Discover the rich history of the oldest fast-food restaurants in America as we take you on a taste and time travel. This article travels through the annals of culinary history to investigate the iconic fast-food establishments that have stood the test of time and provided not only with meals but also with a window into a bygone era. These recognizable restaurants, each with a distinct history that is woven into the fabric of American culture, helped to establish contemporary fast food culture. From beloved burger joints and iconic hot dog stands to classic diner-style restaurants, these businesses have become culinary landmarks, serving generations of people with their signature dishes. Our investigation will uncover the oldest fast food establishments in the country, honoring their tenacity, enduring appeal, and timeless charm that draw customers in. Come explore these ageless gems with us, celebrating their historical significance and the flavors that have carved out a place for themselves in the rich history of American cuisine.
A&W started out as a roadside drink stand for root beer at a 1919 parade honoring vets returning from World War I. However, it wasn’t until 1923 that it became a restaurant in Sacramento, California. The restaurant first became a franchise in 1926. Today, it has restaurants across the U.S. and Southeast Asia. A&W’s menu sells burgers, chicken, hotdogs, fries, onion rings, cheese curds, and ice cream treats. I usually get a cheeseburger with a side of ooey-gooey chili cheese fries. A trip to A&W isn’t complete without a rootbeer from one of their thick, frosty mugs or perhaps one of their famous rootbeer ice cream floats.
White Castle’s first restaurant opened in 1921 in Wichita, Kansas, so many people consider it to be the oldest fast-food hamburger chain since it predates A&W as a restaurant. Founder Billy Ingram credits himself with inventing the concept of carry-out food. There are now White Castles in 13 states across the U.S. and two restaurants in China. White Castle’s claim to fame is their small, simple hamburger sliders. Now, they even have fish, chicken, breakfast, and Belgian waffle sliders. Their sides menu has expanded beyond french fries, and they even have breakfast and dessert menus. When I’m in a city that has a White Castle, I always prefer to go with their original slider combo with three sliders, fries, and a soft drink. It’s simple and what made them famous.
The first Dairy Queen opened in Joliet, Illinois, in 1940. The first day they offered their ice cream, they sold over 1600 servings in two hours. Their success allowed them to expand globally. They currently have locations in the U.S., Canada, and over 20 other countries. DQ originally just sold soft-serve ice cream and ice cream treats. However, their menu has expanded over the years to include burgers, sandwiches, chicken fingers, salads, and sides. When I go to DQ, I usually order a simple strawberry sundae. The strawberry sauce has a unique flavor that you can’t find elsewhere.
Dunkin’ Donuts’ first coffee and donut shop opened in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1950. Now, Dunkin serves over 3 million customers daily. It currently has locations in 42 countries, making it one of the largest coffee and donut chains in the world. Dunkin’ serves coffee, espresso, and tea drinks. They also serve 50+ types of donuts, breakfast sandwiches, bagels, muffins, and a few other snacks. I’m a weirdo who doesn’t like donuts, so my favorite Dunkin’ treat is an apple fritter. Some locations even serve them filled, which is a little overkill but still good. I usually order their decaf coffee, and it has a rich, caramel flavor that sets it far above other decaf coffees I’ve tried.
In-N-Out Burger got its start in Baldwin Park, California, in 1948. While it is a chain, it has chosen not to franchise or go public. You can only find In-N-Out in seven U.S. states, but they may soon expand to an eighth. So, for many people, In-N-Out experience is a place they’ve heard about from fans. Their ingredients are the key to their success. In-N-Out prides itself on using only the highest-quality, freshest ingredients, free of additives, fillers, and preservatives. Their menu is simple, with only burgers, grilled cheese, fries, soft drinks, and shakes. And, yes, you absolutely should order from their “not so secret menu” and get your burger “animal style.” The mustard-cooked meat patty and grilled onions really make the burger for me.
The first McDonald’s opened in 1940 as a San Bernardino, California, drive-in restaurant. However, it wasn’t until 1953 that they converted it to a hamburger stand and introduced their iconic golden arches. McDonald’s now makes the most revenue of any restaurant chain, serving over 69 million customers every day in 100+ countries worldwide. McDonald’s is famous for its burgers, fries, and milkshakes. However, they also have fish and chicken sandwiches, chicken nuggets, salads, coffee drinks, and a breakfast menu. I occasionally get a craving for a McDonald’s small hamburger. The combination of ketchup, mustard, pickles, and rehydrated onions is classic perfection.
Jack in the Box
Jack in the Box first hit the fast-food restaurant scene in 1951 in San Diego, California. Most of their franchise locations are on the west coast of the U.S. However, they are open in select large cities in 21 states around the U.S. Plus, there’s one in Guam. Jack in the Box’s menu features burgers, chicken sandwiches, chicken tenders, fries, salad, shakes, soft drinks, and several internationally-themed foods like egg rolls and tacos. They also have a breakfast menu and a late-night menu with messy, franken-sandwiches, tacos, and sides. One of my favorite late-night sandwiches is the Spicy Cluck’n’Sourdough. It’s a scrumptious, phenomenal, and evil sandwich that you probably shouldn’t eat in public.
Colonel Sanders’ first Kentucky Fried Chicken was a roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, in 1930. Currently, there are KFCs in 145+ countries, and it holds the position of having the second-highest global restaurant chain revenue after McDonald’s. KFC is famous for its fried chicken with 11 secret herbs and spices and its homestyle sides. They even now offer Beyond Fried Chicken for vegetarians. I’m a fried chicken connoisseur, and KFC beats out most fried chicken except my dad’s and a few mom-and-pop chicken places. My standard order is extra-crispy dark-meat fried chicken, mashed potatoes with (perfect) gravy, and green beans.
The first Sonic Drive-In restaurant opened in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1953. It was known for its revolutionary curbside speakers and using carhops on roller skates. While you won’t find as many roller-skating carhops at Sonic today, you will find Sonic in 46 U.S. states. It’s also still a drive-in restaurant, but some locations have outdoor seating and drive-through windows as well. Sonic is famous for its burgers and endless combinations of soft drinks. They also serve chicken poppers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches and sliders, grilled cheese, all-day breakfast, ice cream, and sides. I like to drive in for their happy hour and get a fresh-fruit lemon berry slush or an Ocean Water on a hot day. I’m also a fan of the craveable chili on their chili cheese coney.
Denny’s first opened as a 24-hour coffee shop called Denny’s Donuts in Lakewood, California, in 1953. The majority of franchise agreements today require the restaurant to stay open 24/7. Most are beside a freeway exit for hungry travelers to find. You can stumble upon a Denny’s in every U.S. state except Delaware. Denny’s also has locations in 13 other countries. Denny’s is famous as a place to get classic diner food, burgers, salads, milkshakes, and breakfast any time you’re hungry. I’ve spent many late nights eating their just-okay food because they were the only place open. I like to get the fun-to-say Moons Over My Hammy. It’s a cheese, scrambled egg, and ham sandwich on grilled sourdough with a side of hash browns.
The first Waffle House opened in Avondale Estates, Georgia, in 1955. They wanted to create a sit-down restaurant that combined fast-food speed with around-the-clock availability. There are still more Waffle Houses in Georgia than anywhere else, but they also have locations in 24 other states across the U.S. While most people think of Waffle House as a place to get breakfast 24/7, they also have burgers, sandwiches, meat dinners, and pies on their menu. My favorite dish to get is the Mexican-inspired fiesta omelet with grits, biscuit, and sausage gravy. It’s nothing to write home about, but it always hits the spot.
The first Pizza Hut appeared in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958 after two brothers borrowed $600 from their mom. It’s the world’s largest pizza chain and has locations in 52 U.S. states, territories, and 100 countries. Pizza Hut is most famous for its pizza, but they’ve branched out into selling pasta, chicken wings, and even Cinnabon cinnamon rolls and other desserts. The most standout feature of Pizza Hut pizza is the crust. I love the fluffy, yeasty, buttery goodness of their supreme personal pan pizzas. They changed the classic recipe for their pan pizzas in 2019, and many of their customers (including me) wish they’d bring it back. But the new version is still pretty good.
The International House of Pancakes (IHOP) first opened its doors in Los Angeles, California, in 1958. They’re another fast-food 24-hour diner that welcomes people in when everything else has long closed for the night. All 50 U.S. states and 10 countries have IHOPs. Of course, IHOP serves their famous pancakes and other breakfast food, but they also have burgers, chicken sandwiches, sandwiches, burritos, bowls, appetizers, salads, entrees, homestyle sides, and milkshakes. They even have a gluten-friendly menu. My favorite thing to order is their buttermilk crispy chicken, mashed potatoes, and steamed broccoli. Choose from buttermilk pancakes or a side salad, depending on whether you’re feeling naughty or nice.
Domino’s Pizza has been around since two brothers took over a small pizza restaurant called DomiNick’s in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in 1960. It has become one of the leading pizza restaurants, and you can find it in 25 U.S. states and in 90 international markets worldwide. Of course, Domino’s makes pizza, but they also have pasta, salads, chicken wings, sub sandwiches, breads, oven-baked dips, and desserts. Domino’s has perfected its crust into garlicky, buttery goodness. My perfect pizza experience at Domino’s involves a thin-crust pepperoni pizza and their stuffed cheesy bread with spinach and feta.
Burger King started out as Insta-Burger King in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1953. After it encountered some financial problems in 1954, the owner sold it, and the new owners shortened the name to Burger King. You can find Burger King in all but five states and territories in the U.S. and 100 countries. If you’ve ever driven past a Burger King, the smell of their famous flame-grilled burgers will tempt you. In addition to burgers, they sell chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, sides, desserts, and a breakfast menu. They’ve even had great success with their vegetarian Impossible burger. I love BK’s grilled burger flavor, so I tend to order a Jr. Whopper with fries and a drink. No other fast food place has a burger flavor even close to BK’s.