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Zagat's best fast-food restaurants

And the results are in! Thousands of diners voted on their picks for quick eats in the U.S.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Even gourmets eat at fast-food and mega-chain restaurants. Today, thanks to a Zagat/TODAY show survey, we can finally tell which of them the folks who really know food like best.

There’s no longer any need to ask "Where’s the beef?" According to 5,535 Zagat surveyors who rated 45 chains, it’s at Wendy’s, whose burgers and restaurants rated No. 1 among the nation’s fast-food mega-chains.

Among all fast-food chains, Panera Bread Co. took top honors, while Outback Steakhouse was the favorite big-chain full-service restaurant.

Chik-fil-A narrowly won the best-chicken competition by a single percentage point over KFC. Cracker Barrel was the choice for best facilities and service, while Applebee’s got the nod for best healthy options.

While Wendy’s was voted the best burger, McDonald’s took best fries honors, and Dairy Queen’s milkshakes were judged the best.

A whopping 93 percent of the surveyors said their biggest concerns about eating in chains are calories and fat.

"That 93 percent of folks had health and nutrition as their major concern was startling," Ted Zagat, President and COO of the Zagat Survey told "You can’t get 93 percent of the people to agree on what day of the week it is."

At the same time, 79 percent of the surveyors said taste is the most important factor when choosing a place to eat.

Zagat said the survey results offer a prescription for chain restaurants seeking to keep customers coming back.

"People care about health, but they’re leading with what tastes good," he said. "If some of these major chains can figure out how to provide a healthy and tasty option in their stores, they’re going to be very successful with that."

Fast food is a staple for many
Zagat’s father and mother, Tim and Nina Zagat, started the surveys in 1979 as something of a lark. At a dinner party one night, they and their guests got to complaining about the restaurant reviews in the local newspaper and decided they could do better. The 20 people at the party each enlisted 20 friends to conduct the first survey. What started as a hobby soon became a full-time job.

Tim remains the CEO of the company. Ted, who became an investment banker after college, joined the family business in 1999. He said it really isn’t a stretch for Zagat, which made its reputation by rating fine dining establishments, to branch out into fast-food.

"My dad is famous for downing a major cheeseburger from McDonald’s on the way to high-end French restaurants," he observed. "We all enjoy fast food. We focus on the best of everything, leisure and lifestyle-wise. We thought covering fast food was important, it being such a big part of everyone’s daily lives."

Zagat was surprised at just how big a part it is. The company has 250,000 surveyors world-wide who rate everything from restaurants and hotels to golf courses and movies. Those who participated visit fast-food restaurants an average of 7.2 times a month and eat at big chain restaurants another 5.1 times per month. That’s 12.3 out of a possible 90 meals a month.

"It’s a real staple of their diets," Zagat said. "That’s why we thought it was so important to have people weigh in."

"Not all fast food restaurants are created equal — nor were they meant to be," said Tim Zagat. "Some are better at burgers and others are masters of milkshakes. This survey reveals what fast-food restaurants are doing right, and where there’s room for improvement."

Not every surveyor loved every restaurant, and some of their comments are classics. Without naming at which chains the comments were directed, Zagat listed some of the more colorful observations:

"Instant obesity."

"It’s hard to tell where the food stops and the Styrofoam containers begin."

"The only healthy thing about the place is the exit door."

"Try the ‘compressed cat cutlet’."

"Good tasting, until the left ventricle finally gives out."

"Love the cheese-flavored plastic!"

"E.coli is free with every order."

"They should be cited for posing as a restaurant."

"Best consumed drunk."

To see all the results and rankings for the 45 chains surveyed, visit .