For almost 50 years, the story of A&W restaurants has been a tale of two brands. For Americans, A&W is the definition of fast-food mediocrity, where would-be consumers are literally uninspired to visit one of the 1,100 restaurants scattered throughout the United States.
And who can blame them? The menu reads (and tastes) like a bad Culver’s. Outside of the classic root beer, the generic offering of burgers, fries, and other fast-food fare is a far cry from the other and far superior A&W brand—A&W Canada.
In 1972, the Canadian division of A&W was sold, effectively ending the relationship between A&W USA and A&W Canada. Since then, it’s grown to become the second largest food-fast chain in Canada following a slightly controversial expansion campaign that started in 2010. On social media, some Toronto residents expressed concern over the restaurants’ proximity to one another, as well as A&Ws popping up in seemingly every neighborhood.
Unlike some, I am overjoyed by A&W’s growth. This is the best fast-food chain in the country. As a Canadian, I’m often envious of the array of fast-food options afforded to our southern neighbors. When I’m visiting the States, I get excited to eat American fast food. Upon my return home, I yearn for the day Shake Shack or Chick-fil-A opens a Canadian location. In the meantime, A&W admirably fills that void.
Venturing into a Canadian A&W, you’ll notice an appearance that teeters on kitsch. Locations are built to feel retro and nostalgic, resembling drive-ins of days past. Like drive-ins, staff brings you your food wrapped in paper sleeves that are akin to the iconic In-N-Out burger wrappers.
Like In-N-Out, A&W is a worthy pilgrimage for any fast-food lover, not for the aforementioned design, packaging, or service, but for the food. If the Southwest United States has In-N-Out with its Double-Doubles and secret menu, Canada has A&W and its Burger Family.
Originally introduced in the ’60s—a bygone age when A&W was still unified—the Burger Family was phased out in the ’80s, only to be resurrected in the ’90s. Like its name suggests, it’s comprised of a series of hamburgers named after family members—the Grandpa Burger, the Uncle Burger, the Papa Burger, the Mama Burger, the Teen Burger, and the Buddy Burger.
In the same way the restaurants’ design toys with nostalgia, the burgers do too. This is what I imagine burgers served at fast-food chains in the ’50s would taste like. Patties are on the thinner side, but still juicy, and sprinkled with “A&W seasoning” that gives burgers a subtle hint of spice and peppercorn. When it comes to the toppings, A&W sticks with the basics, which are cut thin and evenly distributed ensuring you get a taste of everything in each bite. Nothing fancy going on with the buns either, which are of the sesame variety.
Perhaps the best example of the restaurant’s glory is the de facto flagship product, the Teen Burger. A play on what some Canadians might call a “banquet burger” (for Americans, a bacon cheeseburger), it’s topped with bacon and real cheddar cheese, as well the usual fixings of lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion, ketchup, and mustard, in addition to the bizarrely named “Teen Sauce,” a version of a secret sauce, which tastes a lot like plain mayo.
Along with the hints of spice and peppercorn from the burger seasoning, there’s a touch of smokiness from the bacon. Often cheese on burgers is an afterthought—not here. The cheddar is melted on the patty and has a sharper taste. The bun is toasted, subtly sweet, and slightly crunchy on the outside. Umami is also present in the form of a thick-cut beefsteak tomato that tastes fresh and ripe. The ketchup and Teen Sauce add a sweet undertone.
All in all, simplicity is the name of the game here. I’m definitely of the camp that diverting too far away from the classic burger formula diminishes rather than enhances. For me, anything like chicken strips, pulled pork, and especially things like edible gold should be left off a burger. A&W gets this.
They also understand, as the late, great Anthony Bourdain described, that burgers should be able to be eaten with one hand. In other words, these burgers are not messy, and tackling a Teen Burger can easily be a napkin-free undertaking. Too often I’m frustrated by burgers that fall apart, spill all over the place, or require the dexterity of a surgeon to eat—not at A&W.
In a world where burgers are celebrated for their “epic-ness” and ability to ooze in high definition, A&W is a breath of fresh air. These burgers are structurally well-crafted, and free of frills, but possess a diverse ranges of flavors that are both plainly tasty and evocative of a time when fast food was starting to take shape.
In spite of being born decades later, I find myself longing for a return to these early days of fast food. I remember watching The Founder, and seeing depictions of McDonald’s early days. My thoughts weren’t, “Oh Ray Kroc was a bad guy,” but, “Wow those burgers look good, I wonder what they tasted like?” Portions were smaller, menus were simpler, but something inside me tells me it tasted better. A&W has tapped into this, with its focus on simplicity, as opposed to extravagance and decadence.
Simplicity, however, is far from the only factor when it comes to judging a burger’s merit. As an example, Burger King’s Whopper, an extremely simple and traditional burger, is by all accounts, a lower-tier fast food sandwich. The toppings are tasteless and don’t enhance the overall product; the patty is dry and flavorless, and reminds me of frozen burgers that were accidentally cooked in an oven on the highest temperature setting. The Whopper’s simplicity just means that it offers little to the burger taster.
A&W burgers are the antithesis of this. Each fresh topping contributes to the overall package. And the patty tastes as it should—a little greasy, but meaty and delicious. While it may be simple, it tastes good.
For purists like myself, this is what makes A&W the purveyor of the best fast-food burger in the country. While other chains have turned to more exotic ingredients, A&W hasn’t lost sight of the fact that simple, well-crafted ingredients is what makes a burger great. In Canada where good fast-food is few and far between, A&W stands above the rest. Because of this, A&W belongs on any fast-food lover’s bucket list, even if it means crossing the border to try it.