In February, Slate’s Matt Yglesias noted that a White Castle in Indiana had begun selling wine to go along with its sliders. This made perfect sense to me, as everyone knows wine-rowdy is the best state of mind in which to eat White Castle. In fact, I wondered why other fast-food restaurants hadn’t followed suit. After all, alcohol is the perfect companion for fast food: It deadens the taste buds; it enhances sociability, presumably making you as excited about ordering a Big Mac as the people you see in McDonald’s commercials; if consumed in sufficient quantities, it can help you forget that you are eating fast food.
Luckily, there are a few fast food chains beyond White Castle that encourage patrons to order a beer or something harder. Burger King’s Whopper Bar serves burgers and beer in an exciting Whopper-themed setting, and in Florida, at least two Sonic locations sell beer and wine to dine-in customers. But most of the fast-food restaurants that consistently serve alcohol are fast-casual Mexican eateries and other restaurants that want to be thought of as nice places—think Shake Shack, not Arby’s.
I spent a month visiting the New York locations of these chains. I focused on restaurants with a national presence and judged them by the traditional metrics used to rate bars—price, selection, atmosphere, clientele—as well as more subjective criteria, such as their willingness to serve and overserve, and their suitability as a pick-up joint. At each location, I ordered as little food as possible and made it clear that I was there primarily to drink.
The takeaway was unsurprising: There are better places to drink than fast-food restaurants. That said, many of these places offer cheaper booze than your local pub and a not-unpleasant atmosphere in which to drink it. So, for those of you whose thirst for liquor is matched only by your hunger for inexpensive hamburgers, I offer the following idiosyncratic guide, presented in alphabetical order:
Selection: Bottled beer, wine, margaritas.
Of all the restaurants I visited for this piece, Baja Fresh is the most excited about its liquor selection; its new Times Square location prominently advertised its five-hour-long happy hour, from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., during which beer, wine, and margaritas were a mere $3 each. This is a great deal, and it’s made even better by the fact that Baja Fresh offers its diners plenty of chips and unlimited free salsas. Even in not-quite-so-happy hours, the liquor is priced to move—$2.99 for bottles of Corona and Pacifico, $4.99 for red or white wine—but the value choice is the margarita, which cost $4.99 and whose 12-ounce cup came filled to the brim. Though the margaritas were pre-mixed, they actually tasted pretty good—less sweet and better balanced than the ones I tried at other chains.
Atmosphere: More charmless than any restaurant with a surfboard on the wall has a right to be. Every Baja Fresh I’ve ever visited has been done up in light-colored tiles that, while perhaps meant to evoke the tropics, actually remind you of the intake area at a disreputable emergency room. (They did have a TV, though, which was playing a basketball game.)
Clientele: People who are vaguely health-conscious but not health-conscious enough not to eat lunch at a burrito chain. Baja Fresh also seems to appeal to aspiring Parrotheads, or the sort of people who hope to one day marry someone who owns a boat.
Pick-up potential: None. Baja Fresh’s sterility prompts solitude, not loquacity. But with prices this low, who has time to talk?
Selection: Bottled beer, wine, margaritas.
Chipotle is primarily known as a mid-scale burrito purveyor, but, as fast-food restaurants go, it’s also a great place to drink. Though it offers a selection of domestic and imported bottled beers, the obvious choice is the margarita, mixed by hand in front of your eyes. While sweet, it’s about as good a margarita as you’ll get in any average bar, with slightly higher-quality liquor than the Mr. Boston-caliber swill you’d get in most places. Though the drinks are pricey—$6.50 for a roughly 12-ounce margarita, $5 for a bottle of Coors Light—cheapskates can glory in the fact that, at Chipotle, you’re not allowed to tip your bartender. They’re good at keeping the customer satisfied, though: I ordered my third margarita two minutes before closing, and not only did the counterwoman serve me with a smile, she also free-poured.
Atmosphere: Chipotle’s industrial-chic decor and hipster-dad’s-greatest-hits soundtrack offer an appealing setting in which to drink—with a bit of effort, you can almost make yourself believe you’re in some swanky loft space rather than a pre-fab outpost of an international burrito cartel.
Clientele: Everyone. Chipotle is the true crossroads of America.
Pick-up potential: Chipotle’s not your prototypical pick-up joint, but the cashier got friendlier and friendlier each time I ordered.
Selection: Bottled beer.
Qdoba may not be inferior to Chipotle in all things, but it certainly is in terms of its liquor selection. The location I visited offered a few different types of bottled beer—Pacifico, Corona, Negra Modelo, Blue Moon—and that’s it. However, the beer was neither listed on the menu nor displayed behind the counter; if not for a sign advertising a regular happy hour ($3 beers from 4 to 7 p.m.), I would’ve had no way of knowing Qdoba served alcohol. The beer was fine—it’s beer, after all—but the only reason to drink at a Qdoba is to have something strong with which to wash down its wretched queso sauce.
Atmosphere: If the public library served burritos, it would look something like Qdoba.
Clientele: Students, mostly, and a few people who seemed too old to be students but were nevertheless sitting around with open laptops. Also, the sort of people who have been banned from Starbucks.
Pick-up potential: Adequate, if you are attracted to the sort of person who lacks the judgment to dine instead at another, better burrito restaurant.
Selection: Bottled beer, wine.
When I wrote about Sbarro last year for Slate, I mentioned that one of the few things the chain had going for it was that some locations served beer. This remains true. However, they sell it at an insane markup—$5.19 for a 12-ounce bottle of Peroni, Budweiser, or Heineken. Their wine is also ridiculously expensive: full-sized bottles of bad wine go for $23.99. I ordered two breadsticks and two miniature bottles of Woodbridge by Robert Mondavi Merlot and consumed them in a cavernous underground seating area. At $5.19 apiece, they weren’t a bad deal, but I wouldn’t go there again without a good reason.
Atmosphere: The Sbarro I visited was located in the basement of Madison Square Garden but did its best to impersonate a food court, with ample seating and track lighting serving to conceal the overwhelming sadness of the entire endeavor.
Clientele: Eccentric. Seated adjacent to me at Sbarro was a man in a Christmas sweater conducting some sort of business meeting. (It was March.) This particular Sbarro is also a locus for homeless people, tourists, and homeless tourists.
Pick-up potential: Excellent. Sbarro ought to make this a key part of its marketing strategy. Sbarro attracts the sort of people who are lost, confused, and have bad judgment—the pickup artist’s bread and butter.
Selection: Bottled and draft beer, wine, prosecco.
Shake Shack, the New York-based burger chain that is slowly expanding to other markets, features the widest selection of liquor by far: various craft beers in bottles and on tap ($4.50 to $5.75), red and white wine, rosé, prosecco ($18 for a half bottle). It’s even got its own brand of wine: a sauvignon blanc “made for Shake Shack by Frog’s Leap” (according to the menu). I ordered cheese fries and two Shackmeister Ales—made for the chain by the Brooklyn Brewery. The fries were gross and the beers tasted like the draft line hadn’t been cleaned in years. But, hey, trendy!
Atmosphere: Every single Shake Shack I’ve ever visited has been art-directed to an obnoxious extreme, which a lot of people seem to like: Shake Shack was the only restaurant I visited where there were several other people lounging around and drinking, rather than hastily gulping their bottles of beer before jumping on the commuter rail.
Clientele: At 10:30 p.m. on a recent weeknight, the restaurant was full of slender urbanites in attractive shirts, sitting around telling humorous stories about their experiences at “salad parties”—apparently some sort of hideous potluck event in which salad is the only thing on the menu. So, basically, if you are boring and wealthy, you will love Shake Shack.
Pick-up potential: The length of the line in which you stand to order should give you plenty of time to chat up strangers.
Steak ‘n Shake
Selection: Draft beer, wine.
Roger Ebert once wrote that, if condemned to death, he would choose Steak ‘n Shake to cater his last meal. I wouldn’t go that far, but I’d gladly dine at Steak ’n Shake before appearing in court to contest a traffic ticket. Though the liquor selection at Manhattan’s Shake ’n Steak Signature is decidedly an afterthought, the woman at the front counter didn’t blink at my order of a small fry and two 16-ounce Brooklyn Lagers—a bargain at $11.73. The beer was cold and crisp, the perfect thing with which to wash down a handful of Steak ’n Shake’s weird little shoestring fries.
Atmosphere: The place certainly felt like a typical Manhattan bar—small, crowded, and full of people on their feet. But while it was obviously going for a mid-century nostalgia theme, it was aggressively lit in a weird futuristic style, as if Gene Roddenberry had opened a ’50s-style diner.
Clientele: Displaced Midwesterners. Bust out with the first verse of “Bear Down, Chicago Bears,” and it’s likely that half the restaurant would instantly respond with a rousing “Make every play clear the way to victory.” (Note: If you actually try this, please send me the video.)
Pick-up potential: Poor. The setup does not encourage loitering, conversation, or anything but eating, drinking, and leaving.