By Megan Leonhardt
April 5, 2018

Fast food chains keep America running. Whether loading up on snacks during a on road trips or grabbing a quick lunch, most of us still have go-to burger and fried chicken joints that keep us coming back for more.

But even a cheap lunch should be good enough to deserve your money. So which are the best fast food chains for your money? I set out to evaluate the top chains and determine whether, say, the iconic Golden Arches could stand up to newer chains like Chick-fil-A when it comes to value.

To start, I identified the pool of contenders: I wanted chains with over 300 locations nationwide that serve cheap eats without the hassle of a sit-down experience. Among those, I asked my MONEY colleagues to rate their recent dining experiences—and then ranked them by factoring in both the average cost of a combo meal and the level of customer experience.

Without further ado, here are the results: the top 25 fast-food chains for your money. And, as always, I’m happy to take on the haters. Tweet me directly at @megan_leonhardt.


In-N-Out Burger fast food restaurant in Westwood, California, January 13, 2017.
Shutterstock

1. In-N-Out Burger

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.93
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 4.67

Founded in 1948, In-N-Out Burger has since become a California institution with an almost fanatic following worldwide. MONEY staffers proved no less immune, scoring this chain the highest of all those rated.


A Dairy Queen employee displays an ice cream cone for a photograph at a DQ Grill & Chill restaurant ahead of its grand opening in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.
Michael Nagle—Bloomberg via Getty Images

2. Dairy Queen

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.50
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.67

Known for its sweet treats, Dairy Queen has come a long way from its origins in Illinois in 1940. Today, the chain serves up lunch and dinner alongside the famous soft-serve ice cream.


Zaxby's restaurant interior
Jeramey Lende—Alamy

3. Zaxby’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.93
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 4.25

A Georgia-based fried chicken chain that opened in the 1990s, Zaxby’s is now available in over a dozen states. The chain is known for plates that come with “chicken fingerz,” crinkle fries, a slice of Texas toast, cole slaw, Zax sauce for dipping, and a drink.


Jason E. Ryman—A&W

4. A&W

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.80
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.33

This chain does more than root beer (although each location does have the famed A&W beverage on draft) and root beer floats. Round that out with a cheeseburger and a side of cheese curds.


A Quarter Pounder hamburger is served at a McDonald's restaurant on March 30, 2017 in Effingham, Illinois.
Scott Olson—Getty Images

5. McDonald’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.86
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.29

While McDonald’s has tried to move toward more sophisticated offerings in recent years (McCafe, healthy options, etc.), it’s also got all the tried and true menu staples, like its addictive fries and beloved breakfast items.


A carhop walks through the parking lot after delivering food to a customer at a Sonic Corp. drive-in fast food restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 25, 2017.
Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg/Getty Images

6. Sonic Drive-In

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.17
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.89

An all-American drive-in fast-food chain, Sonic is perhaps best remembered as the place where your food is delivered on roller skates—and you can eat it in your car. My personal recommendation: the cherry limeade and tater tots, a “meal” fit for kings.


Doughnuts and a beverage cup are seen on a tray as customers wait to be served at a sales counter in this arranged photograph taken inside a Dunkin' Donuts store, operated by Dunkin' Brands Group Inc., in Berlin, Germany, on Aug. 19, 2013.
Krisztian Bocsi—Bloomberg via Getty Images

7. Dunkin’ Donuts

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.22
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.07

Walk into any Dunkin’ Donuts and the smell of sugar and coffee rise to greet you. This chain does all-day breakfast, of course, yet also has sandwiches and other items for those looking for a quick bite.


Bojangles' Famous Chick 'n Biscuits signage is seen on a cup displayed with menu items arranged for a photograph at a fast food restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, U.S., on Friday, May 8, 2015.
Luke Sharrett—Bloomberg via Getty Images

8. Bojangles’ Famous Chicken ‘n Biscuits

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.55
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.00

Bojangles’ was not originally on my radar. But this North Carolina-based chain is prominent in the Southeast, serving up fried chicken, biscuits and a whole lot of Cajun seasoning.


Chick-fil-a store with people in line waiting to buy food, Fairfax, Virginia, Feburary 18, 2017.
Andriy Blokhin—Shutterstock

9. Chick-fil-A

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.18
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.83

If you’re surprised that Chick-fil-A barely cracked the top 10, you’re not alone. It turns out the MONEY staff didn’t give this chain’s fried chicken high enough ratings to outweigh its higher prices.


Some chips and chicken fried of a KFC restaurant in Milan are displayed during the opening of a new Kentucky Fried Chicken branch on July 28, 2016 in Milan, Italy.
Pier Marco Tacca—Getty Images

10. KFC

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.03
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.78

The grand dame of fried chicken fast-food chains, Kentucky Fried Chicken failed to pull in high scores from the MONEY staff. Apparently, there are better options out there, although perhaps not as widespread; it’s part of Yum! Brands, one of the biggest fast-food chains in the world.


People walk past Subway sandwich store in Chicago, June 26, 2013.
Getty Images

11. Subway

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.00
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.57

Having worked at a Subway as my first job, I can tell you that you can probably make better sandwiches at home. But Subway landed in the middle of the pack for its mix of convenience and modest pricing.


Doritos Locos tacos are arranged for a photograph at a Taco Bell restaurant, a unit of Yum! Brands Inc., in Redondo Beach, California, on Oct. 4, 2013.
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg via Getty Images

12. Taco Bell

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.08
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.92

We have this Tex-Mex chain to thank for the “fourth meal” concept, since Taco Bell’s tacos and practically gallon-sized Mountain Dew options are the perfect late-night snack.


A customer leaves a Wendy's restaurant in Los Angeles.
Reed Saxon—AP/REX/Shutterstock

13. Wendy’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.28
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.57

I personally think it’s a tragedy that Ohio-based Wendy’s didn’t place higher in our rankings. The chain’s chocolate frosty dessert alone makes it worthy of the top five, I think—not to mention it’s one of the only chains serving up baked potatoes. You’ll always be first in my heart, Wendy’s.


A plate of Chinese food served at the American fast food chain, Panda Express.
Alamy

14. Panda Express

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.17
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.86

Typically found in food courts around the country, this Chinese food chain does have some free-standing locations as well. Panda Express pretty much single-handedly introduced America to Orange Chicken and Fried Rice.


Newly remodeled Long John Silver's seafood restaurant, Lexington, Kentucky, December 30, 2017.
TennesseePhotographer—Getty Images

15. Long John Silver’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $5.55
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 1.50

This chain earned the dubious honor of the second-worst ranking among MONEY staff. Apparently we’re not fans of fried fish—or Long John Silver’s hush puppies.


Popeye's fried chicken photographed in Washington, DC, March 25, 2015.
Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post—The Washington Post/Getty Images

16. Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.25
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.33

This New Orleans export seems ubiquitous these days, with over 2,600 locations across 40 states. If you’re not a fan of fried chicken (Popeyes’ staple menu item), go for sides like red beans and rice or macaroni and cheese.


First White Castle to open in WeFirst White Castle restaurant in Western U.S. opens in Las Vegas inside Casino Royale on January 27, 2015, nearly a hundred years in coming for cultist iconic Ohio company that opened in 1921.
Splash New—Alamy

17. White Castle

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.28
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.00

Credited as the first-fast food chain—it was launched in Wichita, Kan., in 1919—White Castle is still serving up its iconic small square burgers (sometimes called sliders) with onions and a pickle.


A Hardee's fast food restaurant in Milford, Delaware, December 25, 2012.
Kris Tripplaar—SIPA/Newscom

18. Hardee’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.90
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.60

Found primarily in the South and the Midwest, Hardee’s specializes in charbroiled burgers, yet also has some Tex-Mex options like burritos and tacos.


Local Rally's Drive Thru fast food restaurant, Kokomo, March 2018.
Jonathan Weiss—Shutterstock

19. Rally’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $6.77
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.50

I grew up with the chain called Rally’s, although some parts of the country recognize it as Checkers. No matter what you call it, give this burger joint credit for popularizing the concept of a two-lane drive-through system.


A Whopper from the fast food chain Burger King sits on a packaging paper in Kaufbeuren, Germany, 05 May 2014.
Karl-Josef Hildenbrand—picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

20. Burger King

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.39
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.14

Famed for its Whopper burger, Burger King is actually one of the largest chains on the planet, operating in more than 100 countries.


The Meat Mountain, Arby's, Tampa, Florida, August 29, 2014. It costs $10.00 and has pepper bacon, roast beef, cheddar cheese, angus beef, brisket, corned beef, swiss cheese, ham, turkey and a chicken tender. And supposedly only 1,275 calories.
James Borchuck/Tampa Bay Times—ZumaPress.com/Newscom

21. Arby’s

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.72
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 3.00

I don’t think Arby’s ever recovered from the myth that its roast beef was created from liquid meat. True or not, any chain that serves up curly fries should rank higher, IMHO.


El Pollo Loco, Los Angeles, California, March 1, 2017.
Grzegorz Czapski—Shutterstock

22. El Pollo Loco

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.11
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.00

Unlike many of the chicken places on this list, El Pollo Loco is known not for fried offerings but for its citrus-marinated, fire-grilled chicken. The Mexican food chain started in California and mostly serves the Western U.S.


Throngs of people gather at Raising Cane's for Chicken Fingers during their grand opening Tuesday at 3341 Boca Chica Boulevard.
The Brownsville Herald—AP

23. Raising Cane’s Chicken Fingers

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.33
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.50

Another Louisiana-based chain, Raising Cane’s is known for its chicken tenders, tangy dipping sauce, and the fresh-squeezed lemonade.


A Man walking to the entrance of church's chicken in Vancouver, Canada.
Rosalie Anareta—Alamy

24. Church’s Chicken

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $8.51
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 2.50

Church’s Chicken serves up not just fried chicken, but also Southern classics like chicken fried steak and honey butter biscuits.


A Carl's Jr. restaurant in Grapevine California along Interstate 5 at the foot of the Tejon Pass.
Alamy

25. Carl’s Jr.

  • Average cost of a combo meal: $7.66
  • Average MONEY staff rating: 1.00

Don’t blame this one on the obnoxious Super Bowl ads: Carl’s Jr. simply earned the absolute lowest scores from MONEY staffers.


How We Did It

MONEY evaluated 25 of the biggest fast food chains in the U.S.—brands that had over 300 locations nationwide and offered combo meals. Using sample menus on Ownthemeal.com, MONEY calculated the average cost of a combo meal (defined as entree, side dish and drink). Breakfast meals were included at establishments that serve all-day breakfast. Then staffers rated each restaurant based upon their recent dining on overall experience, quality of the food, service, and perceived value.

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