Special Report

Regional Restaurant Chains We Wish Were Nationwide

Christopher Capozziello / Getty Images News via Getty Images

Few types of restaurants are as quintessentially American as the fast food chain. Consistent, inexpensive, and reliably delicious, they’re always there for us when we need them, delivering comfort with every bite. But while the mega-chains like McDonald’s, Subway, and Taco Bell may rule the roost, many of the country’s most beloved chains can only be found in certain parts of the country.  

It’s hard to imagine it now, but every chain restaurant started out with just one location. For some, expansion and franchising was always a part of the business plan, but for others, it came organically over the decades – though some have deliberately limited their footprint to one portion of the country, or even a single state or city. (These are America’s fastest-expanding restaurant chains.) 

Many of these regional chains have built up strong followings and offer menus that would most likely do well in any corner of the country. To assemble a list of regional restaurant chains we wish were national, 24/7 Tempo reviewed lists and appraisals of a wide range of such chains from publications including The Daily Meal, Eat This Not That, Mashed, QSR Magazine, First We Feast, and Delish. (Information on the number of units and regions served came from the chains’ own websites whenever possible, and were otherwise drawn from a variety of business sites. The number of units is approximate. Chains with locations in more than 10 states were omitted.)

Click here to see regional restaurant chains we wish were nationwide

Some of the regional chains we’d like to have just around the corner are small, with as few as six locations. Others are comparatively massive, numbering as many as 475 units over numerous states. Some have reputations that have spread nationwide even if the chains themselves have not – perhaps most notably the California-born In-N-Out, so closely associated with the Golden State that many arriving tourists make a pit stop there before checking into their hotel. (Half a dozen of the places on this list, in fact, come from California. Click here to learn about more of the state’s food and drink icons.)

Bertucci’s Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta
> Headquarters: Northboro, MA
> Number of units (approximate): 52
> Region served: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia

Bertucci’s opened its first location in 1981 in the Davis Square neighborhood of Somerville, Massachusetts, and today they’re firing up their custom-made brick pizza ovens in nine states along the Eastern Seaboard. Those ovens, which reach temperatures of 675º F, are the centerpiece of each warm and welcoming restaurant, with a wide lineup of pizzas emerging from them along with roasted vegetables and dishes including lasagna, calzones, and wings. As for the pizza, the dough is made from scratch every morning, and guests can customize their own pie or choose from more than 10 signature offerings.

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Biscuitville
> Headquarters: Greensboro, NC
> Number of units (approximate): 62
> Region served: North Carolina, Virginia

If a place is going to be called Biscuitville, it better be turning out some great biscuits, and since 1966 Biscuitville has been doing just that. Their timeless recipe includes only locally-milled flour, shortening, and buttermilk, and they biscuits are made from scratch, by hand, in full view of guests, emerging hot from the oven every 15 minutes. The biscuits are sold as-is or sandwiching everything from country ham to fried chicken, steak, or pork chops. Bacon, egg, and cheese biscuits are especially popular, as are ones smothered in country gravy.

Braum’s Ice Cream & Dairy Store
> Headquarters: Tuttle, OK
> Number of units (approximate): 300
> Region served: Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas

Founded by Bill and Mary Braum in 1968, Braum’s stands out from the pack in a handful of ways: It’s almost completely vertically integrated, meaning that it owns its own feed mill, dairy herd, dairy processing plant, bakery, stores, and delivery trucks, as well as eight farms and ranches and a flagship dairy farm. Also, in order to guarantee freshness, they won’t open any locations outside of a 300-mile radius around their Tuttle dairy farm. Should you find yourself within that radius, however, you can drop in and sample their legendary ice cream and milkshakes, as well as hearty breakfast dishes, burgers, salads, and sandwiches.

Del’s Lemonade
> Headquarters: Cranston, RI
> Number of units (approximate): 29
> Region served: Rhode Island, Massachusetts

Del’s specializes in a beloved summertime treat called frozen lemonade, which is a type of slush made by spinning water, sugar, and lemon juice in an ice cream machine. A Rhode Island destination since 1948, today Del’s has nearly 30 locations in the region, serving classic frozen lemonade as well as flavors including watermelon, cherry, and peach-mango. If you can’t make it to Del’s, they sell mixes online that allow you to make their classic frozen lemonade at home.

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Din Tai Fung
> Headquarters: Taipei City, Taiwan
> Number of units (approximate): 13 (U.S.)
> Region served: California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington (and worldwide)

Din Tai Fung is a beloved Taiwanese chain that specializes in Chinese Huaiyang dishes, and it’s most famous for its wide array of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, wontons, and xiao long bao (soup dumplings). Sweet & sour baby back ribs and Wagyu black pepper tenderloin are also popular dishes. The majority of their Stateside locations are in California and Washington State, with additional locations in Las Vegas and Tigard, Oregon.

Doe’s Eat Place
> Headquarters: Greenville, MS
> Number of units (approximate): 12
> Region served: Arkansas, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas

There’s no other restaurant quite like the original Doe’s Eat Place, which was opened by Dominick “Doe” Signa and his wife Mamie on a quiet corner of Greenville, Mississippi, back in 1941. Dining there is truly an experience: It’s a low-slung, shabby building, and guests enter through the kitchen and dig into absolutely massive steaks doused in jus (cut to nearly two inches thick), along with Doe’s signature tamales. A handful of new locations have opened, but a visit to the original, which was dubbed a James Beard America’s Classic and is on the National Register of Historic Places, should be on every steak-lover’s bucket list.

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Source: Wolterk / Getty Images

El Pollo Loco
> Headquarters: Costa Mesa, CA
> Number of units (approximate): 475
> Region served: Arizona, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Texas, Utah

Founded by Juan Francisco Ochoa in Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1974 and expanded into the U.S. in 1980, El Pollo Loco specializes in Mexican-style grilled chicken. Their chicken is famously marinated in citrus and fire-grilled, and it’s served alongside rice & beans as well as in salads, bowls, tostadas, tacos, and burritos. The chicken is obviously the centerpiece of the menu, but popular sides include corn, macaroni & cheese, and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Source: library_of_congress / Flickr

Fosters Freeze
> Headquarters: Pomona, CA
> Number of units (approximate): 66
> Region served: California

Fosters Freeze is a beloved California ice cream chain, founded by George Foster in Inglewood, California, in 1946. It’s famous for its soft-serve ice milk and milkshakes, and also serves a lineup of fast food staples like burgers, fried chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, corn dogs, and tacos. But it’s the soft serve that put it on the map, which is sold by the cone, in sundaes, in parfaits with berries and hot fudge, and blended with add-ins including Reese’s and chocolate chip cookie dough.

Source: Christopher Capozziello / Getty Images News via Getty Images

Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana
> Headquarters: New Haven, CT
> Number of units (approximate): 12
> Region served: Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island

The city of New Haven can stake a claim as America’s best city for pizza (yes, even more so than New York), and while that’s certainly open to debate, Frank Pepe’s pizzas blow most of the competition out of the water. Founded by Pepe way back in 1925, the place serves pizzas that are perfect examples of the New Haven style, which is slightly oblong, with a crisp, chewy crust, slightly charred from being baked in a coal-fired oven, which burns hot and dry. A trip to the original is a pilgrimage all pizza lovers should make, but thankfully for us, they’ve built exact replicas of their famous coal oven at six additional Connecticut locations, three in Massachusetts, one in Rhode Island, and one in (gasp!) New York State.

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Golden Krust
> Headquarters: The Bronx, NY
> Number of units (approximate): 120
> Region served: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas

In New York City, Jamaican food is synonymous with Golden Krust, which was founded by Mavis and Ephraim Hawthorne in The Bronx in 1989 and today has locations throughout the city as well as many states along the East Coast as well as Texas. Jamaican staples including jerk chicken, braised oxtail, curried goat, and escovitch fish are all represented on the menu, but Golden Krist is best known for its empanada-like Jamaican patties, in varieties including beef, chicken, jerk chicken, shrimp, spinach, and vegetable. As it was founded as a bakery, there are also lots of traditional Jamaican baked goods on offer, including coco bread, rock cakes, and hard dough bread, a family recipe since 1949.

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News via Getty Images

In-N-Out
> Headquarters: Irvine, CA
> Number of units (approximate): 358
> Region served: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah

California-based In-N-Out is most likely the chain that first came to mind when you saw the headline. So many people want the burger chain, which was established in 1948 and today has locations throughout California and (to a lesser extent) the Southwest, to expand nationwide that it’s become a bit of a running joke. Famous for its small menu of expertly-made burgers, fries, and shakes as well as its Not So Secret Menu of items like the “Animal-Style” burger with extra spread and grilled onions, In-N-Out doesn’t freeze, pre-package, or microwave any of its food. And that’s the reason why it won’t expand to the rest of the country: All locations have to be within a day’s drive of their distribution centers.

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Source: Courtesy of JCI Grill via Facebook

James Coney Island
> Headquarters: Houston
> Number of units (approximate): 17
> Region served: Texas

Hot dogs were famously popularized at New York’s Coney Island, but in the hot dog world, a coney, or “Coney Island,” is its own unique style, created by Greek immigrants and exported to states including Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas in the early 20th century. A classic coney is topped with a savory meat sauce and usually mustard and chopped onions, and that’s the star attraction at James Coney Island, which was founded in 1923 by Greek immigrant brothers James and Tom Papadakis as one of Houston’s first major hot dog vendors. Today there are 17 Houston-area locations, and they serve classic coneys, chili, tamales, as well as a wide variety of hot dogs, burgers, and ice cream.

Source: Courtesy of Legal Sea Foods

Legal Sea Foods
> Headquarters: Boston
> Number of units (approximate): 23
> Region served: Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island

Few chains, and restaurants in general, are more closely associated with the city of Boston than Legal Sea Foods, which was founded there in 1950. Since then, it’s expanded to more than 30 restaurants in five states and Washington, DC, though the vast majority are in the Greater Boston area. As the name implies, seafood is the specialty, with a heavy emphasis on traditional New England fare like lobster, clam chowder, baked scrod and haddock, fish & chips, and crab cakes.

Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
> Headquarters: Northbrook, IL
> Number of units (approximate): 65
> Region served: Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin

Just like Legal Sea Foods is synonymous with Boston and Frank Pepe is synonymous with New Haven, Lou Malnati is a culinary icon of Chicago. Founded in 1971 by Lou Malnati, who along with his father Rudy helped popularize deep dish pizza at the original Pizzeria Uno, Malnati’s has nearly 60 Chicagoland locations, with a handful further afield in Arizona, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Their deep-dish is as classic as it gets: buttery dough is spread out inside a circular pan, topped with thick-sliced mozzarella, chunky tomato sauce, and a wide variety of toppings, and baked until golden brown and bubbly.

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Maid-Rite
> Headquarters: Urbandale, IA
> Number of units (approximate): 31
> Region served: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio

Maid-Rite is renowned as the home of the loose meat sandwich, also called the tavern sandwich, a true Midwest regional specialty. Think of it as a sloppy joe without the sauce: ground beef is seasoned and served on a soft, warm bun, topped with your choice of cheese, mustard, pickles, and onions. Maid-Rite has been serving them since 1926, and it’s since expanded from its native Iowa to surrounding states. Along with loose meat sandwiches, they also serve regional classics including pork tenderloin sandwiches as well as salads, wraps, and milkshakes.

Source: Courtesy of pickupstix.com

Pick Up Stix
> Headquarters: Laguna Hills, CA
> Number of units (approximate): 70
> Region served: Southern California

Back in 1989, a Chinese immigrant named Charlie Zhang opened a restaurant in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, that offered a menu of wok’d-to-order Chinese dishes adapted to the American palate by decreasing the oil and increasing the cooking wine, vinegar, and soy sauce. It proved to be a success, and today Pick Up Stix is a popular fast-casual chain with 70 locations, the majority in Southern California. The signature dish is House Special Chicken, made with white wine, garlic, and soy sauce; other favorites include cream cheese wontons, Orange Peel Chicken, Mongolian Beef, Firecracker Chicken, and Beef and Broccoli.

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Source: Courtesy of Runza Restaurants

Runza
> Headquarters: Lincoln, NE
> Number of units (approximate): 86
> Region served: Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska

If you’re from Nebraska, you definitely know what a runza is. If you’re not from the region? Then you’ve been missing out. Originally brought to the region by German immigrants, the runza, also called a bierock, is a long yeast-raised bread pocket traditionally filled with a mixture of ground beef, cabbage, and onions. At the chain of the same name, founded in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1949 by Sally Everett and her brother, Alex Brening, traditional runzas are joined by Southwest-style, BBQ bacon, and cheeseburger runzas. They also sell burgers, salads, and chicken sandwiches, but at Runza, it’s all about the runza.

Source: Courtesy of Schoop's Hamburgers - Michigan City, Indiana via Facebook

Schoop’s Hamburgers
> Headquarters: Highland, IN
> Number of units (approximate): 17
> Region served: Illinois, Indiana

A classic old-school burger chain if ever there was one, Schoop’s was founded in Hammond, Indiana, in 1948 and today has 17 locations in northwestern Indiana and the southern Chicago suburbs. The burgers here are made with beef ground fresh daily, but what sets them apart is the way they’re cooked: The beef patties are smashed down on the griddle as they sear, resulting in a super-crusty burger with edges that hang out over the soft bun. It’s a style that’s all the rage these days, but Schoop’s has been doing it right for more than 70 years.

Source: Photo by Jeffrey K. via Yelp

Skyline Chili
> Headquarters: Fairfield, OH
> Number of units (approximate): 160
> Region served: Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio

Chili is a way of life in Cincinnati, and few chili parlors are as synonymous with Cincy as Skyline, founded there by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides in 1949. Cincinnati-style chili (which is more a cinnamon-scent meat sauce than a Texas-style “bowl of red”) is traditionally served atop hot dogs, or, more famously, on a big style of spaghetti. Order it “three-way” and it’ll come with a heap of shredded cheese; “four-way” adds beans of onions; “five-way” adds both. Cincinnati is home to countless chili parlors, but with 160 area locations, Skyline is perhaps the best-known.

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Taco Cabana
> Headquarters: San Antonio
> Number of units (approximate): 166
> Region served: New Mexico, Texas

Founded by Felix Stehling as a simple taco stand in San Antonio in 1978, Taco Cabana has since become a beloved fast casual Mexican chain with locations throughout New Mexico and Texas. Known for its recognizable pink neon sign and menu items including fajitas and tortillas that are scratch-made daily in open kitchens, Taco Cabana has a far-reaching menu of Mexican and Mexican-American classics like tacos, nachos, quesadillas, flautas, and breakfast tacos.

Source: Craig Barritt / Getty Images Entertainment via Getty Images

Tacombi
> Headquarters: New York City
> Number of units (approximate): 13
> Region served: Florida, New York City, Washington D.C.

What started as a taco bus in Playa Del Carmen in 2006 morphed into a small taquería in Downtown New York in 2010, and today it’s a popular Mexican fast-casual chain with 13 East Coast locations and a recent large investment from restaurateur Danny Meyer, who plans to position it as a Chipotle competitor. Founded by Dario Wolos, Tacombi has a relaxed, beachy vibe, and the menu emphasizes classic Mexican street tacos with fillings including al pastor, carne asada, black bean & sweet potato, and Baja-style crispy fish. They also make their own tortillas and chips under the brand name Vista Hermosa, which are available at more than 800 retail stores.

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The Varsity
> Headquarters: Atlanta
> Number of units (approximate): 6
> Region served: Georgia

Founded in Downtown Atlanta in 1928, The Varsity is today an Atlanta landmark with four area locations and two at the city’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Billed as The World’s Largest Drive-in Restaurant and still owned by the founding Gordy family, The Varsity sells fast food classics like burgers, hot dogs, fries and onion rings, chicken nuggets, shakes (try the famous Frosted Orange), and fried pies. Prices remain shockingly low; at the flagship, a hot dog costs $1.91 and a cheeseburger costs $2.79.

Ward’s
> Headquarters: Hattiesburg, MS
> Number of units (approximate): 38
> Region served: Mississippi

Ward’s is a quintessential fast food chain in Mississippi, with nearly 40 locations around the state. Just about every Mississippian recognizes the terms “Big One” and “Little One” as the chain’s signature burgers, dressed up with homemade chili and their signature sauce. Founded by Richard and Ed Ward in 1978, it has since become renowned for its chili and homemade root beer along with fried chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, and milkshakes. It’s a classic, homespun fast food chain.

Source: Photo by Winchell's Donuts via Yelp

Winchell’s Donuts
> Headquarters: Industry, CA
> Number of units (approximate): 170
> Region served: California, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma

“Home of the Warm ‘n Fresh Donut” since its founding by Verne Winchell in Temple City, California, in 1948, Winchell’s is today the West Coast’s largest doughnut chain (or so it claims), famously serving a 14-doughnut dozen at its 170-plus locations in California, Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas, as well as Guam and Spain. Many locations are open around the clock, and customers can stock up on a huge variety of donuts, cinnamon rolls, muffins, bagels, croissants, and sandwiches, with specially blended coffee made from the highest grade of dark roasted Arabica beans to drink.

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Source: Courtesy of Zippy's

Zippy’s
> Headquarters: Honolulu
> Number of units (approximate): 24
> Region served: Hawaii

Zippy’s was founded in Honolulu by brothers Francis and Charles Higa in 1966, and it’s since become a Hawaii institution, with 24 locations on Oahu, Maui, and the BigIsland, with one coming soon to Las Vegas. Its menu is chock-full of comfort food classics, including their signature chili, of which they reportedly sell 100 tons a month. Along with burgers, classic breakfast fare, and doughnuts, they also offer international-inspired items like sushi, Korean fried chicken, and spaghetti and meat sauce, along with plenty of Hawaiian specialties like loco moco, saimin, and gut-busting plate lunches.

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