Editor’s Note: Welcome to Too Fast Too Casual, a new review series where our National Writer-at-Large Kevin Alexander takes a close look at both classic and up-and-coming fast-casual chains. The rising fast-casual trend is defining how Americans eat today, and in this series we’ll look at the food, history, decor, and branding of fast-casual chains to see what these restaurants are really trying to do, and where this is all going. Read Kevin's previous reviews of Panda Express, Jersey Mike's, Panera Bread, Lemonade, Blaze Pizza, and Chipotle and check back in every other week for a fresh takes on more chains.
My friend Alyssa tells a story about being in a Five Guys Burgers & Fries in Boston. She’d just settled down with her food at her table when she overheard an over-served guy likely wearing a Shawn Thornton Bruins jersey talking to himself as he inhaled a cheeseburger.
“Ahhhh,” he sighed, contentedly, in between bites. “This is just the right amount of guys.”
When I started writing this, friends, I had a longer, drawn-out story here. But when I heard that, I deleted everything. Because dammit if that Sam Adams-swilling street poet didn’t sum it up perfectly.
"If you can give a good haircut or if you can serve a good drink at a bar or if you can serve a good hamburger, you can always make money in America." –Five Guys founder Jerry Murrell's mother
In 1986, the four brothers Murrell opened a takeaway burger joint in Arlington, Virginia, just a stone's throw from DC, AKA Cap City. As they started the place with their parents, that constituted "Five Guys," and so that name was born (and subsequently, a younger brother would be born two years later, giving them five actual guys as sons). The rules were simple: hand-formed, fresh-ground beef; fries cooked in peanut oil; no freezers. As each burger was made to order, they introduced complimentary shelled peanuts as something to snack on while you waited.
The place took off, and so, over the next 15 years, they methodically opened four more in and around Cap City, then slowly started to expand into lower Virginia and Maryland. Starting in 2003, they expanded nationwide. There are now over 1,500 Five Guys locations all over the world. According to their site "another 1,500 (are) in development."
The clearest competitors to Five Guys are Shake Shack (around 200 total locations), Smashburger (370), Habit Burger (250), and Fat Burger (over 200). The idea of fast-food burger chains versus fast-casual is a scary topic for me. For example, In-N-Out naturally fits into this conversation (and has 340 locations) because the burger is often discussed (by me, no less, later), in the national conversation of cult chain burgers along most of these joints, but it is more fast food than fast casual (the presence of drive-thrus in most locations is the differentiator for me). But this shit is hard to define, and giving me anxiety, so let's just move on.
With this hyper-aggressive expansion plan, Five Guys is very clearly trying to exert their influence in the Great Burger Wars of the fast-casual era. And with nearly four times the amount of restaurants as their next biggest rival, they've got an impressive head start. Also, quite famously, they never advertised at all until about three years ago—which, if you think about it, is kind of a way of advertising in itself amirite?!? And even then, their ad footprint was purposefully small and really only online and with social media. They are savvy Guys (and Girls).
How I did it:
Over the course of two weeks, I went to two Northern California Five Guys a total of three times. I ordered every single item on the actual menu, plus one off-menu item, and ate a bunch of peanuts for no reason while I was waiting.
A note on the peanuts:
They're fine? Shelling peanuts is more about the process for me, which I found mildly relaxing. But in the end, they're still just peanuts, and since the phrase "I bought it for peanuts" doesn't suggest they're a HUGE value-add, I'm not spending more time on them.
Five Stars/Guys Who Are Enjoyable To Be Around:
Many moons ago, I reviewed nearly every major chain cheeseburger. Much to the chagrin of my In-N-Out fanboy California family, I proclaimed Five Guys as having the best. (Note: this was before Shake Shake began their intensive expansion, so they weren’t yet in the mix, and it was a confusing time for the fast food vs fast-casual debate I mentioned earlier.) But after spending the last few years eating 330 burgers from independent restaurants all over the country, I hadn’t been back to Five Guys.
But lo and behold, upon my revisits the burgers were again a minor revelation. Each time, I saw char on the meat, hand-formed patties that broke apart easily, a well-griddled bun that didn’t get soggy, and the exclusive use of American cheese, which is THE ONLY ACCEPTABLE CHEESE on burgers. They aren’t perfect (they tend to undercook the griddled onions, which doesn’t allow them to properly caramelize), but they are definitely in the In-N-Out,/Shake Shack pantheon of quality fast-casual burger chains that sit above all the other major players.
The best cheeseburger order at Five Guys:
Little cheeseburger with grilled onions, barbecue sauce, mayonnaise, jalapeños, and pickles. I’m not a fan of doubling up the meat on burgers (I’d rather just eat two burgers, and vary the condiments), so I like a single patty, but there is some sort of alchemy to mixing barbecue sauce and mayonnaise, and when you combine that with the acid from the pickles and the heat from the fresh jalapeños, it’s a pretty damn glorious burger.
There are other winners on the menu, too. The extra spice in the "Cajun" fries are clearly superior to the regular fries, and I very much appreciated the fact that they wrote on a chalkboard where the potatoes came from that day (last visit it was B&S Farms in Saint Anthony, Idaho). The standard hot dog is cut butterfly-style down the middle and griddled, which should be the only way you cook a hot dog. Add relish and mustard and raw onions, and you will feel more American and look wise beyond your years.
The milkshakes are all delicious, but I truly struck gold when, after hearing an Elvis song en route to the restaurant, I ordered a bacon, banana, and chocolate milkshake. Every other sip, I sucked up a tiny piece of real bacon, and the chewy saltiness combined with the banana and chocolate was blissful.
But the most delicious thing on the whole menu was something I only heard whispered about in Reddit threads and banner ad-draped corners of the Secret Menu Internet: the patty melt.
Essentially it's just a grilled cheese, but with an added burger patty and grilled onions. The patty melt benefits from the fact that they flip over a regular bun and double grill it with what would normally be the inside of the bun as the outside, and two layers of cheese encasing the burger patty. The grilled onions in the mix makes the entire thing a gooey, griddled delight. Honestly, I can't recommend it enough. I ate the entire thing AFTER I'd sampled two burgers, two hot dogs, two other sandwiches, two orders of fries, and two milkshakes. I think my body created another stomach just to sate my needs.
The essential Five Guys order:
Do you really want to live like you're dying, as the Tim McGraw song I heard while in a Five Guys passionately suggested? Then go with this: a patty melt; (don't forget the grilled onion); a regular hot dog with relish, mustard, and raw onion; Cajun fries; and a Banana Bacon Chocolate milkshake. I challenge you to find a better order than that.
One Star/Guy Who is Kinda Sad:
The worst thing on the menu, quite predictably, was the Veggie sandwich. Essentially just a pile of vegetable toppings, it tasted exactly like they forgot to add a patty to a burger order, and, out of guilt, threw every other topping in the bin inside a bun. The cheese and bacon hot dog was a lesson in too much of a good thing, as the saltiness of the hot dog, the saltiness of the bacon, and the saltiness of the American cheese made me long to pour pickle jar vinegar or really any type of acid directly into my mouth. The BLT also tasted and looked like you'd just removed a cheeseburger from a bacon cheeseburger, but honestly, other than the Veggie sandwich, nothing was bad.
I am extremely impressed with Five Guys—as impressed as I've been with any of the places I've reviewed so far. I remember visiting one in the early aughts with my friend who grew up in Northern Virginia. Back then, just the act of knowing about Five Guys was cool, and every little quirk (the peanut boxes, the standard order being two patties, etc) built the lore that has somehow sustained itself as the chain becomes a behemoth.
And now, as I was sitting eating six different items at a Five Guys in a strip mall in Sonoma County in Northern California, it still somehow, improbably felt a little cool. The lack of advertising, the lack of real trendy innovations on the menu, all of those things seem like very wise counterintuitive choices now. They're not chasing the customer, they're letting the customer come to them. And from here, it seems to me, to quote the elegant Baird of Boston, like they've got just the right amount of guys.