One of the promises of fast food, and casual dining to a similar extent, is that consumers can travel from state to state, coast to coast, and know what to expect. A Burger King in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, should (in theory) be just like a Burger King in New York City. For the most part. So, typically speaking, most guests won’t turn to review sites like Yelp or TripAdvisor for their quick-service needs.

That’s not the case for fast casual, however. While there are signs the category is bursting at the seams, there is no shortage of brands that thrive at the regional level. You can, in other terms, travel to a city and stage a foodie tour of fast casual spots specific to that city.   

TripAdvisor recognized this. In response, the world’s largest travel site decided to add a “Fast Casual” category to its famed Travelers’ Choice Awards for the first time. The site also added an “Everyday Dining” breakdown that rewards concepts that “provide great meals for any occasions.” It defines the fast-casual ranking as honoring restaurants that “offer high-quality meals at a great value to diners on the go.”

As with all categories, TripAdvisor picked the winners using an algorithm that takes into account the quantity and quality of reviews for restaurants over a 12-month period.

“Millions of diners worldwide rely on TripAdvisor to discover their perfect culinary experience. The 2018 Travelers’ Choice restaurant winners are what diners consider the best-in-class, and we hope these leaders in hospitality will inspire others to try something new,” said Bertrand Jelensperger, senior vice president for TripAdvisor Restaurants, in a statement. “Food and dining experiences can often be the main highlight of any trip or an evening out. Luckily, diners can use this list to find the ideal eatery for any occasion—from formal to casual and everything in between.”

The selections for TripAdvisor’s first fast casual rankings ran the gamut. Some of these brands are sub-10 locations (Tacos el Gordo has six), while others, like In-N-Out, Blaze, Shake Shack, and Five Guys are far from it. This list, however, applies not to the overall chain, but to a high-performing individual location in the listed cities.

Here were the fast-casual winners:

1. Portillo’s—Chicago, Illinois

2. Earl of Sandwich—Las Vegas, Nevada

3. Shake Shack—New York City, New York

4. Blaze Pizza—Orlando, Florida

5. In-N-Out Burger—Los Angeles, California

6. The Taco Stand—La Jolla, California

7. Five Guys—Orlando, Florida

8. Super Duper Burgers—San Francisco, California

9. Tacos el Gordo—Las Vegas, Nevada

10. Torchy’s Tacos—Austin, Texas

The Portillo’s store that took the top spot is in Chicago’s River North neighborhood at 100 W. Ontario St.

“We are honored to receive this award,” Portillo’s CEO Michael Osanloo said in a statement. “It’s a true testament to our hard-working restaurant team members and our passionate fans. We’re thrilled our guests think Portillo’s truly cuts the mustard.”

Osanloo joined the brand as CEO October 1. The move was first announced August 6. Osanloo arrived at Portillo’s, which has more than 50 locations and is known for its Chicago-style hot dogs, from P.F. Chang’s, where he served as president and CEO since 2015. Osanloo left a post as executive vice president and president of Kraft Food Group’s North American grocery business unit to join the full-service Asian concept.

Portillo opened his first hot dog stand in 1963 in Villa Park, Illinois. Private-equity firm Berkshire Partners bought the Oak Brook, Illinois-based brand for close to $1 billion in 2014. Kinsey, 64, who is retiring, was COO of Noodles & Company before joining Portillo’s the following year. He also worked executive roles at McDonald’s, PepsiCo, Checkers, Big Sky Bread Company, and Chipotle.

Per The Chicago Tribune, Portillo’s was growing its unit count at a rate of 10–15 percent each year under Kinsey’s leadership, opening its first restaurants in Florida, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Central Illinois. It planned to have 57 total units by the end of the year after adding 19. The Portillo’s brand also includes Barnelli’s restaurants and ships food to all 50 states.

Mark Goloboy, restaurant marketing leader at TripAdvisor, shared some exclusive tips with QSR about how restaurants can move up in the rankings and own their review pages.

Here are his top 5 pieces of advice:

  • Register for free as an owner on TripAdvisor—It’s quick and easy. Simply create an account on TripAdvisor, which unlocks free resources that help you engage with diners on the site. The best advice I can give is don’t wait—register now. It only takes a few minutes.
  • Make sure your listing is up-to-date—Once you’ve claimed your listing on TripAdvisor, you should update your information, add photos to put your best foot forward, and get in the habit of reading your customers’ reviews and opinions.
  • Respond to guest reviews (positive and negative alike)—Show you care. Thank diners for their feedback and respond to any concerns they may have. If you’ve already done something to address their feedback, let them know. Remember that your responses are not just for the individual reviewer but for TripAdvisor’s community of millions of travelers around the world who will be able to read your Management Responses.
  • Use guest feedback to improve the guest experience—If you see a recurring issue in the reviews, whether it be overcooked steak or a broken door, use the diner feedback to improve your service and remove the issue for future diners. This cuts down on negative reviews.
  • Ask diners to share their candid reviews—When you consider the average review on TripAdvisor is more than 4 out of a possible 5, having a high volume of consumer reviews helps you. Ask your guests to write a candid review on TripAdvisor about their dining experience.

Below are the rest of TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice winners for the year:

Everyday Dining

1. Pane & Vino—Miami Beach, Florida

2. Mon Ami Gabi—Las Vegas, Nevada

3. Hog Island Oyster Company—San Francisco, California

4. Phil’s BBQ—San Diego, California

5. Spice Symphony—New York City, New York

6. Duke’s Waikiki—Honolulu, Hawaii

7. Blue Heaven—Key West, Florida

8. Santa Barbara Shellfish Company—Santa Barbara, California

9. Oceana Grill—New Orleans, Louisiana

10. The Pink Door—Seattle, Washington

Top 10 U.S. Fine-Dining Restaurants

1. Gabriel Kreuther—New York City, New York (also ranked No. 116 in the world overall)

Michelin Star and James Beard award-winning chef Gabriel Kreuther serves up delectable French cuisine at his namesake luxurious Midtown Manhattan restaurant. “The food was exquisite, the service impeccable and the overall experience wonderful. It’s pricey, so save it for a special occasion, but I can’t recommend it highly enough,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

2. Daniel—New York City, New York (also ranked No. 25 in the world overall)

Located on the Upper East Side, Daniel Boulud’s flagship restaurant, Daniel, is well-known for its refined European cuisine, world-class wine cellar and exemplary service. “From the moment we walked in the front door until we exited, we all agreed this was the most unique dining experience we’ve ever had… I’ve eaten all over the world and the meal, service and dining experience at Daniel will never be duplicated,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

3. Café Monarch—Scottsdale, Arizona

The family owned and operated Café Monarch offers an ever-evolving four-course tasting menu featuring local, organic, sustainable and premium ingredients in an elegant setting. “The food was exceptional in quality and presentation – a real delight for the taste buds. The staff pampered us and made us feel right at home in this former mansion. We had a most memorable meal in this world class restaurant,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

4. Circa 1886—Charleston, South Carolina

Tucked behind the historic Wentworth Mansion, Circa 1886 is renowned for its modern take on classic Lowcountry cuisine and charming décor. “Super creative and delicious food, superior service and a wonderfully cozy and elegant dining room. It’s our favorite restaurant in Charleston hands-down,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

5. Flight Restaurant & Wine Bar—Memphis, Tennessee

Set in the heart of downtown Memphis, indecisive diners will find delight in Flight Restaurant & Wine Bar’s unique approach of serving their meals in tasting flight trios. “The flight format for dinning is brilliant. The quality of the food, and the knowledge of our waiter in helping us to select our flights, then helping us pair wine with the food…awesome,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

6. Halls Chophouse—Charleston, South Carolina

Revered for its excellent service and premium steaks, the family-run Halls Chophouse features live music every night of the week. “We were treated like royalty the minute we walked in the door until the moment we left … Our steaks were amazing, wine was top-notch and the staff will leave you awe-stricken,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

7. GW Fins—New Orleans, Louisiana

Located in the French Quarter, GW Fins is well-known for serving fresh, high-quality fish with a menu that changes daily. “This restaurant has a great ambience, the staff are delightful and the food is absolutely delicious. Well cooked, nicely presented and as fresh as you can get,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

8. Charleston Grill—Charleston, South Carolina

Set within the Belmond Charleston Place hotel, Charleston Grill takes an elegant spin on Southern cuisine while featuring live jazz music seven nights a week. “I have dined at many fine restaurants throughout the world and this experience was amongst the best. Impeccable service, sensational cuisine accompanied by an amazing jazz combo made for a memorable evening,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

9. Lahaina Grill—Maui, Hawaii

The highly acclaimed Lahaina Grill features delectable new American cuisine in a romantic, contemporary bistro setting. “An overall outstanding experience. Everything from the service, the menu, the wine list, the atmosphere, and the food was five-star. Expensive, but fine dining at its best,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

10. Geronimo—Santa Fe, New Mexico

Uniquely situated within a 250-year-old adobe home, Geronimo offers a global eclectic menu of Southwestern-inspired dishes in a warm and rustic atmosphere. “The food, service and ambiance are all amazing. Highly recommend planning a special meal if you are visiting Santa Fe. It is not easy to find a restaurant as awesome as Geronimo,” noted a TripAdvisor diner.

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