May 15, 2012 at 8:30 AM ET
Fast food may conjure up those ubiquitous Golden Arches, but the concept has come a long way from frozen burgers and limp fries. The best fast-food chains around the world are getting serious about quality, offering up bowls of slow-simmered pork ramen, freshly baked baguette sandwiches, and sustainably caught fish for the masses.
For travelers looking to eat like the locals, fast-food chains represent a convenient, often inexpensive taste of how everyday residents in far-flung cities like to eat. Some menus are more traditional than others: Teremok in Russia serves cooked-to-order blini with classic Russian toppings like caviar or smoked salmon; while Goli Vada Pav No. 1 in India adds modern twists like cheddar cheese to vada pav, the fried potato patty sandwich that’s an Indian street food staple.
Many chains have long-standing histories in their home country: “We’ve been around since 1951, so it’s like we’re a part of the fabric of the province,” says Josée Vaillancourt of the Canadian rotisserie chicken chain St. Hubert. “If people want to live the Quebec way, they have to try our chicken.”
German seafood chain Nordsee began as a commercial fishing enterprise way back in 1896 and now sells a rotating selection of sustainable seafood. Spokesman Michael Scheibe says a visit to the chain allows travelers to share both history and “the German love for seasonal products.”
Keep in mind that etiquette may be different than what you’re used to at American homegrown fast-food chains. At Nordsee, for example, it’s common for strangers to ask to share a table, while Saudi Arabian fried chicken chain Al Baik provides separate seating areas for women with families and single men. Some of the chains are less “fast food” and more “date-night” in atmosphere; sit-down Italian franchise Rossopomodoro, for example, features wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas and local wines.
Granted, fast-food chains aren’t exactly hidden gems. A steak at Brazilian chain Giraffas will probably not replicate the experience of an authentic churrascaria; a bowl of ramen at Ippudo may not match the thrill of discovering an underground noodle shop in Tokyo. But they have their own quirky appeal and dish out a quick fix of local culture and cuisine.
More from Travel + Leisure