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These Are 15 of the Oldest Chain Restaurants in the Country

Updated: Jan. 06, 2023

Can you guess which one was introduced first?

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A&W, whose Fairlane Mall store logo is shown
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A&W (1919)

That’s right—the root beer kings founded the first-ever chain restaurant in America. By the 1970s, A&W even had more locations open than McDonald’s. Today, it isn’t known for their food as much as for its root beer… but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Pick up some A&W to make our Root Beer Float Cake.

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White Castle restaurant exterior.
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White Castle (1921)

White Castle got its start by selling five-cent sliders, a cheaper take on hamburgers. The business model worked, and White Castle is still around more than 90 years later. In 2014, Time named the Original Slider the “most influential burger of all time!” Take the slider from their castle to yours with 36 sliders you can make at home.

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Dairy Queen, or DQ, is a fast food restaurant chain owned by International Dairy Queen, Inc.
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Dairy Queen (1940)

This chain has had more than 75 years’ experience flipping your Blizzard upside down! Dairy Queen was one of the first restaurant franchises ever founded, but strangely enough, the first location wasn’t in a big metropolis like most of the other chains. Instead, the first soft-serve cone came out of Joliet, Illinois. Undertake your own small-scale operation with 20 Dairy Queen recipes you can make at home.

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People walk by McDonald's restaurant in Chicago.

McDonald’s (1948)

Even though most people assume it would be first, McDonald’s actually wasn’t the first major quick-service burger chain. Its predecessor, McDonald’s Bar-B-Q, opened in 1948, though the restaurant didn’t really take off until 1955, when Ray Kroc opened his own McDonald’s with the vision of creating a powerhouse franchise. Today, McDonald’s is often thought of as the world’s most popular fast food chain, but it’s actually second to this surprising front-runner.

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An exterior view of a Dunkin Donuts coffee shop in New York City

Dunkin’ Donuts (1948)

First it was called Open Kettle—and then Kettle Donuts—but the Dunkin’ Donuts we know and love started back in the 1940s, long before dropping Donuts from its name. (That’s way before the first Starbucks, which opened in the 1970s.) While you grab your hot coffee, consider these 13 surprising things Dunkin’ Donuts employees want you to know.

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Sign of In-N-Out Burger is an American regional chain of fast food restaurants

In-N-Out (1948)

With that classic red and yellow logo with ’40s-style graphic design, you can tell In-N-Out has been around for a while. This California-based burger stand is known for its high-quality fast food, thick milkshakes and not-so-secret secret menu. The original location of the restaurant used to exist on what’s now Interstate 10. Bring the crazy-popular recipes to your kitchen with these 8 In-N-Out copycat recipes.

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Jack-In-The-Box Fast Food Restaurant.
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Jack in the Box (1951)

Jack in the Box might not have been the first chain restaurant out there, but it was originally the fastest. The restaurant pioneered the intercom system for drive-through service, which included two-way radio communication and a separate pick-up window!

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KFC fast food restaurant.
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KFC (1952)

KFC was founded in Salt Lake City. The store’s original location is credited with inventing the rotating sign, which featured an illustration of a giant bucket of chicken that could spin 360 degrees. You can make KFC chicken at home—here’s the top-secret recipe.

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Denny's Fast casual restaurant and diner.
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Denny’s (1953)

Denny’s didn’t always start out as a diner … at first, it specialized in donuts! Then, the restaurant switched its business model to focus on coffee before finally transforming into the 24-hour pancakes-and-burgers franchise that exists today. The chain’s current logo might look retro, but it’s actually not—it was designed in 2002. These chain restaurants are always open on Thanksgiving. 

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Sonic Drive-In Restaurant exterior. Sonic Corp. is an American drive-in fast-food restaurant chain
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Sonic (1953)

Compared to most of today’s fast food places, which have a drive-through and pick-up windows, Sonic is unique. If you’ve ever ordered a Sonic Bacon Cheeseburger, you’ll know that you park your car at one of the drive-in stations, place your order, and wait for a server to bring the food. This method of delivery is part of what made Sonic so successful in its early day. Travel back in time with photos of the original locations of your favorite fast food restaurants.

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Exterior and Logo of Iconic Southern Restaurant Chain Waffle House.
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Waffle House (1955)

With that iconic yellow-lettered sign, Waffle House is easy to spot from miles away. This chain was founded in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, and the first restaurant was actually converted into a Waffle House museum. You can make Waffle House waffles at home—here’s how.

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International House of Pancakes.
Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

IHOP (1958)

Americans were shocked to hear that IHOP was changing its name to IHOB to promote the chain’s new hamburgers. Luckily, in honor of its 60th anniversary, the International House of Pancakes decided to go back to its original name—and we’re glad it did. Speaking of origins—learn about the surprising birthplaces of 20 of your favorite foods and drinks.

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Pizza Hut Fast Casual Restaurant.
Jonathan Weiss/Shutterstock

Pizza Hut (1958)

That’s right—Pizza Hut was the first chain pizza joint in America. The original restaurant was less-than-large, with only 25 seats. The owners also only had space on the sign for nine letters, so they decided to call the place “Pizza Hut” due to the building’s small size. Though they may seem small, here’s 33 things fast food restaurant workers won’t tell you.

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Domino's Pizza store
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Domino’s (1960)

This iconic pizza place got their start in 1960, but it didn’t get its name until 1965. The original locations were called DomiNick’s.

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T.G.I's Friday neon sign in Manhattan.

TGI Friday’s (1965)

The founder of TGI Friday’s was living in New York City when he realized it was hard to meet people, since most bars were filled with couples. He started Friday’s as a “singles’ bar” with special ladies’ nights. Grab your lads and lassies at the end of the week to make our copycat Friday’s Potato Skins recipe.

Taste of Home
Originally Published on Taste of Home