6 Best And Worst Food Court Restaurants

The downfall of shopping malls in the 21st century isn't a tragedy, per se, but it is fascinating to witness. Frankly, even if you're too young to remember their heyday during the 1980s and '90s, it's tough to look away from the creeping death of these relics of mass consumerism. But if folks in the 2020s are no longer channeling Robin Sparkles and suggesting they "go to the mall ... today," we have to ask: what's to become of food courts?

Well, nothing, in fact, because food courts aren't going anywhere. Despite the eminently evident association between the two, the food court is not (nor has it ever been) the exclusive purview of shopping malls. Of course, no matter the location — be it a mall, airport, or otherwise — certain establishments have become synonymous with those dining areas surrounded by a collection of restaurants.

Now, while numerous chains are closely connected with food courts, not all of them were created equal. Since some stand squarely above the rest, we decided to determine which of these food court standards are the best and which are the worst. Time to see if your favorite spot ended up among the elite or wallowing amongst the bottom.

Best: Sarku Japan

Is there anyone out there opposed to free samples? Perhaps. After all, if we've learned nothing else in life, it's that universal consensus is a myth. Still, if there's a person out there who doesn't enjoy receiving a no-strings-attached sliver of teriyaki chicken from Sarku Japan while wandering the food court, we've never met them (nor do we think we want to). Of course, free samples alone aren't why this quick-service Japanese chain is one of the best food court restaurants, but the fact it sells fast, filling, and consistently delectable products as well.

The relatively slim menu found at Sarku Japan (which features a handful of teriyaki entrees, tempura sides, and premade sushi rolls as of March 2023) likely plays a hand in its success — as does its general focus on teriyaki chicken. In fact, we concur with a number of comments from a 2019 Reddit thread regarding the quality of its chicken and are hard-pressed to name a more reliable purveyor of poultry-based, teriyaki-flavored meat.

Frankly, few restaurants seem to embody the food court ethos quite like Sarku Japan. Even if you've never purchased anything from there, with more than 200 food court locations across the U.S. as of March 2023, we'd bet you've eaten (and enjoyed) its food on countless occasions. On that thought, we can't wait for our next chance to snag a free teriyaki chicken sample when the opportunity arises.

Worst: Hot Dog on a Stick

To be sure, we've enjoyed many corn dogs in our day. Yet, at the same time, it's simply not a product we've ever considered worthy of building a restaurant around. Along those lines, we aren't exactly sure how Hot Dog on a Stick ever rose to food court prominence. Discovering the franchise only operates in five states as of March 2023 (after declaring bankruptcy in 2014) cemented our belief the corn dog (and its trademark stick) shouldn't anchor a restaurant — leading us to declare this chain one of the worst food court restaurants.

Interestingly enough, whether or not Hot Dog on a Stick's signature product is, in fact, a corn dog is unclear, as noted by a 2019 Reddit thread. Semantics aside, the sheer fact this chain is known for selling such an odd, gimmicky item has never appealed to us. And since our only experience eating an actual Hot Dog on a Stick was fairly blasé (the food was, quite literally, just fine), we've always felt that opinion was justified.

Additionally, while we weren't really considering aesthetics in our assessment, we can't help but knock Hot Dog on a Stick's bizarrely-colored motif, and tailor-made-for-mockery uniforms. Between its eyesore setup, extremely niche product, and our own lackluster firsthand experience, we can't say we're disappointed it's been slowly receding from food courts across the U.S. over time.

Best: Auntie Anne's

There's no doubt "The Office" is overflowing with memorable moments, but we've always been partial to the gleeful way Michael Scott (Steve Carell) orders a sweet soft pretzel in the Season 3 episode "Initiation" — largely because we can relate to his excitement. In fact, whether it's sweet or savory, we'd almost always accept a soft pretzel; and if the product in question was purchased from Auntie Anne's — aka one of the best food court restaurants — we'd be over the moon.

The overall quality (and delectability) of this chain's pretzels plays an undeniable hand in our positive assessment — particularly the fact they are always fresh-made on-site. And while attempting to decide which of its eight available (as of March 2023) soft pretzels is the best feels like a fool's errand, if push came to shove, we'd concur with a 2023 Mashed survey: the original, five-ingredient pretzel ranks above all others from Auntie Anne's.

Now, there may be times we'd like a full-blown meal at the food court, but more often than not, we're looking for a snack on the smaller side — one we can enjoy on our feet. In that sense, an Auntie Anne's location is a sight for sore eyes (and empty stomachs), and we have no doubt it belongs among the food court upper echelon.

Worst: Subway

It feels sort of unfair to criticize Subway too excessively — or, at least, pointing out the sandwich chain's very public struggles seems akin to piling on. Then again, as evidenced by its long-term decline in sales through the 2010s, there's no way around the fact Subway (and its food) has been severely outpaced by competitors for years. Consequently, given its remaining ubiquity in (and out of) food courts, we feel we have no choice but to label Subway as one of the worst food court restaurants.

Does Subway deserve credit for recognizing its products' less-than-stellar reputation and introducing a widely-revamped menu in 2022? It depends on how you define credit, we suppose. To be sure, there's something to be said for a business expressing public humility while attempting to reverse its largely negative image.

Yet, just as Subway isn't running a charity, we're not inclined to give an international conglomerate the benefit of the doubt in this instance. Frankly, even if you still somehow love Subway in 2023 (does such a person exist?), the reasons we're ranking it among the worst food court restaurants seem quite clear.

Best: Mrs. Fields

Finding a culinary treat that reaches the mouthwatering heights of a fresh-baked cookie is nigh impossible — especially when that cookie is slightly larger than average. With that in mind, it's no wonder we hold the food court staple Mrs. Fields (and the chain's unbeatable array of cookies) in such high regard. In fact, if any person disagrees with our decision to list Mrs. Fields as one of the best food court restaurants, we'd have to assume that person has never tasted one (or they simply find no joy in life).

Frankly, unless we're on an airplane — where we'd feel forced to drink milk with a warm cookie a la Ted (Dustin Milligan) on "Schitt's Creek" — we're always excited for a Mrs. Fields baked good. And while some customers on Reddit may take issue with the quality of the company's delivered cookies, we're not here to consider other avenues — we're just talking about a warm, fresh, food court cookie.

If you've ever been enticed by the intoxicating aroma of fresh cookies near a food court, you know how easy it is to end up drawn toward Mrs. Fields. Since cookies offer a similar walk-and-talk ability found with soft pretzels, it's easy to see why they are an ideal food court item — and how Mrs. Fields earns its place as one of the best food court restaurants.

Worst: Sbarro

To be perfectly honest, whenever the topic of fast food pizza chains is discussed, we tend to forget Sbarro exists. Obviously, that subjective memory lapse doesn't bode well while pondering its overall popularity or allure — and may help inform (in part, at least) why the chain's locations have been disappearing across the country in recent years. Frankly, Sbarro's reputation as a low-rent fast-casual Italian joint is fairly widespread, as demonstrated by a 2018 Reddit thread – and contributes to its placement among the worst food court restaurants on this list.

Of course, if you're wondering why Sbarros is held in such low regard by many modern consumers, it's not all that difficult to determine. After all, the chain's "biggest shortcoming is that it sells food that has been sitting out for a while, and more people want food made to order," as restaurant consultant Michael Whiteman told Reuters in 2014.

The simple reality that Sbarro offers an overpriced product that underdelivers in taste and quality is tough to dispute. Perhaps the future may someday change the general perception of Sbarro's products. But for now, it belongs at the bottom of the food court heap.

Best: Jamba Juice

Like many other restaurant chains, there's good and bad to be found on the Jamba Juice menu — nutritionally speaking, at least. Of course, even the unhealthy products sold by Jamba Juice are a treat for the taste buds (as anything with a ton of added sugar tends to be). But the fact the smoothie chain also offers an array of incredibly healthy offerings, which dazzle with delicious flavors (like our personal favorite, the Apple N' Greens)? Well, it seems exceptionally easy to see why we're naming it one of the best food court restaurants.

As one Jamba Juice employee wrote on Reddit in 2012, whether you're in the mood for something heavy or something light, the restaurant can accommodate. That ability to pivot from an indulgent and unhealthy smoothie to one made with nothing but fruits and vegetables between visits only elevates the chain as a go-to choice.

Of course, while the fairly-even variety between healthy and unhealthy options is crucial to its food court appeal, there's another big factor in Jamba Juice's favor: It's a perfect product for moving around while consuming it. Since we have a clear preference for food court options designed for easy transport (if it's delectable, too), how could we not be big fans of this staple?

Worst: Cinnabon

To be perfectly honest, no restaurant's signature product has ever seemed more nutritionally deficient (and detrimental) than Cinnabon. Of course, while we don't have all the data to compare and contrast, a quick peek at the nutritional information for Cinnabon's Classic Roll — which contains a jaw-dropping 880 calories and 61 grams of sugar — lends some credence to that belief. The chain's artery-clogging, love-handle-growing nature is simply too great to ignore, so we're categorizing Cinnabon among the worst food court restaurants.

Moderation is the key to a healthy life, of course, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with a person choosing to indulge on occasion. But Cinnabon's food is less of a treat than a trick in our opinion. As evidenced by several comments on Reddit in 2020, the combination of cloying sweetness, an overly-rich, heavy roll, and excessive frosting from Cinnabon's main products is too much to overlook for other consumers, as well.

Add our lingering memories of Omaha, Nebraska-based manager Gene (Bob Odenkirk) — the sad sack Jimmy-McGill-in-hiding seen on "Better Call Saul" — and we're convinced (and content) with our assessment of Cinnabon. So tasty or not, we think it belongs among the lower tier of food court restaurants.

Best: Wetzel's Pretzels

Soft pretzels are a nearly unbeatable food for walking-around situations. In that sense, the bar wasn't all that high for Wetzel's Pretzels to make this side of the fence. Yet, we're not in the business of rewarding subpar products just because, and quite frankly, the fantastic flavors found from Wetzel's Pretzels clinched this spot all on their own.

Obviously, we're not the only ones partial to the fresh, toothsome soft pretzels from Wetzel's. In fact, the chain reported record sales in 2021, which included a rather astonishing 24% increase in total sales that year compared to 2019. Additionally, since working at Wetzel's Pretzels seems like a fairly decent experience for employees, we're not burdened with any guilt over our purchase.

Now, you may be curious which chain makes the better pretzel between Wetzel's Pretzels and Auntie Anne's. But the fact of the matter is we're not here to pit them against one another (we'll save that for another day). So, while we can't say which we prefer, there's no doubt both soft pretzel-focused chains are among the best food court restaurants.

Worst: Orange Julius

Certain restaurant chains, like Orange Julius, just seem to scream "food court." But just because a chain appears to operate exclusively in food courts doesn't mean it's one of the best selections there. And, unfortunately, with little to offer consumers beyond sugar-saturated, fruit-flavored juices (and some of the least healthy fast food smoothies on the market), Orange Julius ranks as one of the worst food court restaurants.

Of course, we're not really interested in investigating whether or not Orange Julius has ever existed outside a food court setting. Rather, we're here to explain why the fast-falling smoothie chain — which has closed numerous locations in recent years, including one of its longest-operating stores in Great Falls, Michigan in 2020 — belongs at the bottom of the food court pack.

In all honesty, it may be a simple matter of consumer tastes and preferences shifting through the years, to the point where an empty-calorie beverage — like the classic Orange Julius — has no real place in modern diets. Regardless of the reason, we can't help but brand the once-mighty Orange Julius (which remains in existence through shared Dairy Queen locations) as one of the worst food court restaurants.

Best: Panda Express

Before we explain why Panda Express deserves to be listed among food court all-stars, we want to make one thing clear. If you're craving (American-style) Chinese food and can wait until you're able to order from a non-chain establishment, we highly recommend that. But if you simply must scratch that culinary itch while in a food court, you can't do much better than the large portions and moderately healthy selections found at Panda Express.

We'd have to agree with a number of comments from a 2015 Reddit thread: Panda Express is among the best (American-style) Chinese options out there. We wouldn't place Panda Express alongside the absolute best (American-style) Chinese restaurants, as we noted before ... but as a chain restaurant and food court staple, it's some of the best in the business.

Panda Express may have a reputation for low-quality or poor-tasting (American-style) Chinese food among some, but as a number of comments from a 2019 Reddit thread noted, that misconception is way off-base. We're immensely confident in our assessment of Panda Express, then, as one of the best food court restaurants.

Worst: Au Bon Pain

Is there a reason we tend to view Au Bon Pain as an artifact from the turn of the 21st century? We're not sure. Either way, we weren't actually aware the faux-Parisian chain was still in business in 2023 — in food courts or otherwise. Of course, discovering Au Bon Pain is still around, we were reminded how its supposedly-fancy products always left us slightly deflated, and are inclined to place it among the worst food court restaurants.

Interestingly enough, we're not the only ones who disdain the very presence of Au Bon Pain, with some having demonstrated a vitriolic hatred for the chain for decades. Quite frankly, other than the fact that the restaurant appears to offer free WiFi to customers, there's little to love about Au Bon Pain.

If you were under the mistaken impression Au Bon Pain had gone under in recent years, you're probably not shocked to see it listed among the worst. Since it is still operating, though, and even began adding new locations in 2022, we have no choice but to call this spade what it is — one of the worst food court restaurants.