Your favorite fast casual restaurants please!
January 18, 2013 5:58 AM   Subscribe

What is your absolute favorite fast casual restaurant in your city? I'm working on a project where I'm trying to get exposed to more of these by region. I would love to hear the name of your favorite soup or sandwich or burger joint in your area.

The parameters are that you have to watch your food being made, and you have to pay at a register, where you don't tip anyone formally 15% (tip jars may be present). We're talking your LeBoulanger (CA) your Milio's (WI), your Fresh City (MA), etc. I'm looking for places that have 3-15ish locations ideally, so not just one location but not 20+.

Thanks AskMeFi!
posted by timpanogos to Food & Drink (69 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
In the DC area, I like District Taco -- started as a food truck & currently has two locations (but I'm pretty sure they're planning a third) -- and Taylor Gourmet -- currently up to eight locations in the region.
posted by darksong at 6:06 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the Philadelphia area, "Five Guys" makes the best hamburgers. Period. Those who disagree quietly vanish.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:06 AM on January 18, 2013

The Works has 6 locations in upper New England. I go to the one in Portland. It's sort of like a better Panera and is my default quick sandwich grab place.
posted by selfnoise at 6:06 AM on January 18, 2013

posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:09 AM on January 18, 2013

FYI Five Guys has over 1000 locations so I'm thinking they don't qualify anymore. They went national in a hurry.
posted by selfnoise at 6:10 AM on January 18, 2013

Farm Burger in Atlanta is pretty great.

They use sustainably and humanely farmed meat and produce and the food is amazing. The one in my neighborhood shares space with Morelli's Gourmet Ice Cream.

In the Philadelphia area, "Five Guys" makes the best hamburgers. Five Guys is a national franchise with over 1000 locations, so not exactly fitting the criteria.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:10 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is, of course, the famed tacqueria wars of the Boston area - Anna's versus Boca Grande versus Chipotle.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:11 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mellow Mushroom, though like 5 Guys, it may be too large to count now.
posted by jquinby at 6:11 AM on January 18, 2013

Clover, in Boston/Cambridge. They started as a food truck but now they have several permanent locations.
posted by Cygnet at 6:12 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh hey, another New England one I like: Wild Willy's Burgers.
posted by selfnoise at 6:12 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is, of course, the famed tacqueria wars of the Boston area - Anna's versus Boca Grande versus Chipotle.

Versus Boloco, my personal favorite, due entirely to the hot salsa/sauce.

b.good is another terrific Boston-area burger place.
posted by pie ninja at 6:15 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Petey's burger (two locations in Queens) is great, IMO.
posted by gaspode at 6:19 AM on January 18, 2013

From my old neighborhood, the South Wedge, of Rochester, New York: Openface Sandwich Eatery.
posted by knile at 6:21 AM on January 18, 2013

Melt Shop in NYC. It's grilled cheese based sandwiches with handmade tatertots. Oh god, the tots. My favorite sandwiches are The Dirty and 24 Hour Pork.
posted by kimdog at 6:21 AM on January 18, 2013

Here in NJ, we have Surf Taco.
posted by tommccabe at 6:22 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Local Burger in Northampton, MA
posted by a22lamia at 6:23 AM on January 18, 2013

Firehouse Subs is so freakin' good, for reasons I can't even quite figure out. I feel about them the way other people feel about Jimmy John's.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:25 AM on January 18, 2013

London places that exactly fit your criteria:

Square Pie
Gourmet Burger Kitchen
All Bar One

There are lots and lots of places like Wagamama, Hummus Brothers and Wahaca that have quick service and high turnaround, but you don't pay at the counter. And lots of good independent non-chain fish and chip shops like Nautilus, Olley's, Fryer's Delight and the Golden Hind that are not part of a chain, and a large number of pubs make you pay at the counter (like the All Bar One chain), plus whole rows of mainly independent fastish-food/street food joints in places like Brixton Village with great places like Franco Manca and Honest Burgers.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:29 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Veggie Grill in Southern California.
posted by Dansaman at 6:29 AM on January 18, 2013

The Staggering Ox in Montana.
posted by Spinneret at 6:40 AM on January 18, 2013

I think Teaism in DC counts for this purpose, and they are amazing.
posted by ActionPopulated at 6:41 AM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Soupbox in Chicago-they have a rotating selection of about 15 handmade soups that are just ridiculously good, and while those are obviously not prepared from scratch in front of you, the surprisingly delicious salads are. They even toss them in a bowl so the dressing's all mixed up.

I'm pretty snobby about making the vast majority of my own food, and not spending money on overpriced nasty fast food, but Soupbox is legit. And now I want some cream of chicken and wild rice.
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:42 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Columbus, we have a small local chain called Piada that's like the Chipotle of Italian. In your Piada (which is basically a big italian burrito) you can add all sorts of things, including pasta, which is surprisingly delicious. They also have Italian sodas in the fountain. They are up to about 4 locations and I think have plans to expand elsewhere as well.
posted by pixiecrinkle at 6:44 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great recommendations- thank you. The passion for this food is evident!
posted by timpanogos at 6:48 AM on January 18, 2013

House of Curries is probably borderline. Food is made in view, but they bring it to the table, so you're probably not watching it be made. It has a competitor, the Naan and Curry, which is roughly the same (both were owned by the same people, who then apparently had a falling out and split the Naan and Curry empire).
posted by hoyland at 6:48 AM on January 18, 2013

London also has Bodean's, aka the home of the best pulled pork sandwich I've had this side of Kansas City.
posted by fight or flight at 6:49 AM on January 18, 2013

In Atlantic Canada we have "Relish" and freg me are they awesome. They have an eat-in/restaurant option, but they do their whole menu for take out as well. They aren't cheap and their menu is pretty small, but oh my god their hamburgers are incredible. Plus, each location offers their own special hamburger available at just that location that usually have some local significance, and that is really fun.

I'm getting this for lunch today. :)

EDIT: They don't satisfy your "can see your food being made" requirement though...
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 6:53 AM on January 18, 2013

Two Chicago-area places that are in the Five Guys mold (but better, IMHO) are Meatheads and Epic Burger.
posted by SpiffyRob at 6:54 AM on January 18, 2013

Little Big Burger and Bunk Sandwiches in Portland, OR.
posted by Specklet at 6:57 AM on January 18, 2013

Shake Shack in NYC has the best burger in NYC in the under $10 category, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Grither at 6:59 AM on January 18, 2013

Seconding Wild Willy's Burgers up here in New Hampshire. Dover has a couple of places that qualify*: La Festa Pizzaeria and Dos Amigos.

We also have a Five Guys, which is great too, but before you get jealous, we don't have much for real restaurants in town.
posted by yerfatma at 7:01 AM on January 18, 2013

Sweetgreen in DC (and slightly beyond) has unbelievable salads.
posted by deeparch at 7:06 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Caracas Arepa Bar in New York. And their hot sauce is like crack. CRACK!
posted by hellomina at 7:15 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

In Center City Philly, the standout options are:

- Hip City Veg
- DiBrunos Upstairs
- Federal Donuts

Less stand-out, but better-than-average, is Honeygrow. And anybody who tells you that Five Guys is better than (New York transplant) Shake Shack is delusional.

Pizza Brain is outside of Center City, but has a religious following.
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:18 AM on January 18, 2013

In the Washington DC area, I am biased toward the cuisine of its immigrant populations. There are not that many that have multiple locations, but I'd include
Moby Dick's House of Kabob, Lebanese Taverna Cafes (the full-scale restaurants have table service but the "cafes" you wait in line to place your order), Pho 75, and several of the ubiquitous Peruvian chicken places (El Pollo Rico or Crisp-n-Juicy, e.g.).
posted by drlith at 7:21 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I came in to say Smoke's Poutinerie, which does a fantastic thing with a vegetarian gravy, mushrooms, caramelized onions, and green peas, but it looks like they're now in eight provinces and very slightly over the 20-locations threshold. But that would've been the correct answer up until pretty recently.

I am a vegetarian so really thrill to when these little places have a good veg option; in Waterloo I was very pleased with the Johnny Fresco for having a non-standard veg pita option that involved chucking two fried eggs and a handful of fries in with the vegetables; delicious. Meatless hot greasy food can be hard to come by, sadly. However, one location.

Kingston's Hoagie House has (had?) three locations, doing nothing but hot subs. Not a lot for a vegetarian, but I went ahead anyway and ordered just grilled onions and cheese, and it was amazing and now I make grilled onions-cheese-mayo-white-bun subs at home thanks to Hoagie House.

Five Guys' veggie-n-cheese sandwich of course rates highly here
posted by kmennie at 7:22 AM on January 18, 2013


Gentle reminder, please do not this sort of thing with the edit window. FAQ.

posted by cortex at 7:24 AM on January 18, 2013

In Vancouver:
La Taqueira
Meat and Bread

Both have 2 locations.
posted by crazycanuck at 7:28 AM on January 18, 2013

Laughing Planet! Real food!

We also recently got a few Veggie Grills in the area, and they are fantastic, too, though their food feels a little over-engineered to me.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:36 AM on January 18, 2013

I've been on a bit of a burger crawl in the Boston area. Here are the ones that come to mind:
Four Burgers
Wild Willy's
They're all pretty good, but my personal favorite of the four is Four Burgers.

I also love Anna's Taqueria. It's an institution in Boston, especially among students. I don't know the details of your project but if you come to Boston looking for fast-casual restaurants, I think it would definitely be worth including Anna's in your adventures.

Best wishes with your project!
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 7:37 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Wagamama is here in the US, too (at least in Cambridge) so as an international chain might be beyond the OP's scope.

Rod Dee is a very good, very fast, quite cheap Thai place with three locations here.

Hi-Rise Bread Company is an artisanal bakery/sandwich place/cafe with three locations here.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:37 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by hollygoheavy at 7:39 AM on January 18, 2013

In Toronto: The Burger's Priest (2 locations so far, but a third to come soon) and Burrito Boyz (8 locations) are two of my favourites.
posted by barnoley at 7:40 AM on January 18, 2013

Bobby's Burger Palace in Washington DC
posted by procrastination at 7:42 AM on January 18, 2013

Charlottesville, VA:

GoCo (local gas station chain) on Harris street has absolutely perfect, juicy hamburgers. (It doesn't quite meat the criteria "fast casual" restaurant according to Wikipedia's criteria, since they're strictly take-out and not up-scale.) Here's a rant on Yelp about one of their other locations.

A couple local Exxon stations also feature eateries. They're more upscale and have indoor seating. The ones on Ivy Rd. and 29 North near the airport are both excellent — especially the one on 29. (More Yelp.)

Gas-station-cum-eateries like this are popular locally. A lot of them are really good. GoCo is the only one I can think of that's actually a local chain. The rest I can think of are independent.

Bodo's Bagels is a local chain with three locations that serves a large variety of bagel sandwiches, plus soups and salads. It's is really popular locally, and yummy, and they're more typical "fast casual" eateries.
posted by nangar at 7:53 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of Balkan Grill in the DC area - they currently have locations in Alexandria, VA and Rockville, MD.
posted by raztaj at 7:58 AM on January 18, 2013

Bozeman, Montana - Pickle Barrel (deli sandwiches).
posted by desjardins at 8:18 AM on January 18, 2013

In Central CA, we have the Natural Cafe for more health-oriented food like salads, sandwiches, pastas, etc.

I also love Pizzicato (pizza and sandwiches) with less than 20 locations in Portland and San Diego.
posted by wsquared at 8:27 AM on January 18, 2013

Thankfully Pasha in San Antonio just expanded to their second location. They are a full-service restaurant on weekends but "fast casual" on weekdays.

Rome's Pizza does hand-made 'gourmet' pizzas, subs, gyros, etc. They also have a pretty decent gluten-free menu. They have locations in San Antonio and Austin.
posted by muddgirl at 9:04 AM on January 18, 2013

Seconding Moby Dick's Kabobs and Sweetgreen. Also suggesting Masala Wok: they may not count because they're in TX and VA, but there are only 9 locations total and I looovvvveeee theeeemmmm
posted by brilliantine at 9:09 AM on January 18, 2013

Another Boston-area entry: Amsterdam Falafelshop in Davis Square, Somerville. Also in Washington, DC.

My favorites from my Chicago days are Hannah's Bretzel and Costello Sandwich and Sides - which is the only place I've ever filled out a "buy X sandwiches and get one free" card. Twice.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:11 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

In Pittsburgh:

Sushi Fuku

Original Hot Dog Shop

The Porch at Schenley (surprisingly owned by Eat'n Park)
Not sure if this one counts, you order at a register for lunch and don't tip, but you don't see your food getting made. For dinner and on weekends it becomes a standard sit-down restaurant.

Uncle Sam's Sandwich Bar

Primanti Bros.
posted by sgo at 9:37 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Liquid Planet is a Cleveland-area smoothie and wrap place.

And I'll ignore your "watch the food being made" requirement for a second to give a shoutout to Sittoo's, because that place is freakin' amazing.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:12 AM on January 18, 2013

Tacomiendo in the Los Angeles area (West LA and Culver City) is my go-to taco.

In New York, Xi'an Famous Foods is super delicious.
posted by unsub at 10:20 AM on January 18, 2013

In Memphis, Las Tortugas Deli Mexicana. Technically, that's in an eastern suburb.

Also, "The Chinese Sub Shop."
posted by woodvine at 10:40 AM on January 18, 2013

Cava - mezze done Chipotle-style, and it's AWESOME.
posted by ersatzkat at 11:03 AM on January 18, 2013

In Sartoga Springs, NY:
This doesn't quite qualify on either count (you don't get to see the food made, and only 2 locations), but Hattie's Chicken Shack is a fast-casual adaptation of longtime (since 1938!) favorite Saratoga Springs southern-themed restaurant Hattie's.

Hands-down, best fried chicken ever.

Hattie's Chicken Shack has one location at the Saratoga Racetrack, and the other in Wilton, NY. I would not be surprised to see the fledgling chain add more locations soon.
posted by Ardea alba at 12:12 PM on January 18, 2013

Austin, TX: P. Terry's, TacoDeli.
posted by thack3r at 12:50 PM on January 18, 2013

Houston, TX: James Coney Island.
posted by thack3r at 12:55 PM on January 18, 2013

Eddington's soup/salad/sandwich restaurants in the Twin Cities (MN). Known for its Boundary Waters wild rice and Wisconsin cheddar cheese soups.
posted by mefireader at 12:56 PM on January 18, 2013

I really like California Chicken Cafe. Locations around Los Angeles, open kitchen so you can see them prepping your food, pay at register, open seating. Fresh and healthy and it tastes pretty good despite.
posted by xtine at 1:02 PM on January 18, 2013

Pancheros makes the best burritos; Bobbing makes all the difference. They're national now, according to their website (55 locations), but their first store opened close to me, so I consider them "local".
posted by epj at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2013

I wouldn't say I like it much, but Casa Bonita probably fits the bill. The one in Denver has cliff divers who dive while you eat and they're all themed like small Mexican villages.
posted by tacodave at 3:28 PM on January 18, 2013

In Chicago, Soup Box.
posted by bibliogrrl at 5:15 PM on January 18, 2013

Sonoma Taco Shop in Marin, CA. A few locations, food made in front of you, pay at the register. One of my favourite places in this area.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:19 PM on January 18, 2013

Oakland represent! The Wikipedia definition linked to doesn't specify "must be able to watch food being prepared", SO… Souley Vegan. (Stand in line to place your order, take your number to your table where the server will deliver your food, beer available… yeah.)

Other possibilities: Cosecha. Take It Easy Thai (not "authentic", but decent food and nice people and you can watch your order being made).
posted by Lexica at 7:22 PM on January 18, 2013

Aladdin Falafel Corner in Seattle. (In the U-district, for locals.)
posted by Margalo Epps at 7:55 PM on January 18, 2013

What makes Five Guys "Fast Casual" and not "Fast Food"?
posted by benbenson at 5:32 AM on January 19, 2013

Only two locations in Seattle, but Red Mill Burgers are amazing.
posted by themissy at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2013

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