Road Trip Planner: Best Regional Burger Chains

August 21, 2020, 6:21 PM · The next best thing to hitting the road is thinking about it. So even if the pandemic is keeping you from traveling right now, don't let it keep you from enjoying the thought of getting out on the road some day.

One of my favorite parts of any road trip is the food. We'll get to your favorite road trip snacks in a future post, but for now, let's focus on the Great American Road Trip Meal — burgers.

Yes, you could fill up at the Golden Arches or any of the thousands of other national burger franchises that stand off freeway exits from coast to coast. But why not try something you can't always find back at home, instead?

I get it — what if you're just looking for a good, quick meal and you're not wanting to add an extra, out-of-the-way destination to your trip? You've still got some great options out there that are not the ubiquitous McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's. Remember these names and give them a try next time you're out on the road.

Culver's

Culver's
700+ locations in 25 states: Menu, Locations

Culver's has expanded far beyond its Wisconsin roots, and it's a must-stop for me whenever I see one at mealtime on the road. The Butterburgers are top-notch and the fried cheese curds an indulgent side dish. If I'm not feeling a burger, Culver's offers a nice deep-fried fish sandwich and some locations offer a tasty pot roast, too.

Whataburger
800+ locations in 10 states: Menu and Locations

You'll find this Texas institution throughout the state, as well as in several neighboring states. Go for the signature Whataburger (maybe with jalapeños?), or try the Patty Melt on what the rest of the country calls Texas Toast.

Steak 'n Shake
600+ locations in 31 states: Menu and Locations

This was my go-to place for burgers growing up in Indianapolis. The Steakburger remains one of the great deals in fast food, and I'm a sucker for well-made shoestring fries.

Shake Shack
100+ locations in 30 states: Menu, Locations

You won't find many locations of this New York-based chain out on the Interstate, but it's a great choice often found near many attractions. (There's one next to The Wheel in Orlando's ICON Park.) The burgers might look small, but they are deceptively filling.

In-N-Out
300+ locations in 5 states: Menu, Locations

The oldest operating In-N-Out stands within walking distance of my home in Southern California. Located on the west coast, with a few locations in Texas, In-N-Out is all about the burgers. No chicken, hot dogs, or salads here.

BurgerFi
100+ locations in 22 states: Menu, Locations
I wanted a Florida chain on my list, and readers I polled on social media suggested BurgerFi, an emerging chain based in the Sunshine State. This is the only one on my list I haven't tried yet, but readers endorse these double-patty burgers. I also love the name for the "Conflicted Burger," which features one beef and one veggie patty.

Let me throw in three honorable mentions. California's The Habit Burger might have made my list if I had published it six months ago. But in March, Habit was bought by Yum! Brands, the conglomerate that owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. So it's about to become a big national brand, rather than the more regional ones I was hoping to feature here.

For truly local chains, though, allow to me suggest two from the Pacific Northwest. Burgerville has 37 locations in Oregon and Washington and features some great seasonal options, including berry milkshakes and salads in addition to its burgers. And Dick's Drive-In is a Seattle institution, serving basic, no-substitutions burgers that always satisfy.

After voting in our poll, please let us know about some of your other favorite burger places that theme park fans should visit on their next road trip, whenever that might be.

Replies (36)

August 21, 2020 at 6:35 PM

Before someone brings it up, I despise Five Guys and its thick, overcooked burgers. Hiding those grilled hockey pucks under a mountain of overseasoned fries doesn't help them.

August 21, 2020 at 7:49 PM

Ooohhh ... fried cheese curds — must find a Culver’s some day.

We’ve got Whataburgers in Florida too and a lot of people love ‘em, though I’ve never understood the appeal. Not surprised at their last place in the poll.

Nostalgically, my favorite burgers have always come from a little drive-thru-only shack in Chiefland, Florida called Ralph’s — just simple, good burgers. If anyone is ever taking a scenic trip thru Florida along US 19, I highly recommend stopping at this little gem located at the junction of 19 and Hwy 129.

August 21, 2020 at 8:43 PM

If you're in Australia... I miss Oporto. Spicy Chicken Burgers.

August 21, 2020 at 8:53 PM

Culver's is incredible. I would throw in Cook Out for anyone traveling to the North Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia parks.

August 21, 2020 at 8:55 PM

Disappointed that Yum bought Habit Burger. Chances are, they will try to get rid of their combo KFC A&W locations and replace it with Habit Burger. They should have kept partial ownership of A&W and Long John Silver’s when they sold them the sake of existing combo locations. I do have to say A&W has gotten better since Yum sold it.

August 21, 2020 at 9:33 PM

Ditto on Five Guys Robert.

I really regret not stopping at an In-N-Out burger on a California trip a few years ago. Sounds like it really is something else. If anyone ever stops in the Chicago area, be sure to visit Meatheads.

August 21, 2020 at 10:56 PM

I've tried all of these except BurgerFi (making a note of that one for October's Orlando trip), but of the others I'd rank them thus:

In-N-Out > Culver's > (Habit Burger) > Steak 'n Shake > Whataburger > Shake Shack > (Five Guys)

For comparison, McDonald's and Wendy's rank below Steak 'n Shake and above Whataburger for me (Burger King is below everything listed), so the last few on this list I'll rarely go to unless they're the most convenient option. In general, I have a rule when traveling out of state that if a chain has a location within Orange County, CA I avoid it unless impossible to do so.

August 22, 2020 at 12:06 AM

Not big on expensive fast food so of all the choices i've only been to Culvers, Steak N Shake, and In N Out. Culvers has by far the best food of the three IMO but it's also more expensive so it's not really a fair comparison.

Personally i've never understood the obsession with In N Out, I think because they are only on the west coast (and for the longest time secluded to California) they got a California pride thing going on and got overhyped. That's all my opinion though I still think they are good and would certainly not turn it down if someone offered me haha.

August 22, 2020 at 2:42 AM

Throw me in on the "hate Five Guys" bandwagon. One opened by me, tried it and ugh, all that grease and hate the fries.

Several Steak n Shakes by me and just good burger and fries so have to count that as a must.

August 22, 2020 at 9:38 AM

I moved to SoCal almost eight years ago and while I have enjoyed a few In-N-Out burgers in that time, but I just can not understand the craze that people have for them. Of the list, Steak and Shake is my favorite. They offer way more than just burgers and fries and everything on the menu is great, especially the milkshakes.
While it’s a micro-chain compared to others on this list, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an establishment in the Atlanta Metro area called The Varsity. The flagship location in downtown Atlanta is the largest fast food restaurant in the world, and is the biggest single server of Coca-Cola products in the world. Their chili burgers, hot dogs, fresh cut fries and onion rings are amazing as are their freshly fried peach and apple pies. Like In-n-out, if you grew up with it it’s your favorite thing ever. If you didn’t, you may grow to appreciate it, but it will never be part of you. I’m sure how I feel about The Varsity is how people here feel about In-n-out.
Next time any of you are in Atlanta or Athens, GA stop by and give them a try. You may not love it like I do, but you won’t be able to dismiss it as a cultural icon of the region. “What’ll ya have, What’ll ya have?”

August 22, 2020 at 10:32 AM

The only two of these I've actually had are In-N-Out (good burgers but their fries aren't so good) and Steak 'n Shake. Of the two, I prefer Steak 'n Shake (and I also have not tried Five Guys even though here and the last city in which I lived had one not far away).

But I would place Fatburger in second place between Steak 'n Shake and In-N-out.

August 22, 2020 at 10:37 AM

Another mention of Cook-Out. There is an interesting story behind Cook-out. It's privately run... no franchise and really not much of a website. They are sprouting up everywhere in the south... just stole a sports sponsorship from Bojangles. It's run by a man (who worked with Dave Thomas in the early days of Wendy's) and his son... they do things their way...but they know what they're doing. They insist menu items be kept "reasonable" in price. Most of the food is actually made in the store (fresh meat/nothing processed). They even cut their own pickles (no restaurant does that anymore). The locations are not fancy, no cute environmentally friendly packaging (they would never made it in California) and they stay away from high-rent areas. They are fast, efficient and cheap on purpose (but the burgers taste just as good, if not better than Shake Shack).

August 22, 2020 at 12:30 PM

Clearly there is a lack of Texans on this thread so here I go... Whataburger!!! It has a certain southwest feel to it and isnt afraid to experiment with their menu. In-n-out is great too but their options are more limited and well the burger tastes better at Whataburger.

Man and everyone is hating on five guys here lol... and I agree with you all on that one. At least they have peanuts right?

August 22, 2020 at 2:25 PM

Throwing my hate hat in the ring on Five Guys (my favorite thing about the place is that they have malt vinegar for their fries, and that comes pre-bottled).
@Rob: couldn’t agree more, The Varsity is a an institution.
@ Robert: next time you are in FL look for a Freddy’s. They are the same type of short order steak burger haven as Steak n’ Shake, but their burgers and Hot Dogs are better, as are their Custard and frozen desserts. Plus they have cheese curds that are waaaayyyy better than. Culver’s in my opinion. Just trust me on this and try them. I’m sure there at least one or two in Orlando.
Steak n’ Shake is delicious as well, and they get extra points for serving breakfast.

August 22, 2020 at 3:27 PM

Having just moved to SoCal from the Midwest, with family in NY, (and I went to school in TX!), I can actually compare most of these. My faves have to be separated between burgers and fries:

Burgers:
Shake Shack>Burger FI>Culver’s>In N Out>Whataburger
Fries:
Shake Shack>Culver’s>Burger FI>Whataburger>In N Out

The overall value winner is definitely Culver’s, as Shake Shack is awesome but less common and more expensive. But In N Out is far and away the most burger for the money, which I think explains the love it gets (and I love it too!-the Shake Shack Shackburger was basically designed to be a higher quality In N Out burger, complete with the paper half-wrap)

August 22, 2020 at 9:44 PM

Another vote for for Cook Out! If you need a plate of barbecue with your burger (that's chopped pork in vinegar sauce for the uninitiated) then look for the neon sign and the belching smokestack of your nearest Cook Out.

August 23, 2020 at 12:04 AM

While I call Georgia home, I really like In-N-Out...and I wish they were closer to me than Texas. (Consumer Reports rated them #1 for a fast-food burger chain.) Another very local chain is Jacks (not to be confused with Jack In The Box) They are based in Alabama but have opened locations in Georgia and Tennessee.

I suppose I need to give Culvers a try. They are opening new locations here in the south!

August 23, 2020 at 8:36 AM

i chose burger fi as my last meal before orange county (FL) went into lockdown back in march. i had eaten there many times before but this time i tried their CEO angus burger. it was quite possibly the best burger i've ever had.

my stance on 5 guys...i don't hate them but certainly don't get the hype. and same with steak n shake and shake shack. i do love whataburger and glad the patty melt was mentioned. it is dee-lish!

also, in west orlando (gotha) very near universal, is a place called yellow dog eats. they aren't known for burgers but their sandwiches and salads are amazing and the restaurant is inside a 150 year old house and has an awesome patio area. it is a huge local favorite. check it out next time you hit the orlando parks.

August 23, 2020 at 11:06 AM

If we're talking about burger chains as a whole, Culver's is by far the winner because of their more expansive menu. Heck, just the fried curds are good enough to trump just about every chain on this list.

For burgers alone, I think it's a tie for me between In-N-Out and Fatburger. Fatburger serves what I would consider a "restaurant style" burger with big patties, more substantial buns, and more expansive topping options. In-N-Out has the classic diner-style burger that is as much about the cheese as it is the patty. Also, the "hidden" menu items and options can completely change your impression of the place with its seemingly underwhelming menu.

Being from the DC area, I'm not nearly as down on Five Guys, because we used to live within walking distance of one of the original restaurants in Alexandria, VA. However, as the chain was franchised and expanded to all corners of the globe, it's just not the same. I do still appreciate the freshly cooked patties, massive toppings list, and huge portions of fries (if you're not ordering a small cajun fries, you're doing it wrong).

Another chain that has experienced a bit of contraction over the years, but I still think it really solid is Fudruckers. This chain fell victim to expanding too much too fast, and became far too ubiquitous. However, the locations that remain are still great, highlighted by some of the absolute best buns and hopefully a return to the unlimited toppings bar after the pandemic has passed.

August 23, 2020 at 12:00 PM

I had completely forgotten about Fuddruckers. Are they still around anywhere? Haven't seen one in years.

August 23, 2020 at 1:16 PM

I will say that In-n-Out service is also top notch. I've been to In-n-out's from Dallas-Tucson-So Cal and service has been excellent everywhere. Kudos to their employees and management.

August 23, 2020 at 2:16 PM

The last Fuddruckers I went to was in the plaza right across from the Downtown Disney entrance to WDW. I forget what that crossing Blvd is called, but there’s a healthy (un) selection of various chain restaurants peppered with a smattering local eats throughout as well.

August 23, 2020 at 3:02 PM

There was a Fuddruckers near me but closed down when pandemic hit.

August 23, 2020 at 3:45 PM

I voted for Culver's. Out of those options I thought it was the best all though I've never had BugerFi and will have to try next time I'm in Florida. I don't get why In-N-Out is so popular didn't particularly like it. I actually prefer Carl's Jr. over them.

I've had Five Guys in the states too and didn't like it either. It was super greasy but in Canada it's definitely one of the better fast food burgers. The only annoying thing is they don't have poutine in Alberta... :(

August 23, 2020 at 6:12 PM

Fudruckers had a location in Mission Valley in San Diego. It closed not
Too long ago. That was an Amazing chain. Those fresh baked, and then buttered and grilled buns were reason for going on their own. They also had a great toppings bar with a dizzying variety of sauces, fresh veggies, including shredded and leaf lettuce not to mention both plain and spicy cheese sauce.
Great food.

August 24, 2020 at 11:17 AM

I am a huge In 'n Out fan, but they have yet to come to New Mexico. I do make it a point to visit In 'n Out when I am in AZ, UT, or CA.

We do have Freddy's here, which is good. They actually serve Vienna Beef hot dogs on New England style toasted hot dog rolls. Being a transplant New Englander, I miss those rolls....they don't exist here other than at Freddy's.

We do have a local chain, Blake's Lotta Burger, that is excellent. Great burgers, fries, onion rings, and also proper breakfast burritos with New Mexican Green Chile.

Agree with this that are not fans of Five Guys.

August 24, 2020 at 11:55 AM

Funny how my regional burger place is McDonalds.....

So my regional burger place gets dinged for being the most successful fast food restaurant on the planet? Hmmm

I also see a bit of Coastal Elitism in this list since Burger King and Wendy's (along with McDonalds) started out at Midwest Chains. Hmmmm

While I am throwing around hot take, In and Out is horrific

August 24, 2020 at 12:32 PM

I'll second Cookout if you want something good and cheap. I'll also suggest Milo's if your journey takes you through Alabama. Most people either love or hate the secret sauce so get it on the side but it is certainly unique. Great fries and sweet tea top it off.

August 24, 2020 at 6:14 PM

There’s something strange going on at Five Guys. I had my first one in Orlando, years back. Didn’t think it was anything special, at all. Then, some years later, they started opening them here in the U.K. I gave it another shot and man, was it good!! Now, it’s my favourite burger place,
Quite surprised that Red Robin hasn’t had a mention. Been there a couple of times in Augusta, and I remember their burgers being really good.

August 24, 2020 at 7:13 PM

I voted for Culver's and Red Robin has really good burgers. I also ate at a Fuddruckers a few years ago while visiting family in Springfield, MO. The food was terrible and I would not recommend it at all. The best burger with no frills, never pre-made or frozen and only made with fresh custom blend ground beef, an onion and tomato slice and spread cheddar cheese, served on toasted sandwich bread, NO buns or condiments here, is Louis Lunch in New Haven, CT. They are recognized by the Library of Congress as the birthplace of the hamburger and have been around since 1895. if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Better than any burger on this survey.

August 24, 2020 at 11:57 PM

@Anthony Murphy - FYI: Burger King started in Miami, Florida, not the Midwest. It is still headquartered in Miami.

August 25, 2020 at 5:06 AM

I haven't tried all of these, but In-N-Out are incredibly overrated, the most disappointing bland burger I have ever eaten. I had a better burger that was sitting under warming lights at a Gas station that I stopped at randomly in Texas.

The people suggesting Fatburger, 100% yes, great burgers there

August 25, 2020 at 8:35 AM

Red Robin is good, but it's a table service restaurant that doesn't fit the style of the other chains listed here. They have some good burgers, but they can be a bit on the pricey side, though the additional cost is offset by their unlimited steak fries.

I really like Cook-Out too, but don't really think about it as a burger chain. In fact, burgers are probably the worst thing on their menu with thin, rubbery, tasteless patties. Cook-out is more about the variety of snack-size items that you can combine into a tray as well as their shakes.

For the Canadians out there, what about Harvey's? As an American, I've only had Harvey's on a few occasions, but what struck me about their burgers is that they had a lot of flavor/spices in the patties. Perhaps it's more the situation where I don't get to eat at Harvey's very often, so their quality is elevated in my mind compared to places I can have all the time. I know the last time we were in Toronto, the locals weren't terribly enthusiastic for Harvey's, and their poutine definitely wasn't very good (Smoke's is the best chain for poutine).

August 25, 2020 at 11:08 AM

Russell - Harvey's is pretty good, but we Canadians do take it for granted. And you're definitely right about the spices in the patties - that is a very distinct (note Canadian spelling) flavour. But I think the lack of enthusiasm from the locals stems from the fact that a number of years back they switched from fries they made in house to frozen ones (like MacDonald's/BK/Wendy's). It kind of lent the chain a generic feel that I don't think it ever recovered from. I know people who used to be big fans who now see it as just another fast food chain. A small detail that left a lasting impression.

August 25, 2020 at 11:56 AM

Highly disappointed Cookout didn’t get a mention, hands down some of the best burgers and cheap. I mean where else can you get a burger, chicken wrap, quesadilla and a milkshake for $6? It’s cheap and their store fronts might not be the cutest but it is definitely delicious and hits just right every time.

August 26, 2020 at 10:49 AM

For all the love that In-N-Out’s getting, I’m surprised nobody from southern California has mentioned Tommy’s. Yeah, people either love or hate the ubiquitous chili, but having had chili burgers at other places, I can tell you that they do a pretty good job.

After my last trip to Texas, the shine is definitely off of Whataburger for me and my family. It’s not many places that can make four people sick from their food, but Whataburger managed it.

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