When Steve Ells opened the first Chipotle in Denver in 1993, the plan wasn't to get rich selling out to McDonald's or to revolutionize fast food in America.
Ells is a classically trained chef educated at the Culinary Institute of America, and he wanted the cash from his high-quality, fast-service burrito and taco restaurant to fund a future fine dining establishment. But it wasn't long before Chipotle exploded, and the founder's plans changed. He might not have intended to start the fast food revolution, but two decades later, it's here.
Now, celebrity chefs all over the country – from Danny Meyer to Bobby Flay to David Chang – have opened replicable "fast-casual" restaurant concepts to help support their fine dining restaurants.
As Chang wrote in a recent piece for GQ, these fine dining eateries run on impossibly thin margins. And Chang has joined the company of celebrity chefs around the country who are using their names to drive business at new low-cost ventures.
Whether they're higher quality alternatives to traditional fast foods – like burgers and fried chicken – or restaurants focusing on more healthful meals, these chef-driven, fast casual spots often focus on freshly made food made with local, sustainable ingredients.
While chains like Meyer's Shake Shack have already expanded beyond U.S. borders, there are still quite a few local spots trying to reboot fast food in their own communities. Here are 10 of the best restaurants around the U.S. trying to change us from a Fast Food Nation into a Fast Casual Nation.
New York: Fuku
What Shake Shack is to McDonald's, Fuku is to Chick-fil-A – or at least it's trying to be. The thin menu at Chang's standing-room-only restaurant is built around the fried chicken sandwich. The crispy, juicy chicken is marinated in pureed habanero peppers before getting battered, fried, dressed with a pickle and sandwiched inside the Fuku-buttered bun.
And no, you can't order a non-spicy version, so don't ask. Sandwiches are $8 to $9, and sides like salad, slaw and fries start at $3. Oh, and one more bonus to the new fast food? There's a liquor license.
In addition to the original East Village location, the Momofuku chef has already opened other New York locations at Madison Square Garden and Citi Field, as well as a Midtown location of Fuku+, which has an extended menu (and seats).
Chef Rick Bayless – arguably the king of Mexican food north of the border – opened his first XOCO right next door to his more upscale establishments, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. At Xoco, Bayless dishes out freshly made Mexican street food like tortas, caldos (soups) and Mexican hot chocolate made from cacao beans roasted in house.
Bayless even uses some ingredients from Chicago's sustainable Green City Market to stuff his tortas, cooked in Xoco's wood-burning oven or griddle press. Daily specials and seasonal items accompany year-round specialties like the Cochinita Pibil torta – suckling pig with achiote, black beans, pickled onion and habanero.
Sandwiches go for as little as $9, while soups start at $10.50 and breakfast can be had for less than $5. Margaritas and craft cervezas round out the menu at both the River North and Wicker Park locations.
Washington DC: Beefsteak
World-renowned chef José Andrés is ambitiously doing what few have done before him: a quick-service restaurant that puts vegetables first. But make no mistakes; this is no salad joint. It's what Beefsteak refers to as "vegetables, unleashed."
Beefsteak’s build-your-own approach allows customers to select a base including bulgur, quinoa, rice or leafy greens, as well as vegetables ranging from things like yellow squash to seaweed salad to kimchi, and sauces like garlic yogurt and spicy tomato. Meat options include chicken and salt-cured salmon.
When possible, the James Beard Award-winning chef sources from local farmers and menu items rotate seasonally. Andrés is unleashing vegetables at four locations in the DC area and one at Philadelphia's UPenn campus.
San Diego: The Crack Shack
The team behind The Crack Shack didn't want to answer which came first, so they decided to focus on the chicken and the egg. Chefs Michael Rosen and Richard Blais (of Top Chef fame) created this all-bird, all-day café in the same San Diego parking lot as their celebrated upscale endeavor, Juniper and Ivy.
And while The Crack Shack is trendy, it's decidedly not upscale. Bocce ball court? Check. Communal tables? Check. Giant chicken? Yep, there’s one of those too.
Sandwiches like the Señor Croque (crispy chicken, bacon, fried egg, cheddar, miso-maple butter on brioche) and Mexicali Blues (scrambled egg, chorizo, potato, basil burrata, smoked onion on a poppy-seed kaiser roll), and sides like deviled eggs, schmaltz fries and Mexican poutine are as addictive as the Little Italy restaurant’s name lets on. Meals start at $8.
St. Louis: Porano Pasta
Chef Gerard Craft has made a name for himself as St. Louis’ finest chef. After being nominated for six James Beard awards in seven years, Craft finally won the title of best chef in the Midwest in 2015. So how do you follow up such a successful year? You open up an upscale fast food restaurant, apparently.
The chef's new Porano Pasta provides guests with build-your-own bowls of pasta, as well as farro, rice and salad, which start at $7.95. Diners can choose from a dozen homemade sauces and dressings, as well as proteins like meatballs, slow-roasted pork and marinated chicken.
Orange County: Slapfish
There's something about fast seafood that seems a little, um, fishy. But chef Andrew Gruel wants to "make seafood sexy" (yes, that's Slapfish's actual tagline) by serving fresh fish and shellfish sourced from sustainable fisheries.
At its five California locations, as well as one in the Baltimore airport, this food-truck-turned-small-chain serves up items like a daily fish plate, ceviche and "clobster grilled cheese," all of which come in paper trays. Prices at this modern take on the fish shack range from $6.50 for fish tacos to $18.50 for the lobster roll.
Philadelphia: Federal Donuts
"How you do anything is how you do everything," or so the saying goes. And the team behind Federal Donuts seems to take that saying to heart, doing everything perfectly. Luckily for them, they only have to focus on doing three things: donuts, fried chicken and coffee.
Michael Solomonov, the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Zahav, serves up double-fried chicken at Federal Donuts' four Philly locations (plus an outpost at Citizens Bank Park). The chicken is either seasoned with za'atar, coconut curry or buttermilk ranch, or glazed with a choice of chili garlic or sweet soy garlic, and comes with a honey donut.
Los Angeles and Bay Area: LocoL
LocoL's menu reads like it was designed by a couple of bros living at the Sigma Chi House, not by a couple of superstar chefs. Yet, top-notch chefs are exactly who dreamed up LocoL, a fast service joint in the Watts neighborhood of L.A., which serves up $1-$6 menu items like "foldies," "crunchies," and "burgs" (more or less tacos, nuggets and various kinds of burgers), as well as breakfast options and bowls of noodles, chili and bulgur.
Chefs Roy Choi of famous LA food truck fleet Kogi and Daniel Patterson of SF's two Michelin-starred seafood restaurant, Coi, wanted to bring more healthful versions of traditional fast food options to neighborhoods they feel are underserved.
The duo also wanted to build community by hiring long-time locals and replacing glass windows with screens in an attempt to be inclusive. And they don't plan to stop in Watts: two locations are set to open in Oakland and SF soon.
Charleston: Chick's Fry House
Another James Beard winner, another fried chicken joint. Chef Robert Stehling made his mark on Charleston’s culinary scene by cooking up southern fare at Hominy Grill. Now he's back to with another take on classic Southern, right down to the red, white and blue decor.
One thing at Chick’s that's not classic is its focus on sustainability, using proteins that are 100% hormone- and antibiotic-free, with chicken that comes from an American Humane Association-certified farm, catfish that’s been naturally raised and pork that’s 100% Heritage. Guests can wash down baskets or sandwiches – which start at $8 – with local craft brews.
New York: Uma Temakeria
Fast food sushi sounds like a ticket to a restroom near you – unless that fast food sushi joint is headed up by a revered chef like Chris Jaeckle of All'onda, an upscale modern Venetian restaurant in the West Village.
Jaeckle took inspiration from Brazil when creating Uma Temakeria, which seeks to bring affordable sushi to the masses by emulating the beach-side temakerias of South America.
The Greenwich Village restaurant has become known for its sushi burritos (a mammoth roll of raw salmon and tuna, carrots, cucumbers and spicy mayo, wrapped in a sheet of nori).
Like many of its fast casual counterparts, Uma Temakeria also has a build-your-own component, offering diners the option to create hand rolls by choosing from various types of rice (or kale), as well as several proteins, sauces, veggies and toppings. Hand rolls go for $6 and burritos for $10.