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We tried McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King’s signature burgers — and the winner is unmistakable

Fast Food Signature Burgers 8

Hollis Johnson

In terms of menu choices, fast-food chains are a lot like car brands: There’s something for everyone.

A five-piece chicken nugget for the on-the-go soccer mom. A quarter pounder with cheese for the erudite lovers of the classics. A salad, for … someone.

And for the person who enjoys the finer things in life, there are the flagships: the signature burgers. Without these, fast food would lose all meaning.

I decided to compare the signature sandwiches of the fast-food Big Three — the Whopper at Burger King, the Big Mac at McDonald’s, and the Dave’s Single at Wendy’s — with one question in mind: Which chain truly makes the best flagship burger?

Here is the storied and gloried lineup: the Whopper from Burger King, the Dave’s Single from Wendy’s, and the Big Mac from McDonald’s.

Unwrapping them is like driving off the lot — once it’s done, there’s no going back. The Whopper and the Big Mac have held up well, but the Dave’s Single looks like a flat tire.

Let’s start with the Whopper. There is simply no Burger King without the Whopper. It’s as entwined with the chain as the croissant is to France. It is indeed the “Home of the Whopper.”

The Whopper is a delightfully simple item: a flame-grilled quarter-pound beef patty topped with lettuce, pickles, tomatoes, onion slices, mayonnaise, and ketchup, all tucked under a sesame-seed bun. Technically the Whopper doesn’t have cheese, but since every cashier asks “With cheese?” and every customer should say yes because no one should say no to cheese, I’m including a slice of American cheese as part of the classic burger.

In reviews past, Burger King has typically scored pretty low on the quality metric. Its sandwiches are rather consistently slapdash, soggy, and oversauced. But this Whopper has bucked the trend entirely. The extremely wide, flat sandwich has a very good burger-to-condiment ratio, and the bun envelopes it all without becoming waterlogged.

The pickles are surprisingly tart, adding a much more satisfying crunch than the onions. The big, beautiful sesame-seed dotted mesa of a bun is incredibly wide, translating into a lot of bread. It almost overwhelms the thin patty at times. The meat itself is so-so, but the cheese adds a bit of richness to each bite. Burger King is known for its rather brash stunt items of late, but the Whopper is a sedate and steadfast anchor on the menu.

The Big Mac: snugly between blue jeans and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” on the scale of international symbols for America. How many burgers can say they have an economic index named after them? This double-decker burger is more iconic than London’s double-decker buses and, I would assume, a more satisfying meal experience.

Yeah, it’s true — the Big Mac Index is a thing. 

Two thin patties, shredded lettuce, onions, American cheese, pickles, the instantly recognizable three-piece bun, and, of course, the sacred secret sauce, all come together to create this burger.

Of course, by now we all know the secret sauce is far from secret. In 2012, McDonald’s executive chef Dan Coudreaut let slip the magic behind the legendary concoction in a public-relations video

There’s something about the Big Mac that just … clicks. Sure, the bun is suspiciously sweet — I’m sure a large amount of sugar is to blame — and the patties are thin. Yet the sandwich is balanced. Every bite gives the right amount of bun, beef, condiments, and toppings. The tart pickles play with the velvety sauce perfectly, and the sandwich has a satisfying heft but is not overwhelming.

Now to the burger from Wendy’s, the Dave’s Single. The flagship Wendy’s burger line has been reworked several times throughout the chain’s 46-year history, most recently in 2011. The enduring Wendy’s Single (and Double, etc.) was revamped and christened the Dave’s Hot N’ Juicy, shortened to simply the Dave’s Single in 2016. We decided to go for the Single variation for this test for simplicity’s sake, as the Whopper is comparable as a single-patty burger.

The Single consists of the iconic Wendy’s quarter-pound square patty sandwiched between two slices of American cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, pickles, red onions, ketchup, and mayonnaise, all cradled within the recently revamped premium bun.

But something is afoot here. In the ghosts of burger reviews past, there have been many a sloppy, soggy, saucy burger— almost consistently from Burger King. But here, Wendy’s is the culprit. This burger is smushed, swampy, and slathered, and I’m shocked. It was ordered during the lunch-time rush, and a similar burger from the same order came out beautifully, so I’ll give the benefit of the doubt here. But it’s troubling, nonetheless.

It’s soggy. So, so soggy. But let’s look at the positives. The square beef patty is thick and juicy, and the red onion slices add a lot more bite and zest than the white onions from the competition. But in bites lacking the crunchy onion, the sandwich quickly devolved into a bland, mayo-logged mess.

It almost seems as if Burger King and Wendy’s have gone through a Freaky Friday-style transformation here. As to which is Jamie Lee Curtis as Lindsay Lohan and which is Lindsay Lohan as Jamie Lee Curtis, I cannot say.

The winner of the signature burger showdown has to be the inimitable Big Mac. The Whopper comes in at a solid second place as a rather dignified yet somewhat humdrum flagship. And in a shocking third comes the Dave’s Single. Wendy’s usually competes with the best of burgers, but the haphazard prep dragged the tasting experience down fast.

Just look at it: The Big Mac is the shining standard of signature burgers. An instantly recognizable profile, a “secret” sauce, and a name synonymous with American cuisine — it has it all. This is a sandwich that holds the heart and soul of fast food within its three-piece bun.

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