Best Fast Food Cafe – The Best Fast Food Cafes, Ranked

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

Not so long ago, if you wanted a drink at a fast food restaurant, you would order a soda fountain or water. Or you asked for a cup of water and then poured a soda fountain when no one was looking. But since fast-food chains started serving full breakfast menus — including Wendy’s, starting March 2 — serving coffee is a top priority. After all, can you even enjoy a bacon, egg and cheese if you don’t have hot coffee to go with them? Can you? (The answer is no.)

That’s why we’ve stopped at every major fast food chain in America to sample its freshly brewed coffee, and then ranked them. We ordered a hot black coffee from each chain to experience the full range of flavors in each brew and used this practice Coffee Taster Flavor Wheel to help us describe each cup of coffee. This is the best fast food cafe in America.

EDITOR’S NOTE: We excluded coffee-focused chains like Dunkin’ and Starbucks, convenience stores like 7-Eleven and Subway, since it serves coffee from Keurig machines. We limit this to chains that use traditional brewing methods.

12. Jollibee

Once you’ve taken a few sips of that moldy, vegetative cup, it might be worth considering drinking the sauce instead. The sauce is addictive. It’s not even a joke.

11. Burger In-N-Out

I love In-N-Out as a burger restaurant, but it’s not anywhere I would go for a cup of coffee. Even the worst fast food cafes taste like something. Of course, that something can often only be marginally better than the water that collects in the bottom of a dumpster. But In-N-Out’s cafe is disconcerting in another way. It smells like coffee, but the second a drop hits your mouth, all flavor vanishes into nothingness. The chain prides itself on high-quality ingredients, so I know it’s not just about heating water and dropping food coloring in it. But that’s what it tastes like.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

10. Tacos Bell

There are so many distinct rubber notes in this mug that my mouth sounds like a tire factory. The taste of cardboard is also undeniable. I want to drink a whole gallon of delicious nacho cheese from Taco Bell to get those flavors out of my mouth. If you’re looking for a hot drink option at TB, you can also pour yourself an ice-cold Mountain Dew and put it in the microwave.

9. Burger King

If you want the feeling of smoking a pipe tobacco without ever needing to light up an actual pipe filled with tobacco, then this is the fast food cafe for you. There’s an intense amount of smoke and tobacco flavor in every sip, and it takes cream in the worst possible way to cover it. Luckily, you’re not required by Thrillist taste-testing laws to order it black, so pour in at least two small cups of cream and three packets of sugar before you indulge.

Dan Gentile/Thrillist

8. Wendy’s

This coffee is mostly burnt. There are also very fleshy notes. If you think “meaty” is not a word that can be used to describe coffee, I again draw your attention to the wheel of flavors. Wendy’s will be serving breakfast nationwide next month, and hopefully they’ll consider changing the coffee blend to better complement some very good cookies.

7. Carl’s Jr.

Many years ago I went on a press trip to the Scottish distillery Lagavulin, located on the Scottish island of Islay. The scenery was breathtaking and I got to drink the best scotch of my life. One of the drams I sampled was from a now defunct distillery that was so smoky and intense that I couldn’t drink much more than a few sips. Carl’s Jr. coffee is the Scotch of fast food coffee.

6. White Castle

Sometimes coffee smells better than it tastes, and White Castle’s java falls squarely into that camp. That said, there are hints of grain, smoke and wood that are pleasant enough, and a finish that’s also quite smooth. Sure, it’s a shame that it smells fantastic and doesn’t quite deliver, but it’s also good enough to have you wondering, Am I really drinking this in a white castle?

Courtesy of Jack in the Box

I’m going be honest, my expectations for finding a good cup of coffee here were low. What are the odds that the same chain that serves a Sriracha Curly Fry Burger Munchie Meal (we can’t invent this stuff) pay attention to the quality of the coffee? But it is! Jack in the Box uses 100% Arabica beans, which is a cut above the Robusta variety used in supermarket instant coffee. (In fairness, 100% Arabica beans are the norm in fast food.) Now for the bad news: there are unavoidable green/vegetative notes. And the smoky, burnt flavors on the finish were hard to ignore, but I was pleasantly surprised by its roasted and grainy notes. Would I associate it with an over-the-top Loaded breakfast sandwichh? Yes. Yes I would like.

Courtesy of Sonic

america Favorite Drive-In sells Green Mountain Coffee. Yeah, that same brand you know from the Keurig machine in your company’s break room. So you won’t be surprised to learn that it tastes quite similar to his already familiar coffee. Here’s the difference: Sonic actually brews it. It’s not from a Keurig, and to me it tastes slightly fresher than my preconceived notions of Green Mountain. Cocoa and wood are the two main flavors here, and while it’s not something I’ll ever spit out, there are other fast food places I prefer to order coffee from.

Courtesy of McDonald’s

I am always charmed by the McCafé branding on the coffee cups at Mickey D’s. I associate McDonald’s with the unhealthy amount of Coke fountain + soft serve ice cream drinks I used to snack on after high school, so now seeing the chain commit to using a very French accent brand whimsical on his coffee cups is cute. But you can’t fool me, McDonald’s! I remember when you were just a humble business selling “over 95 billion burgers!”. The coffee is worthy of this brand of accent, as it has loads of cocoa notes, not an overpowering burnt flavor (although there are some cardboard notes, unfortunately). The finish isn’t too bitter either. Obviously with a splash of cream and a few packets of sugar, this is a great coffee option to pair with a McMuffin or Donut Sticks.

Courtesy of Chick-fil-A

the The venerable Georgia-based chain oddly doesn’t encourage its customers to order hot coffee. It was found nowhere on the menu when I stopped at a Denver area location on a recent weekend. Instead, the chain offers its original and vanilla cold brew, both of which are quite good. And that’s a shame, because the hot coffee is also delicious.

It earns points for brewing sustainably sourced specialty beans from Prosper Farmers. The chicken-obsessed restaurant claims each cup has “creamy notes of caramel and cocoa with a slight citrus finish,” which isn’t quite what I tasted. That said, I had lots of nutty and cocoa notes up front, and unlike many other coffees I’ve tasted, it doesn’t end too bitter (although I disagree with the affirmation of a citrus finish). All in all, this is a rich, fine cup of coffee worthy of being served in a cafe, let alone a chicken fast food chain.

Courtesy of Culver’s

I have a theory about Culver’s: Everyone who eats there is over 85 or still in kindergarten. Based on my multiple visits to the chain, I don’t think there’s a more popular place for people who lived through the Great Depression to treat their grandkids to burgers and ice cream. I’m neither very old nor very young, but I understand why this is a popular gathering place. Culver’s is extremely delicious. Even his coffee. Especially his coffee.

After a super nice Culver’s employee dropped the coffee off at my table (fast food table service? Whoa!), my eyes were immediately drawn to the writing on the coffee mug. Here are the pertinent facts: This is Blue Spoon Blend java (named after the name slightly more upscale dining concept Culver’s operates in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin), and it is roasted by Sheboygan’s Torke Cafe. java is Rainforest Alliance Certified and incorporates beans from a highland region of the Pacific Islands and Latin America.

The cup invites me to taste smoke, cocoa, berries and fruits. Although I get a little berry and a few burnt notes common to every cup of fast food coffee on planet earth, the overall freshness is what’s immediately noticeable. That may be because this coffee is roasted in smaller batches than any coffee from a fast-food brand with a larger restaurant footprint. Regardless, it’s the best $1.99 cup of coffee in fast food. It’s a full-bodied, smooth and delicious cup that features smoky and tobacco notes up front and a satisfying and enjoyable finish.

This is by far the best cup of fast food coffee in America.

Presentation Fasties, Thrillist’s first fast food awards. Think glitzy TV and movie show, but to honor the best things that came out of fast food restaurants in 2019. We rolled out the ketchup carpet for the biggest names in fast food and handed out burger trophies gold in 16 categories. Watch the full awards ceremony and see the winners here.
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Lee Breslouer is a Colorado-based writer and editor. follow him @LeeBreslouer.

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