Americans are famous for creating a national cuisine centered on fast food. Restaurants like McDonald’s owe their rapid growth to many factors, two of which are price and convenience. As the nation grew more health-conscious, however, we sought tricks to eat healthy while on-the-go. Enter the new category of “fast-casual,” a blend of fast-food restaurant and high-end eatery, claiming to offer better quality food at lower prices.
In the last decade, hundreds of restaurants created in this style sprung up across the nation, especially in college towns, spanning all cultures and cuisines. Many now have cult-like followings among young people. We compiled a list of these establishments, organized by category.
Best Café/Bakery: Panera Bread
Panera is about as exciting as white bread. That doesn’t mean that we won’t eat there, however. On the contrary, college kids love Panera – the familiar setting, wide range of options, and hasty service keeps us coming back for pastries and broccoli cheddar soup all the time.
Best Burger: Shake Shack
The phenomenon sweeping the nation (and everyone’s Instagram feeds): the signature Shack tray, overloaded with crinkle cut fries, burgers, and possibly even one of their fried chicken sandwiches or gourmet hot dogs.
Best Sandwiches: Potbelly
There is something so utterly satisfying about the moment your sandwich emerges from Potbelly’s conveyor belt-style oven, toasted to perfection and dripping with melted cheese. All you need is an Oreo shake to wash it down.
Best Salad: Sweetgreen
On many college campuses, finding a spot that serves a quick enough lunch to consume between classes while still eating healthy can be rough. Especially if you’re sick of eating burrito bowls.
Best for Dietary Restrictions: Lyfe Kitchen
To walk into Lyfe Kitchen for the first time is to know true panic. Unlike most fast-casual joints that focus on one niche (like salads at Sweetgreen or burgers at Shake Shack), Lyfe has everything from breakfast to flatbreads to burgers to…. the list goes on. Within each of these categories, they helpfully label which options are vegan, gluten free, or contain nuts. Dig in without breaking out.
Best Mexican: Chipotle Mexican Grill
We know. Chipotle has a bad rap right now, due to the massive outbreak of e. Coli associated with their food. But guess what? Many of their customers remain loyal to the chain, probably because they don’t imagine they’ll be the next victim.
Best Pizza: Blaze Pizza
One might describe Blaze as being “like Chipotle, but for pizza,” but we disagree. Unlike Chipotle, at Blaze, the customer chooses the raw ingredients (with combinations of 8 meats, 17 veggies, 7 cheeses, and 9 different sauces) and then waits as their custom pizza is “fast-fired” to perfection.
Best Breakfast: Bruegger’s
We know. You desperately want to take a basic Instagram of your stacked bagel sandwich, but you don’t live near any artisanal bagel shops. Never fear: Bruegger’s dot the country from coast to coast, and they have all the BEC you’ll ever need.
Best Italian: Noodles & Co
Actually, they don’t just serve Italian. You might be dizzy with jet lag when scanning the menu; anything with noodles is fair game, including Italian, American, and Asian dishes (such as Japanese pan noodles or pad thai).