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Top Swaps at Retro Burger Joints

Reporting by Abbey Clark, Mikaylah Ott, Elias Saba, Katarina Tornich, and Sara Weidner

If you're ever passing through Atlanta and your family is hankering for a burger, visit The Varsity, the world's largest and most famous drive-in where workers in white paper caps have been asking folks "what'll ya have?" since 1928.

Go ahead: order a triple with bacon and cheese, a side of onion rings, and a fried peach cobbler for dessert— calories be damned—because the experience of eating at this mecca of grease should be on your culinary bucket list. (Tip: Share the triple with a friend…or three.)

You can say the same for the All-American Drive-In on Long Island, The Beacon in Spartenburg, South Carolina, or any of the dozen or so historic drive-in burger joints still thriving in the United States. All are worth getting ketchup on your shirt.

But in reality you'll be eating more than one fast-food burger this summer during your travels and will no doubt visit your share of nostalgia-themed burger franchises inspired by the classic drive-ins of yesteryear. And when you do, you'll want to order armed with the knowledge to make healthier choices.

So, we cruised into America's classic burger drive-ins to investigate what's between their soggy hamburger buns so you can decipher the menu selections quickly and pick burgers and sides that'll fill your belly but keep it flat. Enjoy the retro experience and still save hundreds of calories per meal just by making these simple food swaps.

And for more best and worst burgers near you, check out our exclusive listing of 40 Popular Burgers—Ranked!

Five Guys


You don't have to look hard to find a Five Guys. Since the Murrell brothers first opened their carryout burger joint featuring hand-formed burgers in Arlington, Va., the franchise has expanded to over 1,000 locations in 47 states and 6 Canadian provinces. You do have to look a little harder to find a burger on the menu that isn't sky-high in calories. That goes for their fresh-cut fries, too. A regular contains 620 calories. Split your order with a friend.

When ordering your burger, we'd suggest going light on the beef and loading up on the free produce toppings, like grilled mushrooms, onions, green peppers, lettuce, and tomato. They'll bulk up your lil' hamburger, which, by the way, is about the size of a normal patty you'd find anywhere else. Bonus: Don't miss the 10 Best and Worst Things About Five Guys!

Eat This: Lil' Hamburger

Nutrition: 480 calories, 26 g fat (11.5 g saturated; 1 g trans fat), 380 mg sodium

Don't let "lil" fool ya. This is a normal-sized beef patty on a bun.

Not That: Bacon Cheeseburger

Nutrition: 920 calories, 62 grams of fat (29.5 g saturated), 1,310 mg sodium

Elevation Burger

Hans Hess started Elevation Burger in 2002 because he wanted to offer his family and friends better-quality hamburger meat. All Elevation burgers are made from 100 percent organic, grass-fed, free-range beef. And if you're vegan, there's something nice on the menu for you, too, the 320- calorie veggie burger made from organic whole grains, spices, and vegetables. If you're on the fence about going vegetarian cold-turkey, they even offer something called the "Half the Guilt Burger," with a patty of each, beef and veggie, not turkey. With such a noble selection on the menu, we're left scratching our heads over their outrageous Vertigo Burger, in which you can stack up to 10 beef patties to create a 1,950-calorie gut bomb. Let's take the lunacy out of lunch!

Another idea? Make your own healthy, delicious burgers at home with these 20 Tips for How to Make the Perfect Burger.

Eat This: Single Burger Wrapped in Lettuce

Nutrition: 190 calories, 12 g fat (6 g saturated), 200 mg sodium

If you're cutting carbs, enjoy your burger in a green wrapper. Smart!

Not That: Guacamole Ranch Burger

Nutrition: 800 calories, 50 g fat (24 g saturated), 1,009 mg sodium

We're fans of avocado and its heart-healthy monounsaturated fats! But when you team it up with two burgers and ranch dressing, the result is about a half day's calorie needs.

Cheeburger Cheeburger

This retro franchise will give you a taste of what it was like to order an American classic at a 1950s diner. There's Formica everywhere and a jukebox blaring Elvis singing Any Way You Want Me, which is how you can order your 1/3- pound Semi-Serious Burger, too. Between the specialty and free toppings (peanut butter is one of them) and cheese selections, you can create a different cheeseburger every time you visit this franchise. (Cheeburger estimates over 8,721 different combos.) Like many nutty nostalgic burger joints, you can order the 20-ounce "pounder" and get your name pinned to a board (whoo-hoo!), but you can also select a more humble and healthy option from the over-the-top menu. Psst. Choosing anything as a wrap vs. between bun halves will save you a ton of calories. Not into counting your calories anyway? Well, then you'll love this list of 30 Weight Loss Tips Better Than Counting Calories!

Eat This: Classic Beef Burger Wrap with Banana Peppers

Nutrition: 302 calories, 19 g fat (7 g saturated), 87 mg sodium

Not That: Our Famous Pounder with Cheese

Nutrition: 1,728 calories, 108 g fat (46 g saturated), 3,813 mg sodium

Wayback Burgers

Wayback started in 1991 as Jake's Hamburgers, a small shack in Newark, Delaware, with a big claim: "Best Burgers Under the Bun." Now called Wayback Burgers, the nostalgic burger joint has 100 locations in 25 states and one in Argentina. Wayback tries to recreate the comfy atmosphere of a local eatery of long ago when folks would linger over a cup of coffee and piece of pie for hours and chat with neighbors. With the ludicrous size of some of their burger meals, you'll be too busy chewing to talk. Nine burger patties? Sorry, Jake, nobody needs that much food for lunch.

Eat This: Philly Burger Single

Nutrition: 440 calories, 22 g fat (8 g saturated), 970 mg sodium

Not That: Double Bacon Burger

Nutrition: 820 calories, 48 g fat (19 g saturated), 1,520 mg sodium


From their astronomical selection of deep-fried sides, and tempting lineup of Sonic Blasts, dollar dog specials and half-priced milkshakes (after 8 pm), there's as much opportunity to overindulge here as there is for getting ketchup on your fuzzy dice. That said, if you make sure only small portions make it through your car window you can get away with a full meal under 700 calories. Not great, but not that bad.

DON'T MISS: 20 Reasons Why You're Always Hungry

Eat This: Junior Burger

Nutrition: 340 calories, 17 g fat (6 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fat), 480 mg sodium

The Junior Burger is still plenty filling at 4 ounces of ground beef, but it has only a quarter of the calories of the SuperSonic Double Bacon Cheeseburger. Go for the Junior and you'll save room for a small order of their delicious tater tots.

Not That: SuperSonic Bacon Double Cheeseburger

Nutrition: 1,240 calories, 87 g fat (35 g saturated; 3.5 g trans fat), 1,690 mg sodium

Eat This, Not That! recommends you avoid foods containing trans fat and try to keep daily consumption to less than 2 grams.

Johnny Rockets


The name of this franchise known for its juke boxes, singing waiters, milkshakes and 1950s diner nostalgia, was inspired by the 1949 Oldsmobile Rocket 88, arguably America's first muscle car, with a Rocket V8 engine and top speed of 97 mph.

But JR's drive-in diner experience may be going the way of the muscle car. The chain is experimenting with prototype stores that do away with waiters dancing to the oldies and feature newer tunes and modern technology upgrades. But at least the burgers, of which they cook 17 million a year, won't change. P.S. – Speaking of menu changes, we suggest you avoid these Worst New Restaurant Dishes in America.

Eat This: The Original

Nutrition: 870 calories, 55 g fat (16 g saturated), 1,410 mg sodium

You can substitute ground turkey and chicken breast for the beef burger as an option.

Not That: Bacon Cheddar Double

Nutrition: 1,920 calories, 202 g fat (51 g saturated), 2,760 mg sodium

Eat This, Not That!
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