We tried Five Guys next to its biggest competitor — here’s who does it best

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Hollis Johnson

The hamburger: It’s the greasy, delicious, unabashedly all-American meal.

Within the past decade, burgers have experienced a renaissance.

No longer the derided fast-food staple, an entire better-burger industry has blossomed around the humble hamburger.

But there appears to be a divide in the field.

There are chains aiming to elevate the burger experience to the next level of dining, and those looking to serve big, no-fuss, quality burgers.

We’ve visited two fast-casual chains that exemplify both approaches – Smashburger and Five Guys, respectively. Here’s what we’ve found:


Smashburger, with locations in 32 states and seven countries, is known for its wide array of interesting and high-quality burgers that go beyond the basic patty, cheese, lettuce, and tomato.

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Hollis Johnson

The menu is daunting. Premium ingredients like avocado and truffle oil make appearances, as do options other than burgers, like chicken sandwiches and salads. Everything hovers around the typical fast-casual price point, with burgers typically $7 to $9.

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Hollis Johnson

You order at the counter, then wait at a table for servers to bring your food. The system falls in comfortably between counter and table service, and the staff is incredibly friendly.

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Hollis Johnson

The burgers are served open face, which allows the impressive toppings to really shine. On this particular burger, the spinach and tomatoes were clearly fresh and vibrant.

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Hollis Johnson

The burgers are small, but attention is paid to the details. The brioche bun easily holds in all of the cheese, sauce, and veggies. And it’s obviously one good-looking burger.

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Hollis Johnson

The taste is no different: clearly freshly prepared and cooked, with a surprising degree of quality.

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Hollis Johnson

Smashburger, with its trendy, comfortable interior and upscale burger concepts, is obviously aiming for a premium-burger experience. Customers here expect interesting and trendy flavor combinations and ideas and an attentive level of service.

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Hollis Johnson

On the other end of the burger spectrum, we have Five Guys. With over 1,200 locations nationwide and counting, the DC-metro-based franchise chain is a behemoth in the burger world.

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Hollis Johnson

The design of Five Guys restaurants in decidedly different than most better-burger chains. Gone are the warm wood accents, brushed nickel, and dim light …

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Hollis Johnson

… replaced by simple utilitarian tables and chairs surrounded by white tile walls with the signature red-checker design. Five Guys feel like clean, uniform, hole-in-the-wall delis — in a good way. There’s no fuss.

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Hollis Johnson

It’s truly counter service — order at the counter, pick up your food at another.

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Hollis Johnson

The menu is sans frills and flourishes. You can order burgers with choice of toppings, hot dogs, fries, and soda. Some locations — not all, unfortunately — offer milkshakes. The prices are very similar to Smashburger’s, with the largest burger option just under $9.

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Hollis Johnson

The whole vibe of Five Guys is very no-fuss.

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Hollis Johnson

If you want, you can watch your entire burger be cooked and prepared from the grill to the bag in the open kitchen.

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Hollis Johnson

The presentation is certainly no-fuss compared to Smashburger. Just a brown bag dappled with grease is all you’re handed when your number is called — no table service here.

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Hollis Johnson

The serving sizes are, in a word, gargantuan. For those unfamiliar with Five Guys’ menu, a regular burger comes stuffed with two patties. One has to order a “little” burger to get a single-patty sandwich.

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Hollis Johnson

It’s the same with the fries. Sizes run from small to large, but large should be named “massive.” Often the cup will be filled to the top brimming with fries, only to have another scoop of fries thrown in the bag. Of course, this isn’t bad. They’re amazing — I recommend the spicy and savory “Cajun style.”

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Hollis Johnson

With your choice of free toppings, there are endless combinations, but it’s still a good old-fashioned burger. There are no premium options or special burgers to satisfy the fickle gourmand. Your burger will be, inevitably, a patty — or two — in a sesame bun with whatever you decide to put on it, be it onions, cheese, bacon, pickles, tomato, etc., of decent but not extraordinary quality or freshness.

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Hollis Johnson

Is it an adrenaline-pumping, taste-bud-bewildering experience? No. It’s a simple burger that’s filling and delicious in a guilty sort of way. And Five Guys is comfortable with that approach — and it’s working. As the better-burger industry evolves, there’s something to be said for restaurants that serve an honest, humble burger in a no-frills environment. It’s the classic American burger enterprise.

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Hollis Johnson