In an age of super-sized portions and value meals, fast food restaurants are always trying to reinvent their most popular menu items and give people more of what they love. Sometimes their efforts are successful, a la Burger King’s chicken fries or they crash and burn, like Pizza Hut’s Cheeseburger Stuffed Crust Pizza.
While some drive-thru items will come and go, it’s the mainstay meals that keep people coming back from the very first day they opened their doors. Below, we take a look at some of the most popular fast foods that went from good eats to culinary icons—and essentially put these fast food drive-thrus on the map. To get more fast food guides and learn healthy swaps at the drive-thru, subscribe to the Eat This, Not That! magazine. For a limited time, you can get 50 percent off the cover price!
When Dick and Mac McDonald opened their first drive-in of the burger chain in 1948, their menu had just nine items: hamburger, cheeseburger, soft drinks, milk, coffee, potato chips and a slice of pie. But a year later, they swapped the potato chips for their World Famous French fries. The crispy spuds feature Russet Burbank and Shepody potatoes that are fried in a vegetable oil blend that makes it deliciously addictive. Many surveys over the years, including this 2014 survey from YouGov, have rated the Golden Arches’ spud sticks as the best in the country.
Wendy’s is known for their tasty Frostys and healthy seasonal salads, as well as some burger creations that are anything but (Baconator, anyone?). But what makes Dave Thomas’ joint stand out from the burger crowd? His square patties and emphasis on fresh ingredients. At the original location, Thomas and his crew pounded and shaped the burgers by hand. Nearly 50 years later, the joint’s, which was named after Thomas’ niece, “fresh, never frozen” mantra is the cornerstone of the brand.
Kids love the paper crowns, and we can’t get enough of the Chicken Fries. But for more than 60 years, the King reigns as “The Home of the Whopper.” The iconic sandwich comes with the same nine ingredients it did in 1957, the year it debuted in Miami. Built as a bigger and better burger, the Whopper literally offers more food than the average bun with a quarter-pound beef patty, juicy tomatoes, fresh lettuce, mayo, ketchup, pickles, and white onions.
Taco Bell has made a reputation for their crazy food mashups, such as their Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos and Cheesy Gordita Crunch. But the original Taco Bell menu was simple. It had only six items, including the classic taco. Made with seasoned beef, cheese, and lettuce, you can enjoy it with a soft or crunchy shell. Now, that’s living màs.
Originally founded as Open Kettle in 1948, William Rosenberg later changed the name in 1950 to Dunkin’ Donuts to illustrate the chain’s first two menu items: coffee and donuts. For over 20 years—and after opening more than 100 locations—Dunkin Donuts kept its first menu until they introduced the Munchkin (aka donut holes) in 1972 and donut fries earlier this summer. In addition to its donuts, today you can find a variety of breakfast sandwiches and hot and frozen coffee Coolata concoctions on the menu. It’s safe to say that America still runs on Dunkin’.
When S. Truett Cathy opened the Dwarf Grill (renamed the Dwarf House) in Hapeville, GA in 1946, it had the presentation and style of a traditional diner. After 20 years of testing out hundreds of recipes, Cathy unveiled Chick-Fil-A’s original chicken sandwich. About a dozen locations across the country still have the original Dwarf House menu (which includes beef!), but the chicken sandwich remains chain’s most iconic dish.
The St. Louis Bread Company had 19 store locations in the St. Louis metro area before Au Bon Pain acquired it in 1993. The fast-casual chain’s menu was simple then; mostly salads and sandwiches made with freshly baked artisan bread. But when it changed its name to Panera Bread (from the Latin root meaning for bread basket), the chain quickly became known for their bread bowls, soups, and vibrant salads.
You can’t say you’ve had the best fried chicken ever without trying KFC’s original recipe. But it’s not just like any fried chicken dish. It’s Colonel Harland Sanders’ famously secretive blend of 11 herbs and spices that made KFC’s fried chicken rise above the rest. Since its humble beginnings over 80 years ago as a roadside fried chicken vendor in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, KFC has expanded to more than 20,000 restaurants in 125 countries, all with the Colonel’s original recipe as the cornerstone of the menu.
From its Denver, CO roots, Chipotle became almost immediately profitable. This was despite many investors telling founder Steve Ells that his focus on freshly prepared and sustainably sourced ingredients and foods was a losing proposition. But that philosophy led Chipotle to sell almost 1,000 burritos per day within its first month. Chipotle now has more than 1,500 locations, but still focuses on using the best ingredients possible.
In 1938, J.F. and Alex McCullough, a father-and-son team invented ice cream that was softer than the traditional frozen dessert. They tested out this then-unnamed recipe at a friend’s ice cream shop in Kankakee, Ill. for an all-you-can-eat day. At the end of the day, they churned out 1,600 servings (about one every 4.5 seconds). While Carvel also claims to have invented soft serve, DQ has taken their legendary vanilla soft serve and integrated it into their parfaits, banana splits, and their famous Blizzard treats.
In the 1960s, fast food was all about hamburgers, but Leroy and Forrest Raffel wanted to bring something different to the table. So they opened a restaurant built on just three simple items: roast beef sandwich, potato chips, and iced tea. Arby’s has reinvented its roast beef recipe just once in over 60 years of business, but the sandwich continues to be the most popular dish in the franchise. Even as they’ve expanded the menu, the focus has been on quality meats and sandwiches.
Most fast-food restaurants focus on selling meals, but for Anne F. Beiler, she wanted to bake one snack really well. So she set up a pretzel stand in a Pennsylvania farmer’s market and sold the melt-in-your-mouth doughy twists with dipping sauces and drinks. Since those humble beginnings 30 years ago, Auntie Anne’s has expanded to more than 1,500 franchises and produces close to 100 million pretzels per year.
Many of the franchises on this list have been around for 50 years, but White Castle is coming up on its 100th anniversary. In 1921, Billy Ingram took out a $700 loan with the idea to make miniature hamburgers (aka sliders) and sell them for a nickel each. While many casual and upscale restaurants have jumped on the slider bandwagon in recent years, White Castle’s Original Slider is the pioneer.
The oldest chain on this list—founded in 1919—spent its first 50 years focusing on one thing—root beer. The creamy beverage was sold by Roy Allen and Frank Wright in Lodi, CA. After 40 years, they built more than 2,000 franchises, each of which sold the proprietary concentrate that gave A&W its distinct flavor. It wasn’t until 1971 when A&W was sold that it turned into full-service restaurants. Eventually, the root beer made its way onto grocery store shelves, and today is the top-selling root beer in the world.
Fans in the Northeast might prefer the cake donuts of Dunkin’, but in the South, Krispy Kreme’s yeast doughnuts have been the brand of choice for over 80 years. The chain started when Vernon Rudolph bought a yeast doughnut recipe and opened a shop in Winston-Salem, NC, selling to local grocery stores. The smell from the shop would drift out onto the streets, and passers-by started asking if they were for sale. Rudolph cut a hole in the wall and began selling his Original Glazed Doughnut right on the sidewalk.