A restaurant is a fantasy–a kind of living fantasy in which diners are the most important members of the cast. – Warner Leroy
Due to the high cost of hotels and gasoline, it was absolutely imperative that I keep my food costs as low as possible on my tour. The great majority of the hotels I chose had free breakfast, and many generous people treated me to dinner (either at restaurants or at their own homes), but that still left quite a few dinners on my own. Obviously, I ate a lot of fast food because it was cheap, but I knew I’d quickly become bored if I ate at the same places too often (even Waffle House or Steak ‘n Shake). So fairly early in the trip, I hit upon the idea of visiting fast food places that were unique to the city (or at least the region) where I was staying; not every city or state has such places, but many do. A few of these have begun to spread out from their native soil, but I did not include any regional chain (like Popeye’s or Sonic) which has become national or at least semi-national. I ate at most of these during the tour, but there are a couple I knew from previous experience:
Braum’s This chain is limited to Oklahoma and a few nearby parts of neighboring states by the fact that all of its dairy products are produced from its own private dairy herd near Oklahoma City. Their hamburgers are good but not outstanding (similar in quality to In-N-Out), but their milk is the best-tasting I’ve ever had and their ice cream products are top-notch. Braum’s restaurants all include a small grocery store.
Bud’s Broiler There are a number of local fast-food chains in the New Orleans area (such as Danny & Clyde’s and the New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood Company), but Bud’s is the most distinctive with its mixture of sloppy-but-delicious charcoal-broiled burgers, po-boys, fried pies and the like. A local favorite for decades.
Cook-Out This chain is based in North Carolina, but also has locations in South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. All the food is grilled outdoor style, and though I didn’t find the flavor especially outstanding the portions are generous and the menu is notable both for its extent and the flexibility of combinations allowed. The hand-dipped milkshakes are as good as those at Frostop, though not quite as good as those at Braum’s or Steak ‘n Shake.
Cosmic Pizza & Steak I stumbled upon this unpretentious little place in Warwick, Rhode Island (near Providence Airport) simply because it was close to my hotel, and I’m glad I did; they have a huge menu featuring Italian dishes, fried seafood, Philly-style shaved steak sandwiches and more, and take pride in their ultra-low prices. And they’re so friendly it actually constitutes another reason to visit besides the delicious food and budget-friendly pricing.
Five Guys This Washington, DC chain with an extremely simple menu (burgers, fries, drinks) is spreading along the Eastern seaboard, and will probably be the first one from this list to go national. Some people call it the country’s best burger, and though I wouldn’t go that far I will say it’s exceptional. Five Guys has a similar cult following to In-N-Out, but IMHO is more deserving of the reputation.
Harold’s Chicken Shack This legendary South-Side Chicago chain, praised by many Chicago rappers, is as no-frills as it gets and very inexpensive, but delicious and has a distinct flavor different from the typical American fast-food fried chicken such as Church’s or Kentucky. Wikipedia says there are also franchises in Detroit, Milwaukee, Las Vegas, Madison, Dallas and Atlanta.
In-N-Out Burger Many Southern Californians praise this place to the heavens, but I’ve never quite seen what the fuss is about. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a good burger, but IMHO it can’t hold a candle to the offerings from Frostop, Steak ‘n Shake, Five Guys or Nation’s. One notable feature is the “secret menu” of things one must already know about to order.
Milo’s Hamburgers This Birmingham, Alabama chain is Grace’s favorite, and though I’ve only been there twice I will eat there again next time I’m in Alabama at dinnertime. The chief distinguishing characteristic of Milo’s is its secret sauce, which according to the company’s website was developed by what we would today call “crowdsourcing”.
Nation’s Giant Hamburgers This San Francisco Bay area chain is, as you might expect, noted for the colossal size of its hamburgers; I was incredibly hungry and could only barely finish one. They’re really tasty, too. The chain is also noted for its pies, but I’ve never eaten one so I can’t vouch for them personally.
Prince’s Hot Chicken For such a highly-acclaimed eatery, Prince’s (whose sole location is in Nashville) is amazingly divey; one sidles through the crowd to the window, orders and pays, and then waits. And waits. And waits. But damn, it’s good, and very hot! While waiting I chatted with an older gentleman, and when I told him I had ordered the “hot” (as opposed to mild, medium or extra-hot) he shook his head sadly and told me that he used to be able to eat the hot, but now couldn’t take it any more. Let’s just say it made my nose run, and that I was reminded of it again the next day.
Skyline Chili This Cincinnati chain is unique in that it doesn’t serve burgers, chicken or any other fast-food staple, but rather a thin, homogeneous chili sauce with Greek spices. One can order it atop spaghetti (with lots of grated cheese), hot dogs or even potatoes, but these only serve as carriers for the delicious sauce. Definitely worth going out of one’s way for.
Tops Bar-B-Q Despite the excellence of this Memphis chain’s food, it is surprisingly inexpensive; even their sweet tea is superior. If you like barbecue, you owe it to yourself to try Tops when in Memphis.
This list is not meant to be remotely comprehensive; just the opposite, in fact. If you have a local favorite which isn’t known outside your region, please add it in the comments! Anything from single-city to single-region fast food chains are welcome, but please don’t nominate a chain if it’s known in more than, say, 15 states, or if a basic meal there costs more than about $10 per person. Sit-down casual places are OK if they are in the fast-food price range. I’ll probably be doing a lot of on-a-budget traveling in the next few years, and I’d love suggestions on where to have a yummy, unique but inexpensive dining experience.