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The term “fast-casual” has slowly made its way into our dining lexicon in recent times.
These ubiquitous restaurants, which have seemingly popped up everywhere over night, are a hybrid of fast food and casual dining concepts. In other words, more detail is given to food quality than it is at fast-food places but diners still order at a counter and the food is brought to them like in a regular restaurant. And interior design tends to be more remarkable than the utilitarian ambiance of the neighborhood burger joint. The fare at fast-casual establishments is surprisingly affordable, making these kinds of places popular in the current economy. But, in reality, fast-casual restaurants are really just gussied up fast-food places. Here’s a look at a few fast-casual restaurant chains that are excelling.

1) Chipotle Mexican Grill

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This fast-casual restaurant chain has seen major growth in recent years. Based in Denver, Chipotle Mexican Grill has more than 830 company-owned restaurants (as opposed to franchise-owned restaurants) in the U.S. and Canada. The restaurant specializes in barbacoa grilled meats (from the Mexican state of Hidalgo), assorted tacos, and Mission-style burritos–San Francisco-inspired bombs packed with everything but the kitchen sink. In an architectural sense, each Chipotle Mexican Grill has a different design, to work within the setting of each location. (Taco Bell can’t boast that.)

2) Five Guys

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President Barack Obama likes to eat at Five Guys. Does anything else need to be said? This burger chain, which started out in the Washington D.C. area, is considered to be fast casual, but at the end of the day, it’s still just a burger joint. To its credit, though, Five Guys makes a good burger (from fresh, never frozen ground beef), sided with fried Idaho spuds and creamy milkshakes. Five Guys recently expanded out West, and now the Virginia-based restaurant chain, many of which are franchises, has more than 300 locations in the U.S. Hail to the burger!

3) Panera Bread

Artisanal bread (think rustic bread) is popular stuff. Most cities have lots of places to pick up a crusty loaf of bread, so it was only a matter of time before someone opened a chain of artisanal bakeries/cafes. This is where Panera Bread enters the picture. This Missouri-based fast-casual concept has more than 1000 stores nationwide, and more are opening all the time. Panera Bread specializes in panini sandwiches, deli-style sandwiches, and bagel sandwiches–all made on freshly baked bread. The place also has entrée salads and sweet pastries.

4) Boston Market

This rotisserie restaurant chain has been around for a while, yet it appears to be enjoying a resurgence of popularity in recent years. Boston Market dishes up home-style cooking. Expect to find a large variety of meats, like rotisserie chicken and turkey, beef brisket, and meatloaf. Diners also can get real comfortable with a chicken potpie. A large list of side dishes rounds out the menu, including mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, and sweet potato casserole, to name a few. You’ll need to take a nap after eating at this place, just like Thanksgiving.

5) Qdoba Mexican Grill

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Founded in 1995, Qdoba Mexican Grill is yet another Colorado-based fast-casual chain that specializes in mission-style burritos. This franchise chain calls itself an “artisanal Mexican kitchen,” meaning the salsas and such gets made from scratch. Qdoba also dishes up tacos, quesadillas, and taco salads–all served in a stylish Tex-Mex atmosphere. These restaurants are popping up everywhere in the U.S., with more than 480 stores located in 42 states. Yet, still, nobody can pronounce the name.

6) Lenny’s

Lenny’s is not a national chain (most of its stores are located in New York City), but don’t be surprised to see this sandwich shop expand in the coming years. There’s already talk of Lenny’s moving into the Asian market, with restaurants in Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing–this idea has everything to do with Lenny’s co-owner, Lenny Chu, who hails from South Korea. Yet this popular chain of New York City sandwich shops doesn’t serve Asian-inspired sandwiches; it’s a little bit Italian and a little bit kosher, thanks to the other owner, who happens to be a Jewish guy. So, expect to find fat sandwiches (often made on marbled rye) with pastrami and kraut, as well as real-deal bagels with lox and cream cheese.

7) Quizno’s Sub Shop

Speaking of sandwiches, who would have ever thunk that Quizno’s Sub Shop falls into the fast-casual category of restaurants? Believe or not. It’s true. This Colorado-based franchise sandwich shop (yes, it’s another restaurant chain from the great state of Colorado) specializes in toasted submarines. Quizno’s seem to be just about everywhere these days, as evidenced by the 3000 stores in 15 countries. Besides toasted subs, the place also is known for its flatbread sandwiches and entrée salads.

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