through only) with giant plaster hamburgers and hot dogs protruding from its mouth-thing? Who knows? It cornered the market in the Tri-Cities region (a loose community of suburbs straddling the Tennessee and Virginia state lines). Fans of In-N-Out will find Pal’s to be a close cousin – fresh food, fresh faced friendly employees, and reasonable prices for burgers and hot dogs, along with some other sandwich options. Locals swear by the ham and chicken sammies served on a burger bun.
Biscuitville is based in North Carolina and offers locations around NC and Virginia. What’s clear from reviews and even culinary write-ups from celebrity chefs – Biscuitville serves delicious southern, family-style food. In addition, the chain partners with local vendors and farmers to make sure they’re giving back and participating in the communities it serves. What’s not to love about that? Try the Spicy Chicken & Honey biscuit. It’s to die for.
Those of us from the rest of the country don’t generally recommend gas station cuisine to friends and family. But for folks in states that Sheetz serves, this combination gas station and made to order sandwich shop is delicious and crowd-pleasing. The shops are open 24/7 which makes it a favorite for college students and late-night diners (you know who you are). Sheetz is a mid-Atlantic mainstay, with the bulk of its locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
Have you ever dined on Cincinnati-style chili? Well, get yourself to a Skyline location in Ohio where you can sample this dish which comes served over spaghetti or a hot dog and topped with an obscene amount of cheddar cheese. It’s not good for you at all, but it’s a much beloved dining establishment. Try it!
In recent years, Habit Burger has been giving In-N-Out a run for its money in the popularity game in Cali and beyond (Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia and Washington). Many people don’t know it’s been around for more than 50 years (the first location was founded in Santa Barbara). Habit Burger also lands at or near the top of the Consumer Reports “Best Burger” list yearly, so check it out if you haven’t yet. Habit Burger offers a bit more elevated dining experience than others on this list.
Speaking of which, what fast food list would be complete without the much loved (and much maligned) White Castle burger? White Castle has been immortalized in countless films and tv shows – and even has a movie named after it (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle)! White Castle has earned its bragging rights, being the OG on this list (and maybe any list) of fast food giants. Billy Ingram founded White Castle in 1921, selling 5 cent sliders (the square hamburger that’s easy to eat). White Castle is found throughout the midwest, and has a handful of locations in Kentucky, Tennessee and Kentucky. Having said that, New York and New Jersey have about 50 locations between the two states and have done the most for elevating the White Castle name in pop culture.
With no shortage of regional favorites to try, we encourage everyone to sample local favorites when out on your next family vacation. If we’ve missed your favorite, please let us know in the comments below. We’d love to put together a resource list for vacationers this year.