Fast-food giants like McDonald's and Burger King are as quintessential to the American experience as apple pie. No matter where you live in the country, it's almost inevitable that these national brands have been part of your life in some way.
But if you're really lucky, you grew up close to a legendary regional chain that only exists in certain pockets of the country. Some of these chains serve up top tier versions of the fast-food items we already know and love like burgers, fries, and chicken tenders. Others delight their customers with amazing regional specialties like authentic Chicago Italian beef and Southern-style fried chicken.
Fast-food lovers might feel like they're missing out when they don't live close to one of these beloved regional chains. But there's also something really special about traveling somewhere and experiencing a restaurant very important to a region's culture. Great regional fast-food is like the pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving and the gingerbread at Christmas—you only eat it on special occasions but that makes you savor it just a little bit more.
So, if you're traveling somewhere new or want to branch out from your usual dinner spots, consider one of these 10 legendary regional chains that everyone should try at least once.
Culver's has become a staple fast-food chain for Midwesterners ever since it first started serving customers in 1984—and it's not hard to see why. The chain serves up classic fast-food fare like burgers, fries, and chicken sandwiches. But everything is a little more elevated since all the food is cooked to order and made with fresh, thoughtfully sourced ingredients.
First-time customers should make sure to try the restaurant's famous Butterburgers, which get their name from the toasted and buttered buns. The Wisconsin cheese curds and fresh, ultra creamy frozen custard are also can't-miss menu items.
Culver's currently operates more than 900 restaurants across 26 states, according to data company Scrapehero.
Whenever you find yourself craving a juicy burger in the Lone Star State, run—don't walk—to the nearest Whataburger. This beloved regional burger chain has been serving customers since the very first restaurant opened in 1950 and is showing no signs of stopping in 2023.
Customers can find fast-food classics at Whataburger like traditional cheeseburgers and chicken sandwiches, but there's also some unique regional flair sprinkled throughout the menu. Look no further than the Green Chile Double and limited-edition Southern Bacon Spicy Chicken Sandwich topped with crunchy slaw, pickles, and a Southern-style sauce.
Whataburger currently operates nearly 950 restaurants in the South, and more than 700 of those locations are in Texas, according to Scrapehero.
Slim Chickens hasn't been around for nearly as long as some of the other legendary regional chains. Still, it has exploded in size since it first start serving customers in 2003, currently operating an impressive 162 locations throughout the South, Midwest, and even a few Western states, per Scrapehero.
If you couldn't guess from the name, this restaurant brand is all about chicken. It serves hand-breaded chicken tenders, chicken wings, chicken sandwiches, wraps, salads, and even the comfort food staple chicken and waffles. Just make sure to pair your entrée with some classic Southern sides and house-made dipping sauces for the ultimate Slim Chickens experience.
The Chicago area boasts tons of great one-off shops serving up city specialties like Italian beef and Chicago hot dogs. But any local knows that you can find some of the most reliable, tastiest version of these Windy City delicacies at Portillo's.
Half of the charm at this chain is due to its nostalgia-inducing vintage restaurants and employee uniforms. The actual menu is also stellar, but make sure to bring a major appetite if you're stopping by for the first time. In addition to the Italian beef and hot dogs, Portillo's is also famous for its chopped salads, cheese fries, chocolate cake, and chocolate cake shakes that feature a whole slice of the decadent dessert blended with ice cream.
Portillo's currently operates more than 70 restaurants. Most of those are in Illinois, but the chain also has locations in Arizona, Florida, California, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Part of what makes Fazoli's so special is that it serves up Italian-American meals in a fast-food setting, which is rare when you look at all the burger slingers and chicken chains throughout the country.
The Fazoli's menu is packed with craveworthy options like pizza, baked pasta dishes, subs, and salads. One of the biggest perks about being a Fazoli's patron, however, is that you get unlimited breadsticks when you dine in. So, if you're a carb lover, make sure to take advantage of that bottomless, freshly baked bread during every visit.
Fazoli's currently has 211 restaurants throughout the Midwest and South.
Don't knock gas station food until you've tried Wawa. There's a reason that this convenience store/fast-food chain is so near and dear to the hearts of consumers on the East Coast—the food is really solid and highly-customizable.
Walk into any Wawa and you'll find a row of touch screen ordering systems where you can peruse the chain's various breakfast sandwiches, cold subs, hoagies, salads, and quesadillas. And once you've made your selection, you can tweak and refine every element of your meal until it's exactly right, from the seasoning to the type of bread.
There are currently more than 1,000 Wawa locations in seven states, though the chain is mostly concentrated in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida, according to Scrapehero.
Taco Bell is probably the go-to for many Americans when they're craving some Mexican-inspired fast-food comfort. But if you find yourself in the Midwest or Mountain states, you should know that there's another popular chain putting its own spin on fast-food tacos: Taco John's.
Between the wide range of different tacos, burritos, quesadillas, nachos, and bowls, even the pickiest Mexican food lovers should be able to find something that appeals to them. And for Taco Bell fans who never truly recovered after losing the Double Decker Taco, Taco John's has a double decker Taco Bravo that might make up for the loss.
Whatever you choose, make sure to get a side of Taco John's famous Potato Olés, crunchy bites of seasoned potatoes perfect for dipping into a range of sauces. The chain currently operates 374 restaurants across the United States.
Hand-breaded chicken, scratch-made buttermilk biscuits, Southern sides….if any of these mouthwatering descriptors pique your interest, make a point to stop by a Bojangles the next time you find yourself in the southeastern part of the country.
Bojangles is a destination for fast-food lovers who appreciate Southern fare and, of course, great fried chicken. That signature crispy, marinated chicken is the star in some of Bojangles' most iconic menu options, like the chicken sandwiches, breakfast chicken biscuits, and chicken tender meals. If you're looking for the ultimate Southern meal, don't forget to add some of Bojangles' fixins and a cup of classic sweet tea to your order.
Bojangles currently operates more than 800 locations in 17 states, according to Scrapehero.
The Habit Burger Grill
In-N-Out Burger isn't the only wildly popular regional chain born on the West Coast. Between the over-the-top burgers, sandwiches, and handcrafted shakes, The Habit Burger Grill is also a must-try if you ever find yourself close enough to one of its restaurants.
While it is technically a fast-food joint, the food at Habit is a little more elevated because it holds itself to high-quality standards. This means that the beef on your burgers is never frozen and filler-free, the ahi tuna is sushi-grade, and the tri-tip steak has the USDA Choice quality stamp. So customers can feel confident that they're not sacrificing quality just because they're eating fast-food.
The Habit currently operates more than 350 locations, according to Scrapehero. The vast majority of those restaurants are in California and the surrounding western states, but customers can also find a few locations sprinkled throughout the East Coast.
Runza is another fast-food staple in the Midwest, but its menu is just a little more special than what you'll find at your typical fast-food chain.
Runza does serve burgers and chicken sandwiches, but its signature Runza sandwiches are something much more unique. They all feature freshly-baked bread stuffed with ground beef, onions, a secret blend of spices, and cabbage. Runza also offers several flavor riffs on the original, like the Cheeseburger Runza Sandwich stuffed with classic burger toppings and the Southwest Runza Sandwich with cheddar cheese, salsa, and tortilla strips.
Despite having a somewhat nontraditional specialty compared to other fast-food brands, customers evidently love the regional chain. It has expanded to more than 80 locations in Nebraska and the surrounding states since the first restaurant opened in 1949. If you don't currently live by a Runza but can't possibly wait to try it, the chain ships it famous sandwiches to all 48 states in the mainland United States.