What’s Your Favorite Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant?

I’ve considered putting a lot more content on GrubGrade directed to the upscale fast food restaurants known as “fast casual”.  Yeah, GrubGrade is open opportunity to all grub related topics, but fast food has always been our forte.  I’d like to get your thoughts… the readers of GrubGrade.  Share your comments on this post so I can get a feel for what your go-to fast casual restaurants might be.  What’s your favorite fast-casual chain restaurant?  Corner Bakery Cafe, Chipotle, Cosi, Noodles & Company, Atlanta Bread, Panda Express, Jason’s Deli, Five Guys, Einstein Bros., Zaxby’s, Qdoba? There’s a ton I’m missing right?  Share your favorite in the comments.

Mediterranean Egg White Breakfast Sandwich and my favorite chai from a chain ever

I’ll go first.  It took a while to grow on me, but Panera Bread has climbed the ranks through the years.  I love the MyPanera loyalty program and the breakfast sandwiches are always very delicious and satisfying.  I’ve always found Panera’s breakfast options to be solid.  A recent bright spot has been the Mediterranean Egg White Breakfast Sandwich shown above… The Mediterranean Breakfast Sandwich consists of egg whites, white cheddar, basil, sun dried tomato and pesto on Ciabatta.  Panera is a fast-casual spot that has breakfast, lunch and dinner covered along with free Wi-Fi and usually indoor/outdoor seating.  I’m a fan of Cosi, but they are few and far between around my area.  I’ve never been too crazy about Five Guys Burgers and Fries.  Chipotle is close to my heart, but is almost always packed.  When weighing the pros and cons, I’ve got Panera coming out on top.  So what are you a fan of when it comes to fast-casual? 

57 comments on “What’s Your Favorite Fast-Casual Chain Restaurant?

  1. Manavee says:

    I like Corner Bakery, Panera, and Cosi. Five Guys is great, but they don’t do any rotational/seasonal items.

  2. Adam says:

    I’ve always liked Einstein’s. Their coffee has stayed affordable and their bagels and schmear are usually money, while their online loyalty program has been great. Nice healthy options too, and usually well designed stores with real, honest people working in them. I hope to try some Southern places soon though, including Zaxby’s and Raising Canes.

  3. Auz says:

    Pei Wei is my favorite. I could eat the spicy Korean chicken with brown rice twice a week.

  4. Andi says:

    I love Zaxby’s best. I love chicken, love their spicy sauces, and adore their fries and Texas toast. It’s the food I’d want to eat during happy times, to cheer myself up, or just for the heck of it.

    Just something about the smell of it all is simply intoxicating. I really want some white cheddar bites now that I think of it :9

  5. Crysta says:

    Chipotle isn’t just my favorite fast-casual; it’s my favorite restaurant, period. Unfortunately, there isn’t one in my area! The closest is an hour away. :(

    Panera Bread is good, but we don’t have one of those either. We do have a Great Harvest Bread Company (similar, we mostly go there to get bread though), and my university has an Au Bon Pain (can’t wait to try it).

    I also like Zaxby’s, but my husband doesn’t. And Five Guys, which he refuses to try because it’s “expensive”.

    There’s also a place here called Blue Coast Burrito that’s pretty decent.

  6. Jesse says:

    Culver’s!

  7. lisa says:

    Cafe Rio … In Vegas. It’s so so good!

  8. TN says:

    Pei Wei is awesome, just not one close. Panera and Chipoltle are high quality food and I enjoy it, but Chipoltle’s store atmosphere is so awful I can’t bring myself to eat inside, always a to go order. Also love Panera’s loyalty program.

  9. Raiders757 says:

    I would have to go with Moe’s. Our local store hooks it up, and it’s just as good as the very overrated Chipotle. Not only that, Moe’s doesn’t charge extra for chips and salsa.

    I enjoy Five Guys, but I can make a better burger in a similar fashion with my cast iron skillet for a lot less.

  10. laura says:

    love chipolte despite extremely disliking the owner. after seeing steve ells on that next best restaurant show, i think he’s an arrogant jerk. but an arrogant jerk that serves up delicious food! oh well, ill take it!

  11. Justin ST says:

    Does it have to be a big chain? I really like this place called Roberto’s Taco Shop in Vegas, Portillo’s in Chicago, but as for the big chains, I’d say that I like Zaxby’s, Raising Cane’s, Moe’s and Baja Fresh.

  12. Rhi says:

    I love Panera and Chipotle. Panera has some yummy specialities.

  13. Mike N says:

    Unfortunately the three I’m going to mention aren’t anywhere near you Ryan (you’re in Maryland, right?)

    I wouldn’t have considered Fazzoli’s ‘fast casual’ but they’re moving in that direction. Lot’s of new dishes, and literally new dishes — if you dine in they now serve you on actual china.

    Same is true of Steak-n-Shake. It’s more of a sit-down diner, like Denny’s, but again, you’re served real plates and silverware, so I think they qualify.

    Finally, Penn Station subs. Sort of discount-fast-casual. They actual grill (or more specifically griddle) the hot subs in front of you after you order, so I think they qualify. Definately my favorite chain sub place in the area.

    Oh, and I actually live just down the street from Panera’s headquarters (it’s one of those generic mirrored-glass buildings). So keep eating there and help keep my property taxes low. :)

    • Ryan says:

      Yup, MD, but thanks for the feedback. I still like hearing about places that might be out of my way. You never know when you some day come across them.

    • PlatypusTheRabbi says:

      I’m a little surprised you differentiate Penn Station by calling it ‘discount-fast-casual’…. after a 6 or 8″ sub, fries, coke – You’re looking at $9-11. It seems that you would spend less on a round meal at the other places you mentioned (Steak & Shake, Fazoli’s).

  14. rob says:

    I like McDonalds because they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. A lot of the other fast-casual chains will only do lunch-dinner, but McDonalds does all three meals, many of them are open 24 hours per day.

    Also many McDonalds are located near highway exits, so it doesn’t matter what exit you take, it doesn’t matter if you are hopelessly lost, a good meal is only moments away.

    • j says:

      McDonald’s isn’t fast casual, it is fast food.

    • PlatypusTheRabbi says:

      There are 2 things that Sonic is doing that McDos is not, and both joints are nearby: Breakfast all day and sausage gravy (Sonic doesn’t even have biscuits, they give you gravy for tater tots or chicken strips).

      Sonic isn’t really great at either of those things, but I would probably eat at McDos more often if they did either. I know that’s pretty random and personal. I’m hungry.

  15. Chefprotoss or dan says:

    La salsa on the west coast is really underrated. Its like baja fresh but slightly better. Baja fresh does rock though.

  16. PlatypusTheRabbi says:

    I’m in Michigan – these are my favorite fast-casual chains:

    Real Deal Burger

    QDoba (Fast casual Mexican much better than Chipotle but with the same concept + they have a delicious 3-cheese queso)

    Penn Station (great gooey grilled subs on a hot crusty roll with hand-cut fries, famous for their Cheesesteak, sweet Italian sausage, and grilled artichoke subs).

    • Justin ST says:

      Penn Station? Where is that in Michigan?

      • PlatypusTheWanderer says:

        @J to the ST

        They opened in Kalamazoo (SW Mich) just maybe 3 years ago or less. Busy intersection off the highway, lots of fast food and restaurants you could hit with a thrown rock, 2 miles from a uni campus.

  17. Robert says:

    I love me some Zaxby’s and I also enjoy Panera as well. Can not go wrong with either one.

  18. Ryan says:

    Penn Station has me jealous. I forgot to mention Firehouse Subs and Jimmy Johns.

    Oh and DC area based Moby Dick House of Kabob
    http://www.grubgrade.com/2009/03/24/featured-restaurant-moby-dick-house-of-kabob/

  19. Mitchery says:

    I’ve been to quite a few of fast casual restaurants and enjoyed many. If I had to pick my favorite it would be Rudy’s. I go there everytime I visit Houston and absolutely love their selection and BBQ. Also, I like how I can buy beer with my meal. My second favorite would have to be Fuddruckers! Awesome burgers and unlimited cheese topping is awesome!

  20. Seeker says:

    Someday I’d like to eat at a nice Chipotle, as the current closest one is utter garbage. Every employee exudes such dissatisfaction and inconvenience with their job, and skimps on pretty much everything while trying to move as fast as possible despite their being no rush. Oddly the seemingly unrelated Subway is the same, so it may be locale yet still disappointing.

    As opposing as this would be, the Quiznos nearby is probably one of my favorite chains. I’ve eaten at different Quiznos around and found most to be awful, but this one does everything right and somehow manages to stock fresh bread(which appears to be a foreign concept to most). I’ve never had a bad sandwich yet and the BOGO coupons keep coming in the mail(and Retailmenot) so it’s quite the bargain.

  21. Jesse says:

    Would In-N-Out be considered fast casual?

  22. five guys and cosi would be my two favs.

    panera would prob be number 3.

  23. J.B. says:

    I love Five Guys with all my heart. lol
    I do like Panera a lot also.

    But I was just in Chicago and went to Rick Bayless’s restaurant Frontera Fresco and that was excellent. He really needs to expand them ASAP.
    I had the Chipotle Shrimp Fresco Taco and it had nice big fresh shrimp and fresh avocado slices, not that fake guacamole crap other places give you (cough cough Burger King, Subway). It also came with a fantastic poblano rajas sauce.

    Prêt a Manger is also very very good.
    If I could own one of each of these restaurants I would be a very happy man.

  24. Manavee says:

    I wanted to add that I think writing/reviewing more of these fast casual places would be a welcome addition to the site, as that’s where I find myself eating more and more. My specific thoughts on some places:

    1. Panera
    Pros: Very good sandwiches paired with a variety of kinds of breads; I like many of their soups; salads are also good; Rewards card; Breakfast items (including goof choice of bagels) are all very good
    Cons: Many of their bakery items (cookies, brownies, etc.) aren’t quite as good as I would have expected; Sometimes I find them a bit “safe” in terms of the flavors they come up with

    2. Corner Bakery
    Pros: Stellar sandwiches, excellent cookies and other bakery items, surprisingly good pasta; breakfast plates and sandwiches are also very good
    Cons: salads sometimes leave a bit to be desired; Where’s there reward card?

    3. Cosi
    Pros: tend to make bold choices with their flavors which I respect (which sometimes leads to home runs and sometimes strike outs), some real good desserts (I had a bread pudding which was as agood as I could get at a restaurant (and plated as well also) for $1.99); I like their pizzas; Rewards card
    Cons: tend to skimp on the meat in their salads, only have flatbread for their sandwiches (which is good, but some variety would be nice)

    5 Guys, CHipotle, and Portillo’s are all great, but don’t really offer any rotational or seasonal items for you to review.

    I went to Noodles and Company after seeing it on this site a few weeks ago. I tried their promotional salads, both of which I liked. Haven’t tried their other stuff yet, but it looked good on the menu (Chefprotoss recent review not withstanding).

  25. Carl says:

    Pei Wei and Panda Express rock. I’m sort of partial to Panda though. The orange chicken and chow mein is so good. I like Qdoba better than Chipotle, but sadly there are no Qdobas around where I live. Brueggers Bagels is a good one. I don’t know if it’s just a midwest chain. . Their breakfast sandwiches are the bomb.

  26. Patrick says:

    Wow, this is a tough one… I would have to say Five Guys with Chipotle a close second. The Panera’s around here are hit or miss. And Chipotle earned second with the nearest one being about 40 minutes away…

  27. Joe says:

    Live in the Buffalo area, and I sometimes feel like I’m in the Tundra for the lack of variety in what chains we get. No Five Guys, Pei Wei or anything like that. We just got a Chipotle which I really like, and Panera is really good too.

    We have quite a few local chains that are pretty famous. Teds Hotdogs actually has really good (charcoal grilled) burgers, and their fries are still the best I’ve ever had.

    Another local favorite is Jim’s Steakout, which grills the steak fresh when you order it, and is really really good.

    But still, I want a freakin Five Guys.

  28. SkippyMom says:

    I think “fast casual” is like naming the generations with letters. Stupid. [no offense - I don't think you coined that insipid phrase]

    And “Five Guys” isn’t anything other than an over exposed fast food chain that lost their desirability when the original owners sold out and franchised. It may still have all the earmarks of the first few, but the food is no longer worth the price or tastes anywhere near as good.

    For the prices that some of these chains charge it is worth it to go the extra few steps and give our business to the local vendors of great breads, coffees, hamburgers and sandwiches. The Mom & Pops.

    If I want cookie cutter I might as well go and eat at McDonald’s.

    [And the person the mentioned what a tool the owner of Chipotle was after seeing him on the "Next Great Restaurant" was spot on. You couldn't pay me to eat there again. He didn't reinvent the wheel. He made a good burrito. He needs to get over himself.]

    • Justin ST says:

      If you live in bigger cities, there are some great Mexican burrito/taco places that blow Chipotle and Qdoba out of the water in terms of quality and value.

      • Mike N says:

        That’s my problem with Q’Doba and Chipotle too — I live near some genuine taquirias that serve genuine mexican food at dirt cheap prices. The may have bars on the windows and be next door to bodegas advertising phone cards and wigs in their windows, but their damn good.

  29. Rudy says:

    PANERA BREAD!!!!
    I am not exclusive, I do eat at many of the other chains mentioned, cosi-not so much based on distance, but Chipolte, PeiWei, Panda Express, (Not McDonalds…haven’t in 5 years)…

    But one thing I love about Panera is the coffee and barista style drinks. Paneras coffee is always great. It is rare for a chain to actually care about coffee and it is obvious that Panera does.

    As a side note…I do like Starbucks, but find that Starbucks is very inconsistent from location to location and if Starbuck coffee is brewed incorrectly it can taste very burnt. I never have that issue at Panera Bread.

  30. The Papa says:

    I love panera breakfast sandwiches too… its all about the white cheddar. :)

  31. Chelsea says:

    I live in SC, so Zaxby’s and Five Guys both will forever have my heart.

    Even after working at Zaxby’s for 2 1/2 years, I still crave it at least once a week. Kickin’ chicken sandwich, drenched in ranch, tongue torch, and blue cheese crumbles… mm. Now I want one.

  32. nuttyturnip says:

    McAlister’s Deli (similar to Jason’s) is my personal favorite, and there’s finally one opening in Herdnon, VA in a few months. California Tortilla blows Chipotle out of the water, and if you’re in the DC area, there’s probably one near you. Schlotzky’s used to have a store in DC, but they closed a few years ago. If I want to get my jalapeno cheese bread fix, I have to go to Virginia Beach (which also has Fazolis, as a previous commenter mentioned).

  33. Mandy says:

    My favorite is Zaxby’s. Something about their wing sauces and Zax sauce is addicting. Plus the seasoning on their fries…..YUMMO! Plus they are about the only place around here that gives you crushed ice.

    ……Now I want some Zaxby’s.

  34. Rachel says:

    It’s a toss up between Chipotle and Jimmy John’s for me. Depends on what I’m craving!

  35. Kayleigh says:

    I love Baja Fresh! I’ve only been to Chipotle once before, I didn’t see what all the hype was about. Maybe I need to give it another shot sometime since everyone seems to really like it.
    I like Panera Bread, but there is only one in my city. That means it’s always super busy around lunch time, with a line out the front door and where you’re lucky if you can find seating. I wish there were a few more locations, I love soup and there are so few places that serve a nice variety.

  36. Heidi says:

    Panera is at the top of my list, along with Jason’s Deli.. pretty much any place I can find a good salad is right up my alley. If Subway counts, I can throw them in there too. I have the Panera rewards card, and have 2 free items yet to redeem!

    I was just recently introduced (due to a move) to Panda Express and was so grossed out by the appearance of the food that I didn’t even stay.

    I wish we had a Cosi near our house. The menu sounds good.

  37. Mattitude says:

    I tend to love to go to Genghis Grill, the whole concept and laid back atmosphere is enjoyable,and the risk you can take when your in control of the ingredients and can come out fantastic and just plain nasty – this is why it will always be my favorite fast casual spot!

  38. Griffin says:

    Jakes Wayback burgers

  39. [...] What’s your favorite fast casual chain? [...]

  40. GiGi says:

    Would you consider WHOLE FOODS a fast food casual restaurant? lol.

  41. Reviewscout says:

    Panda Express, Panera only once in my life ever. I don’t count the minor stops for bagels and brownies. But Panda Express manages to even out the cheap + quality factor. Especially in the breading they use for the meats. The sauce is soaked in just right so the flavors are balanced out. I especially love their honey walnut shrimp.

  42. Jade says:

    Nandos. Pity there’s only 3 locations in the US :D

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nandos#United_States

  43. Josh Christopherson says:

    Firehouse Subs. Can’t go wrong there.

  44. Susie D. says:

    My local Panera is great. I’ve never had a bad meal or bad service, and the rewards program is great! I’ve been getting a free dessert every time I go! I don’t crave greasy food like I did when I was younger. I’d rather have a big salad, and Panera’s are pricey but I feel you get what you pay for.

  45. Obbop says:

    As one of the growing number of working-poor performing the jobs politicians keep proclaiming USA citizens will not engage in I, sadly, can at best, occasionally dine outside the shanty but economic reality requires I opt for the buck menu at fast-food joints.

  46. Sarah Lynn says:

    Mighty Taco!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Is the best!

    Mmm I really could go for one of their delicious bean & cheese burritos. I get it on the 100% whole wheat shell, with lettuce, tomato, roasted peppers & onions, and sometime guacamole or a side of nacho cheese sauce.

    Sooo yummy.

    I’m from Buffalo, NY.
    Peace!

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