Few things are more prevalent and more iconic in America than fast food restaurants. Whether or not we want to admit it, a quick meal of burgers, chicken nuggets, french fries and a milkshake is as American as apple pie. And because fast food restaurants are a an essential part of the culture, the signature items at these joints are as well. So we had to ask: What are the most famous fast food menu items of all time?
To determine the most famous fast food menu items of all time, we looked to Nation’s Restaurant News’ list of the top 200 restaurants by sales and pulled out the fast food chains from the top 50. Of course, regional restaurants such as In-n-Out and Shake Shack are also world-famous and have their own distinctive menu items, so we included these cult-favorite places as well. From there, we looked at which menu items are the most sold, most well-regarded and most known from the top chains. The following 40 items have defined fast food, for better or for worse, and we all know and love these dishes.
Courtesy of Subway
Subway has a few iconic sandwiches on their menu. The Meatball Marinara, the Italian B.M.T. and the Sweet Chicken Teriyaki all have their fans. But Subway’s subs became truly famous with a single promotion: the $5 Footlong. Launched in September 2008, the promotion is what it promises: 12 inches of sub for one Abraham Lincoln. Throughout the years, the scope of subs available for this price and participating locations have varied. Today, the $5 Footlong is mostly dead, but that earworm of a jingle still remains in many sandwich lovers’ heads.
The Dave’s Single may be the standard burger at Wendy’s, but it is nowhere near the most famous food at the Ohio-based chain. That distinction would have to go to the Baconator. While it feels like this half-pound beef burger with two square-shaped patties, cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise and six pieces of bacon has been around forever, the Baconator is a relatively new invention. It was introduced in 2007 and helped to put Wendy’s on the map right alongside Burger King and McDonald’s.
For a fast food dessert to thrive for over 50 years, it has to be darn good and distinctive. The apple pie at McDonald’s checks off both those boxes. When this hand pie was introduced to the menu in 1968, it was fried and served in a cardboard sleeve. While that sleeve has remained, the recipe for McDonald’s apple pie has had over 40 different iterations over the years, according to Eater. Today, the apple pie has a lattice crust, is baked and features a blend of diced Golden Delicious, Jonagold, Rome, Gala, Ida Red and Fuji apples. But it’s still the perfect sweet bite without being overwhelming.
Courtesy of Wendy’s
While french fries are the standard potato side at most fast food restaurants, Wendy’s differentiates itself from its competitors by offering a different kind of spud: a baked potato. Perceived as a healthy alternative to fries, Wendy’s baked potatoes can be turned into something just as salty and satisfying. Load them up with sour cream and chives, cheese or bacon. If you really want a uniquely Wendy’s experience, get your baked potato topped with another of the chain’s signature items: their chili.
Like the apple pie, McDonald’s Big Mac celebrated its 50th birthday in 2018. It is perhaps the signature fast food burger, as proven by its classic tagline, which is just its very famous list of ingredients. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.” People know the Big Mac, and they love it. McDonald’s reportedly sells over 550 million Big Macs every year.
Courtesy of Dairy Queen
Dairy Queen has a variety of burgers, chicken fingers and other savory, hot menu items, but this fast food chain as all about the ice cream. And there’s one DQ ice cream treat that is often imitated but never replicated: the Blizzard. Whether you get it with Reese’s, Oreos, M&M’s or in a limited-edition variety, no trip to Dairy Queen is complete without a Blizzard. This signature ice cream treat is blended together and served upside down, which is ridiculously fun.
Courtesy of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen
KFC and Chick-fil-A may be the more popular fried chicken fast food restaurants, but you will find the most flavorful fast food chicken at Popeye’s. The breading and skin on their signature Bonafide Chicken is reliably crispy and the seasonings on the spicy chicken make the peppery flavors of some of Popeye’s competitors seem bland. The best way to order your bucket of Popeye’s is spicy with a side of their mashed potatoes and Cajun gravy, which you then dip your chicken into. You’re welcome.
Courtesy of Culver’s
There are a lot of regional fast food chains we wish were national, and Culver’s tops that list. In addition to their Midwestern-friendly cheese curds, this burger joint has a signature sandwich, the ButterBurger. From the outside, it looks like a lot of fast food burgers. It has cheddar cheese, onions, pickles, ketchup and mustard. But the secret here is the bun, which has been buttered to heaven and toasted on the griddle. A great bun makes the difference between a good burger and a phenomenal burger, and Culver’s ButterBurger is the latter.
Courtesy of Sonic Drive-In
While you can still pull up to a lot of drive-in restaurants, Sonic is the top chain of its type. The leading menu item here is a fizzy beverage, the Cherry Limeade. The perfect blend of sweet, tart and bubbly, Cherry Limeade has a cult following among soda fans.
Burger King’s Chicken Fries have all the pepperiness of a BK chicken nugget with the highly dippable shape of a french fry. So it’s no wonder that people love them. These breaded and fried slim chicken tenders are a true fan favorite. Literally. The fast food chain’s website labels them as such. Chicken Fries were introduced in 2005 and were a hit, but they were still replaced by normally shaped chicken tenders in 2012. Thus, a rabid online campaign was launched to bring this cult item back to Burger King menus nationwide. Chicken Fry lovers succeeded; the item returned in 2015, and this time around, they are a permanent menu item.
There are a lot of fast food nuggets out there, but none have reached the status of the McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. Golden brown and perfectly crispy on the outside yet tender on the inside, the McNugget is not aggressively spiced, but that helps to make it into the perfect bite. While the ingredient list has been the subject of scrutiny since the item’s debut in 1983, the McNugget maintains its status as a customer favorite, whether you dip it in ketchup, barbecue sauce or honey mustard.
Courtesy of Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A is quickly becoming a dominant force in the fast food world, despite some political controversies. So how can this chain be thriving? It all comes down to their simplistic menu, which is built around their signature chicken sandwich. There’s not a lot to it. It’s a piece of fried white meat chicken with pickles and a bun. But the flavors somehow work, largely thanks to the pickle-brined chicken, which adds an irresistible zesty note to an otherwise ordinary protein. That secret ingredient is just one of the many things you didn’t know about Chick-fil-A.
Most fast food sides err on the salty and savory side. But Taco Bell has always been a different kind of restaurant, and their signature side, the Cinnamon Twist, proves just that. While the chain’s nacho fries have been a runaway hit, the puffed wheat and rice flour treat dusted in cinnamon and sugar is a truly original item and the OG Taco Bell snack.
Courtesy of Arby’s
Arby’s has always differentiated itself by being a fast food chain without a burger but still supplying plenty of red meat. That comes courtesy of their signature menu item, the roast beef sandwich. Consisting only of roast beef and a sesame seed bun, the Classic Roast Beef is the sandwich that put “roast beef on the map,” according to Arby’s. Whether or not that’s technically true, this is a truly original fast food option. If you really want to get fully into Arby’s, load your sandwich up with the punchy Horsey Sauce, a horseradish-based condiment that packs some serious flavor.
Taco Bell has had some seriously over-the-top fast food menu items over the years, but their standard crunchy taco with seasoned ground beef, lettuce and cheese has been their best-selling item. Perhaps it’s the sub-$2 price tag or perhaps its just putting together something that is greater than the sum of its parts, but this simple food really works, especially when you load it up with tons of Taco Bell hot sauce.
Taco Bell’s crunchy taco walked so the Crunchwrap Supreme could run. Introduced in 2005 (and made permanent in 2006), the Crunchwrap Supreme is the merging of two classic Tex-Mex foods: crunchy tacos and quesadillas. Ground beef, nacho cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and fat sour cream are tucked inside a lightly grilled soft shell tortilla, but there’s a fun twist: a crispy, crunchy hard tortilla between the meat/cheese mixture and the veggies. It’s everything you want from Taco Bell: cheap, excessive and terribly wonderful.
Courtesy of Arby’s
Arby’s doesn’t play by your fast food rules. It doesn’t have burgers and it doesn’t have shoestring fries. Instead, the default shape of Arby’s fries is the best french fry shape: curly. Introduced in 1988, Arby’s curly fries are loaded with paprika, cayenne pepper, onion and garlic for a flavor that’s just as fun as the shape.
Courtesy of Dairy Queen
Summertime isn’t complete unless you walk into a Dairy Queen, raid the freezer section and get yourself a Dilly Bar. The signature takeaway, handheld ice cream treat seems like it’s been a part of Dairy Queen since day one, but it was invented in 1955 by DQ franchisee Robert Litherland, 15 years after the first DQ opened its doors. The circle of vanilla ice cream dipped in a chocolate, cherry or butterscotch coating has a signature swoop that every other ice cream stand wishes they could nail.
There are a lot of things you may not know about In-N-Out, but everyone knows about this West Coast chain’s not-so-secretive secret menu. So what does this almost foreign-sounding burger order mean? Well, the burger patties at In-N-Out are thin, so you need to order a “double-double” for two patties. For extra flavor, “Animal Style” means a sort of Thousand Island dressing mixed with grilled onions. It takes an ordinary burger into extraordinary territory.
Courtesy of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Long before keto was the trendy diet of the decade, KFC introduced a sandwich that didn’t have traditional bread — but it did have breading. For those who have forgotten, the Double Down is a sandwich with bacon, cheese and a zesty sauce, but instead of nestling those ingredients between a bun, they’re between two pieces of boneless fried chicken filets. The Double Down made its triumphant debut at the fried chicken chain in 2010. It was instantly notorious and remains so to this day, though it is not currently on the menu at KFC restaurants in America.
When you think of fast food breakfasts, one item immediately pops into your mind: the Egg McMuffin. A simple combination of a buttery toasted English muffin, Canadian bacon, American cheese and egg, this dish is shockingly easy to replicate at home. But it’s best eaten on the go with a triangular hash brown and a large Diet Coke.
Courtesy of Checkers
In the words of Checkers (also known as Rally’s in some regions), the Famous Seasoned Fries are what put them on the map. These heavily and wonderfully seasoned fries are also dipped in biscuit batter, giving them an extra satisfying crunch that you won’t find at any other burger joint. Checkers knows they have a winner on their hands; they regularly add their fries to limited-time offers, and the Fry Lover’s Burger is a menu mainstay.
A lot of fast food ice cream falls flat, but not the Frosty at Wendy’s. Creamy and icy, this semi-milkshake, semi-soft serve dessert has been delighting dessert fans since 1969. Originally available in chocolate, Wendy’s also introduced the vanilla Frosty to its American restaurants in 2006. Real heads know that both flavors are delicious and can be improved only by using the Frosty as a dipping sauce for Wendy’s fries.
Since 1977, children have been delighted by going to McDonald’s and getting a Happy Meal. Originally consisting of a burger, small fry, drink and a toy, this meal and entertainment in a square cardboard box has led to some major cultural phenomenon. Remember the Teenie Beenie Baby toys from the ‘90s? The high-calorie, high-fat and high-sodium nature of the Happy Meal has been the subject of much controversy, and today the Happy Meal comes with better-for-you options for your little ones such as apple slices and milk. But the toys remain as fun as ever.
If one is being fully frank, the classic tacos, burritos and other entrée menu items at Taco Bell are good but not incredible. But what takes these combinations of ground beef, lettuce, cheese and tomato really shine are a special condiment: the hot sauce packets. While McDonald’s ketchup and Chick-fil-A sauce have their fans, no fast food condiment has the cult following of Taco Bell’s hot sauces. Though Taco Bell has had other flavors over the years (R.I.P. verde salsa) today, the chain has breakfast, mild, hot, fire and diablo packets available to add heat and fiery flavor to any meal.
Think of the gold standard of french fries, and you will think of McDonald’s fries. Perfectly crispy, buttery, super salted and the perfect size for mindless munching, no other french fry on Earth compares to these. And that is just a fact.
McDonald’s signature ice cream dessert the McFlurry has (and needs) only two: M&M’s and Oreo. While Dairy Queen seemingly has an endless number of Blizzard varities, McD’s has their vanilla-based frozen dessert down. The chocolate treat to ice cream ratio in both McFlurry variants is pure perfection. The only thing more iconic than the flavor is the unique spoon.
Courtesy of Hardee’s
There are a lot of ways that fast food has changed over the years, but the main way is that these eateries are trying to get healthier. Not Hardee’s. In 2004, the St. Louis-based burger chain released the gut-busting Monster Thickburger. With a whopping two-thirds of a pound of meat, four pieces of bacon, three slices of cheese and a generous glob of mayonnaise for good measure, this excessive burger was one of the first of its kind.
Certain food items have certain reputations, if you catch our drift. Doritos and Taco Bell tacos are two of those items, so when they came together in 2012, they were an instant, massive hit. Taco Bell reportedly sold over a billion of this dish in their first year. Since then, the Doritos Locos Taco has become the most popular menu item at Taco Bell; reportedly 1 million DLTs are sold every day.
Courtesy of Burger King
Burger King’s fries are a fine product, but they’re greatly improved by one thing: Finding a rogue onion ring at the bottom of your carton of fries. The true iconic side at BK is not the french fry but the onion ring. A crispy, golden-fried exterior incases a tender, impossibly sweet white onion. The onion rings help Burger King to stand out from the pack of fast food options. Fans of this side know they are best eaten by dipping them in BK’s zesty sauce.
Courtesy of Panda Express
Chinese takeout is generally led by local restaurants, but Panda Express stands out as the top chain fast food option of its kind. Generally speaking, orange chicken has the unique sweet, spicy and savory notes of Chinese food that is actually very American, and Panda Express’ spin on this dish nails that combination perfectly. It is the signature dish at Panda Express and the chain’s most popular offering.
Courtesy of Kentucky Fried Chicken
There are a lot of things that make great fried chicken, but the No. 1 thing is the herbs and spices in your breading. Luckily, KFC very famously has 11 herbs and spices that make for the perfect fried chicken blend that no one — not even the chain’s head chef — knows. What we do know is that the flavor of KFC’s chicken is on point. It’s best eaten straight from the bucket with a giant heap of mashed potatoes and perfectly cylindrical buttery biscuits.
Courtesy of White Castle
Not many fast food chains have such a massive cult following that they become a top destination for Valentine’s Day, but White Castle has just that sort of fanbase. Since 1921, this fast food burger chain has been selling its teeny, tiny sliders with pickles and a little onion sauce, and they’ve been thriving ever since. While White Castle has introduced plant-based sliders, fish sliders, chicken sliders and a whole breakfast menu, their original slider remains their most iconic offering.
Not a lot of fast food chains are so beloved by their home state that they are given a special designation. But Texans are so wild about Whataburger that they named this burger joint a “Texas Treasure” in 2001. Leave it to Texas to know their beef; the Original Whataburger is never frozen and is seasoned and cooked to literal perfection. A toasted bun just puts this burger over the edge.
Every fast food fried chicken chain worth its weight in salt has a biscuit on its menu. So what makes Bojangles biscuits so darn good? They’re made from scratch, by hand every single day. In fact, every Bojangles has an employee whose sole job is to make the biscuits. While the biscuits can be the base for various breakfast sandwiches, these buttermilk-based babies are strong enough to stand on their own.
The best thing about Shake Shack is that the chain uses high-quality ingredients for its signature burgers, which include the Shackburger. Pat LeFrieda beef is cooked to perfection on a griddle and placed on a Martin’s Potato Roll bun with American cheese, plump red tomatoes and crisp green lettuce. What makes the Shackburger really shine is the sauce, a combination of mayonnaise, pickle juice, ketchup and spices that you can easily make at home with this copycat recipe.
Courtesy of Subway
There are few better endings to any meal than a cookie. This is something that Subway knows quite well, which is why they always have a small case of fresh, soft cookies right by the register. They’re so tempting and so delicious. The best flavor is highly debatable. Some swear by the chocolate chip, while others claim the relatively new raspberry cheesecake cookie is a revelation in fast food dessert. No matter your chosen cookie, no Subway meal is complete without this quick, sweet bite.
Courtesy of Wendy’s
One thing you might now know about Wendy’s: Their chicken nuggets are massively popular. Seriously. When we say they have a cult following, we mean it. Wendy’s nuggets have gone viral numerous times over the last few years, whether due to fans clamoring to get free nuggets or to musician Chance the Rapper publicly wondering why the spicy nuggets were pulled from the menu. And we get why they’re a big deal. Wendy’s nuggets, especially their spicy chicken nuggets, have the perfect amount of heat while still maintaining a crispy exterior and tender interior. It’s basically the perfect bite.
Courtesy of Chick-fil-A
Chick-fil-A hasn’t reached star status just because of its chicken; their waffle fries are actually their most-ordered item. The crisscross cut of the fries allows for an optimal amount of crispy exterior and surface area for salt and ketchup, while the potato on the inside remains pillowy soft. McDonald’s french fries better watch their back, because Chick-fil-A could take their crown to become the fast food fry standard.
Introduced in 1957, the Whopper seems simple with a beef patty, pickles, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise, ketchup and a sesame seed bun, but the fluffy, soft bun has a sweetness to it that complements the perfectly sour pickles and juicy burger. The Whopper is teased as “America’s favorite burger” by Burger King, and other chains try to keep up with this burger, which has set the standard for a classic fast food burger without a special sauce. And if you didn’t know the Whopper was this famous, then you probably don’t know these other facts about your favorite fast food chains.
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