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Five Guys - A Virginia Chain That Has Become The McDonald's Of The Fast-Casual Burger World


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A trip out to Bowie to get an oil change (near the office, cheaper than in DC, blah blah blah) led me to an outpost of Five Guys in this small but rapidly expanding DC Burb. Yes, this was my first time at a Five Guys. Evaluation? Not going back.

Where was the ketchup I asked for? Why use thinly sliced jalapenos with no heat and less flavor? What the heck was that seasoning on my "cajun" fries (and why can't you just hire a consultant from Thrashers?)? What sort of mad scientist concocted this thing you call "cheese"? Why did my bun have the consistency of soggy kleenex?

One of the few -- very few -- things that can be said about chain-i-fication is that it brings about a general consistency between branches of a restaurant. And if Five Guys is headed (and with a store in Bowie, it seems like it) into becoming a widespread local chain, I'm sure not going back to any of them. Maybe I'm missing something; when I posted something on DCist about Palena's burger certain commenters were all over me for being an effete snob and not mentioning Five Guys. Maybe the commute down Rt 50 to Bowie results in drastic quality reduction. But I'm thinking the allure is nostalgia.

Oh, and memo to Mr. Mellencamp and other enthusiasts: The chili dogs at Tastee Freeze suck now too.

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As they add branches and franchisees, they will certainly become inconsistent. Overall they are still tops in my book. The Germantown branch is usually great on the burgers but the fries can be hit or miss. Great one day, but I took my daughter last weekend and they were limp soggy things.

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Kanishka - From my perspective, your experience mirrors what I have seen at Five Guys over the past 3 years. I live very close to the Old Town location on N. Fayette St. and have found quality to have plummeted in recent years. This seems especially acute with the burgers; they have generally turned into over-cooked, soggy shells of what they used to be. The fries are more hit-and-miss; some nights I remember what made me initially happy to live near the joint. But other nights I wonder what makes me go back.

Unfortunately, other family members disagree with me, so I've recently taken to ordering their hot dog instead. Not great, but more satisfying than the burger.

It really is kind of sad to see a local establishment seemingly fall victim to the zeal to expand. I can remember my first visit to Five Guys and came to think of it as a reliable, locally-owned place for good, cheap food. In particular, I remember being impressed by their dedication to doing a (very) few things (burgers and fries) right. Now, it seems this focus on the food is gone.

Not to go on too much of a rant here, but I don't think it has to be this way. By way of comparison, in my mind Hard Times Cafe comes far closer to maintaining quality while also expanding (granted not at the rate of Five Guys, but expanding nonetheless). I've never thought of Hard Times as offering the best of anything (including chili) but it has always been a reliable meal in which I know what to expect, despite recent expansion. Sadly, Five Guys used to have this same appeal, but has strayed too far from what made it successful in the first place.

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Not to go on too much of a rant here, but I don't think it has to be this way.  By way of comparison, in my mind Hard Times Cafe comes far closer to maintaining quality while also expanding (granted not at the rate of Five Guys, but expanding nonetheless). I've never thought of Hard Times as offering the best of anything (including chili) but it has always been a reliable meal in which I know what to expect, despite recent expansion. Sadly, Five Guys used to have this same appeal, but has strayed too far from what made it successful in the first place.

I won't disagree, but I will say it's not necessarily across-the-board. I stopped at a 5 Guys in the wilds of Virginia recently, obviously a franchise and only recently opened, and the burger and fries I had there were as good as any I've had (I have gone mostly to King Street). So IMO the worst you can say is that the quality varies, perhaps more than before. :lol:

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I've only been to the locations in Georgetown and Chinatown/Gallery Place/Penn Quarter/whatever the hell that neighborhood is called this week, and the difference is night and day. The Chinatown location is clean, with fast service and good food. The one in Georgetown was unclean, crowded, and slow. It took a long time to find a table that was even remotely clean, and we were elbow to elbow with folks sitting at other tables. The food wasn't bad, though.

Oh, and memo to Mr. Mellencamp and other enthusiasts: The chili dogs at Tastee Freeze suck now too.

I think you meant Mr. Cougar.

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The Georgetown location is so incredibly slow. 20 min+ waits a lunch. Ate there once I it really saddened me to see such a DC landmark (Pied de Couchon) turned into a burger joint.

Edited by DCMark
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As bad as you all say this joint has become, I still believe that they have the best french fries anywhere. They are all creamy inside and crunchy on the outside. Hot as hell. THE BEST, I think.

But my man Roger is right about the Georgetown location. I almost lost my mind there with the wait and the filth.

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As bad as you all say this joint has become, I still believe that they have the best french fries anywhere.  They are all creamy inside and crunchy on the outside.  Hot as hell.  THE BEST, I think.

But my man Roger is right about the Georgetown location.  I almost lost my mind there with the wait and the filth.

Check out the fries at Amsterdam Falafel in Adams Morgan. They made fresh and extra crispy plus they have this highly addictive garlic mayo/cream sauce to go with them (there is ketchup and the usual condiments for traditional folk too).

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While I have enjoyed many grease-stained bags full of cajun fries and burgers from the Chinatown spot, I shed a little tear when I went to the mega-mall in Durham, NC, with my mom a few months back and saw a Five Guys in the food court — smashed right between some crappy Chinese joint and a Subway. :lol:

The expansion continues...

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Last time I visited the Guys' Route 7 location, I ordered a burger with grilled onions.

I was disappointed to discover this meant they'd come from the huge pile of chopped onions mounded on one end of the grill--the ones that made it to my burger were mostly raw, with a few spots of char.

After I scraped them out of my sandwich and my eyes stopped watering, the burger wasn't bad.

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The same company is behind the franchising and expansion of both Five Guys and Hard Times, as well as that Mark Miller fast food joint that Todd Kliman wrote about.  They approached Ray's with a weird passive/aggressive hard sell that was a big turn-off.  I did not get the sense that they were overly concerned with the quality or the best interests of the restaurant.  With franchises it is often up to the individual operator to maintain quality and consistency.

:lol: GOD FORBID that Ray's goes franchise

While it must be flattering to be approached at this relatively formative stage of your empire, Michael, your customers would be devastated unless you manage to clone yourself and have one of you at each place. Doubt that Five Guys has a wine/beer license and the wine selection at Hard Times is appalling.

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I had to go to LL Bean this afternoon and figured it might be a good opportunity to try Five Guys. I got there at 1:15 and was #74. They called #50 just after I paid, so I got to wait around with 20 or so other people. What an underwhelming experience.

My first mistake was not knowing that a regular burger is actually a double, leading to an embarassing meatectomy at the table. The meat was OK but needed salt, and was so haphazardly shaped that it fell apart once I started eating it. The condiments were not in proportions that I prefer but that's just a hazard of buying from a place that does that for you. The fries had good flavor but most were undercooked and greasy.

It was without question absolutely NOT worth waiting in line for 15 minutes for. No better than Johnny Rockets at Arundel Mills and they don't even have shakes or vanilla cokes.

Edit to add that the pickles were strange, more like bread & butter than dills. I wanted a sharp note from them and they were much too sweet.

Edited by Heather
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The toppings on a 5 Guys burger are always haphazardly put on the bun. I have found that they very much overwhelm the burger. I like mushrooms on my burger, but I prefer more burger and less mushrooms. I also hate their fried onions, they will not stay on the burger no matter how cautiously you eat it.

I have only ever been to the Skyline location, but it seems that I have started to see there what people have described at the newer location. The meat is not nearly as good as it used to be. However, the dogs are still good.

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After having had an underwhelming experience at one of the Alexandria locations three years ago, I was dragged to the new joint in Tysons for lunch today. All the criticisms above are spot-on. Blech.

The fries taste okay, but $4 for a not very big cup? No thanks.

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Five Guys is a revelation, and my life is fuller for having eaten there. At night, I dream about Five Guys cheeseburgers with bacon, mayo, ketchup, mustard, onion, lettuce, and pickle. When I walk within two blocks of the place, I find myself inadvertantly veering in its direction.

(But I've only ever been to the Chinatown branch and clearly ought to keep it that way.)

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The fries taste okay, but $4 for a not very big cup?  No thanks.

I find the "regular" order of fries to be almost overwhelming in quantity. It's not the size of the cup that matters; it's the fact that after putting the cup in your bag they take their scoop and dump a ton more on top. One regular order is more than adequate for two people in my experience. (And I'm a glutton!)

That said, Five Guys is not the cheapest place at which you could eat. I'd argue that, as measured against its competitors (counter-service, paper-wrapped burgers), it's worth the extra dimes.

Edited by Spiral Stairs
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The 5G in Georgetown brings no glory to the chain.  The burger was dry, the room was dirty, and the chick screaming out order numbers was far more annoying than necessary. It appeared that they just didn't care.

We went to the GT 5 Guys one evening pre opera (I know, I know that it is perhaps slumming to hear Verdi after a burger and fries but one must listen to what one has tickets to!). We were there for over 15 minutes with no one greetig us in any way. We tried to talk to the filk behind the counter 3 times and finally left. Seems like we didn't miss much!

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Hmmm, went to the 5 guys in Bethany, and they were slammed. About 1230 on a tuesday afternoon, and guess what... they did a great job. Burger was great, fries were good, and it is what it is. I mean, its a burger joint, not the Ritz. Can't stand the thought of people expecting more from something that charges $6.00 for a great double burger.

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I've had good luck at the Chinatown location. My (little) burgers have always tasted great, have been served just the way I ordered them, and have been pretty manageable as far as messiness goes. I always feel bad throwing away half of my fries, which unlike the correctly served burgers, tend to be sometimes "cajun" and sometimes not.

It is beyond me how someone manages to eat the following, which was ordered while I was waiting for my last meal there: a bacon cheeseburger with mayonaise, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, green peppers, jalapenos, mushrooms, and A-1 sauce. It's interesting to watch the cook try and squish all of that stuff down to seal the foil wrapper shut.

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Hmmm, went to the 5 guys in Bethany, and they were slammed. About 1230 on a tuesday afternoon, and guess what... they did a great job. Burger was great, fries were good, and it is what it is. I mean, its a burger joint, not the Ritz. Can't stand the thought of people expecting more from something that charges $6.00 for a great double burger.

I've never been to the Ritz so, it's certainly not what I was expecting.

If the burger had been great than it would have been worth my $6 and waiting 15 minutes with a restless 3-year-old. It was not great in any way. None of the components were great. The meat? Undersalted, and falling apart. The bun? Tasteless. The cheese? Calling it a cheese is far more than it deserved. The other condiments were completely overpowered by mustard and the pickles were oddly sweet. Half of the fries were undercooked and all were flabby. (Now, I will admit to a preference for crispy fries. See my comments re: Palena :P ) I have had a better burger at Fuddruckers and it pains me even to admit that we've eaten there.

For not much more I could get a burger at Johnny Rockets, and get big crisp sweet onion rings and a fountain coke with vanilla syrup. (Plus I'd be at an outlet mall and spending half as much as I would at Tysons. :lol: )

Edited by Heather
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I've never been to the Ritz so, it's certainly not what I was expecting.

If the burger had been great than it would have been worth my $6 and waiting 15 minutes with a restless 3-year-old.  It was not great in any way.  None of the components were great.  The meat?  Undersalted, and falling apart.  The bun?  Tasteless.  The cheese?  Calling it a cheese is far more than it deserved.  The other condiments were completely overpowered by mustard and the pickles were oddly sweet.  Half of the fries were undercooked and all were flabby.  (Now, I will admit to a preference for crispy fries.  See my comments re: Palena   :P   )  I have had a better burger at Fuddruckers and it pains me even to admit that we've eaten there.

For not much more I could get a burger at Johnny Rockets, and get big crisp sweet onion rings and a fountain coke with vanilla syrup.  (Plus I'd be at an outlet mall and spending half as much as I would at Tysons.   :lol: )

To each his own, but I've eaten both at Fuddruckers and Johnny Rockets (not to mention Cheeburger Cheeburger), and many 5 Guys locations, and I've never had a 5G that wasn't at least better than anything I ever had at the other two (three).

BTW, AFAIK, in a burger falling apart meat means it hasn't been over-mixed when being formed into patties. This is a good sign, not a bad one. A looser pack means a more tender, flavorful, and yes juicy pattie. You'll seldom find falling-apart burgers a McD or BK, or the other three mentioned above for that matter.

Just MHO

Edited by johnb
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BTW, AFAIK, in a burger falling apart meat means it hasn't been over-mixed when being formed into patties.  This is a good sign, not a bad one.  A looser pack means a more tender, flavorful, and yes juicy pattie.

I am able to make perfectly juicy burgers at home that don't fall apart. I have had them at other places too. This one managed to be "hand shaped" and dry.

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My .02: the chinatown location has the best fries- perfectly crispy. Reston comes in second place for fries, and the Navy Yard last (of the 3 locations I've been to). :lol: Other than feeling like I need to take a shower and a nap after eating there, I like the place just fine for what it is: gut-bomb-tastic (little) burgers and fries.

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I am able to make perfectly juicy burgers at home that don't fall apart.  I have had them at other places too.  This one managed to be "hand shaped" and dry.

So can I. What I said was that the mere fact that they fall apart isn't bad; it indicates they wern't overpreped, and that is not a bad thing. Of course it is also possible to make juicy ones that don't fall apart, but the ones that are solid are also, very often, overpreped and dry.

More to the point, you suggested that Johnny Rockets and Fuddruckers make better burgers. Maybe you just hit 5G on a really bad day/moment. I wasn't there, but in my mind there's just no question that 5G makes burgers that are MILES ahead of either of those, at least 99% of the time. Even the new locations. In my experience JR is about one grade above sawdust. Maybe you've had better luck.

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I went to 5 Guys in Gainesville for the first time last Friday. I had the Bacon Cheeseburger with sauteed onion and mushrooms. I ate it because I was hungry, but it was soggy and falling apart. You couldn't distinguish any flavor of onions or mushrooms. Their fries were respectable but certainly not worth the trip there. I also realize you can't expect much from a burger joint but given a choice, I prefer Foster's Bugers. We have three of them in the area, all family run. I don't know if there are any others in NoVa. If you are in the area and appreciate a burger, check them out.

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Did the five guys frachisees take over the board?

I have enjoyed the Five Guys burgers for many years, however, they have begun to falter compared to where they once were. Do I expect more from a burger and fries for $6? Yes, I do. I expect them to produce a burger the way they did before they decided to become a chain.

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Five Guys in Reston has huge lines lasting until two on weekday afternoons; even lines almost out the door on weekends. I've stood in this line and wondered if anyone in it really knew what a seriously good hamburger tasted like? Once upon a time in Bailey's Cross Roads Five Guys made a legitimately excellent burger and exemplery fries that would do Thresher's proud. Today, I think they succeed because most people either never knew or just forgot what a really good hamburger was suppose to taste like. Still, my hope, is that one of the franchisees will care enough to grill a burger that will approach the excellence that Five Guys exemplified. Apparently, enough of them do-even if only a handful and at that, only occasionally-to carry the name.

I would note that I haven't been back to the Reston Five Guys. One of these days I or someone else will successfully talk the owner of Milwaukee's Kopp's into selling a franchise for D. C.....

There's a very real market here for a good burger and serious frozen custard...

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It was not great in any way.  None of the components were great.  The meat?  Undersalted, and falling apart.  The bun?  Tasteless.  The cheese?  Calling it a cheese is far more than it deserved.  The other condiments were completely overpowered by mustard and the pickles were oddly sweet.  Half of the fries were undercooked and all were flabby. 
What she said. I have tried the new Baltimore Inner Harbor location twice. But never again. My first burger came in three separate chunks, each cooked to a fairtheewell. The onions were just little chopped up bits that fell out of the dry, flavorless bun. Fries, yes plentiful, but also so flaccid and greasy that both inner and outer bags, all the napkins and the table underneath were coated with peanut oil. I fed the fries to the seagulls. And the space: filthy. I'll return to Junior Whoppers for my lunchtime burger cravings from now on.
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One hazy afternoon a year or so ago Stretch and I spent a rather liquid afternoon talking to the owner of the Chinatown 5 Guys.

What we found out, in short, is that their franchising operation is very hands off. They get the supplies and that's about it. While this might be convenient for the franchisees, it runs a great risk of hurting the overall brand. Compare this to a chain like McD's, which perhaps has the most hands on operations going. Everything is written out in excrutiating detail -- take a look at one of their operations manuals if you ever get the chance. This is why every McD's has food that tastes exactly like every other.

It's been a while since I've been in a 5 Guys, but it sounds like they better revise their franchising system to improve bad outlets before it really scews them.

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What she said.  I have tried the new Baltimore Inner Harbor location twice.  But never again.  My first burger came in three separate chunks, each cooked to a fairtheewell.  The onions were just little chopped up bits that fell out of the dry, flavorless bun.  Fries, yes plentiful, but also so flaccid and greasy that both inner and outer bags, all the napkins and the table underneath were coated with peanut oil. I fed the fries to the seagulls. And the space: filthy.  I'll return to Junior Whoppers for my lunchtime burger cravings from now on.

Since we seem to have started something here, let's just throw out the question and get to the heart of it. Since so many think 5 Guys has gone downhill so bad (or never was so good to begin with), what is your suggested alternative place to buy a good burger?

Washingtonian had an article on the subject (http://www.washingtonian.com/dining/greathamburgers.html) in which they really did pan 5 Guys; apparently many agree. The ones they liked best were at comparatively upscale places like Harry's Tap Room. The chains they liked most were Fuddruckers and Silver Diner--is that right?

"Slackers" above seems to vote for BK. What do you say?

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Wow! Not paying real attention to the board yesterday and look what I missed! Interesting to find out about the franchising as the 5G that I frequent, Springfield location, usually does a pretty good job. While not perfect comparable to the burger that I had at Elevation yesterday.

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I used to frequent the Springfield one when i lived down there, and they had the best fries of any of the 5G's I'd been to (note, this is one of the quasi-originals). And the burger had miles more flavor than Elevation's. I've not yet been to the one in Gainesville (though I have a feeling I may be delaying my trip to the office today...hmmm...). The one just north of downtown Manassas (one of the earlier franchisers) is pretty good.

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I visited the Tysons Corner Five Guys a couple weeks after it opened. There were nineteen employees working in the small space behind the counter. (Who knows if there were more in non-visible space?) I had plenty of time to count them, as the line was long even at 11:30 am. It was apparent that they were still in a training phase, so that accounts for some of the overpopulation. It was funny, though, watching them fight each other for breathing space.

Is Five Guys the best burger I've ever had? Nope. Is it the best $5 burger I've ever had? Nope. Is it nevertheless a very good burger for $5? Yes. Is it a good burger compared to other equally convenient fast food locations? Yes.

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I don't think the Springfield location is a franchisee, is it? It was around long before the rapid expansion.

I'm with Heather on this one - Johnny Rocket's makes a damn fine burger and shake. I don't necessarily love the retro-kitsch feel, but give me a St. Louis burger, bowl of chili (I know it comes from a can but I love that stuff), onion rings and shake and I'll be very happy. And full for two days.

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You're right, 5 Guys will only serve them well done, and Fudds cooks them to order.

Like most burger joints, 5 guys has several pros and cons.

Pros:

Fresh-baked buns

Fresh cut, double-fried in peanut oil fries

Fresh, never frozen ground beef

Free peanuts

Locations seemingly everywhere, from Greensville, SC to Niskayuna, NY

Cons:

All the burgers are well-done, killing a lot of the good beef flavor and resulting in a drier patty

Most of the toppings suck (cheese in particular), and condiments are slathered on excessively

Fry grease permeates several layers of paper bags (then again, have you looked at the paper towel at the bottom of Palena's fry plate?)

During a lunch or dinner rush, particularly at a new mall, orders can take awhile

Locations seemingly everywhere, with quality reportedly much lower at the franchise locations than the originals.

Still, drive into most suburbs of DC and you're stuck between Wendy's, McD's, or Chicken Out. But what we really need out here is In N' Out, which will only franchise to family members. Anyone single on the board want to go out to Cali and marry into the family?

Edited by Capital Icebox
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Several people have expressed in this thread and elsewhere a preference for medium rare burgers. I have been taught that it is dangerous to serve rare ground beef, as the grinding process can stir evil little bacteria into the middle of the burger. Is that not a valid concern? Or are the medium rare eaters just throwing caution to the wind in the name of tastiness?

On those rare ( :lol: ) occasions when I'm asked how I want my burger cooked, I usually say medium.

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Several people have expressed in this thread and elsewhere a preference for medium rare burgers.  I have been taught that it is dangerous to serve rare ground beef, as the grinding process can stir evil little bacteria into the middle of the burger.  Is that not a valid concern?  Or are the medium rare eaters just throwing caution to the wind in the name of tastiness?

On those rare ( :lol: ) occasions when I'm asked how I want my burger cooked, I usually say medium.

I always order my medium rare and have never gotten sick. I also cook them that way at home, but I generally grind my own meat at home, so I know how how clean the grinding equipment is.

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I loved the burgers at the Five Guys in Old Town. I loved the soft-ish fries that reminded me of fries from my youth on the New Hampshire seacoast. I loved the greasy-ish (in a good way) burgers. I loved the melty orange cheese-like product, even though I'm from New England and grew up on white cheese. After I moved out of the area, I thought my Five Guys days were over.

Imagine my delight when a Five Guys opened in a not really close to me (but closer than driving to VA) Albany suburb. The burgers and fries were almost as good as in Old Town. Almost, but not quite. Something, I don't know what, was definitely lost in translation.

My only real quibble was that they did not have pink lemonade, my beverage of choice at Five Guys

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