We Tried 6 Fast-Food Hot Chocolates. Here’s the Winner.

If you thought Starbucks was king of seasonal drinks, you might want to think again! Find out what chain has the best hot chocolate.

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Handle hot cup of chocolate.; Shutterstock ID 575054329; Job (TFH, TOH, RD, BNB, CWM, CM): Taste of Home

You could say that I’m pretty serious about my hot chocolate. I like a classic cup of cocoa, but I’m always open to new variations (hello, frozen hot chocolate!). And if I’m tight on time, I’ll even opt for a packet—I don’t mind!

But if I’m being truthful, the best hot chocolate is one that I don’t have to make at all. I’m talking about a steaming cup of cocoa from a cafe. There’s just something extra special about a fancy version topped with fresh whipped cream and maybe a nice chocolate drizzle.  That’s why I put six fast food restaurants to the test to find the best cocoa for when you’re on the run or when you just don’t feel like making a cup from scratch. I visited these chains:

  • Caribou Coffee
  • Corner Bakery Cafe
  • Dunkin’
  • McDonald’s
  • Panera
  • Starbucks

Ready to see how they stacked up?

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McDonald's McCafe
Hot Chocolate

6. McDonald’s

When it comes to McDonald’s, I have to say I’m a sucker for a Coke (seriously, it’s better there!) and hot order of french fries. However, the chain’s hot chocolate doesn’t live up to those high standards.

The McCafe Hot chocolate wasn’t as satisfying as other brands. I found it to taste pretty artificial—something about it reminded me of candy coating. While I appreciated the nice swirl of whipped cream and chocolate sauce, I just didn’t find this hot chocolate to be very chocolatey. Next time you visit, try these secret menu items instead.

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Panera hot chocolate
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5. Panera

When I ordered a hot chocolate at Panera, I got pretty excited. The clerk asked me if I wanted whipped cream, chocolate chip marshmallows and a salted caramel drizzle. As a fan of everything sweet, I said yes to all three. When I opened up the lid on this drink, I was pretty stunned. The toppings looked gorgeous!

When I took my first sip, I was very happy—but that first sip was 100 percent whipped cream and salted caramel. Who doesn’t love salted caramel? Once I got past all the tasty toppings, I felt let down. Panera’s hot chocolate wasn’t very chocolatey at all. In fact, it tasted a lot more like warm milk than anything. At least there are these tasty Panera copycats I can always turn to.

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Dunkin hot chocolate
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4. Dunkin’

Of all the hot chocolates I tested, I have to admit that Dunkin’s looked pretty plain Jane to me. It was the only drink to come without whipped cream or an extra drizzle of chocolate. I was pretty surprised since this chain has plenty of decked-out donuts and secret menu drinks.

Looks proved to be deceiving, though. Inside that simple paper cup was a pretty darn good hot chocolate. It had a nice milk chocolate flavor that really made it easy to sip. Sure, it was a bit sweet, but it was quite satisfying. I’d say it’s a worthy accompaniment to your donut or breakfast sandwich order.

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Corner Bakery hot chocolate
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3. Corner Bakery Cafe

At Corner Bakery Cafe, I got a great surprise when I ordered their hot chocolate. The cup was topped with whipped cream and cocoa powder, so it looked beautiful to me. As for the taste, I enjoyed it just as much! This hot cocoa had more of a sweet, milk chocolate flavor, which I really enjoyed. It wasn’t overly rich, so I could see myself finishing every last drop. It’s definitely worth trying!

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2. Starbucks

There’s something special about a Starbucks seasonal drink. Pumpkin spice latte, anyone? I personally look forward to a good hot cocoa from Starbucks as soon as the weather gets chilly.

That’s because this hot chocolate always seems like a real treat. It’s incredibly rich, almost like a ganache. The chocolate used in this drink reminds me a lot of Dutch process cocoa—very dark, decadent and not overly sweet. The slightly bitter flavor pairs really well with a generous swirl of whipped cream (fresh is better).

I will say, though, that if dark chocolate isn’t your favorite, you might want to skip this one, but if you love all things dark and decadent, you’ll want to make a run to your nearest Starbucks this winter.

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Caribou Coffe Cup
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1. Caribou Coffee

Of all the fast food hot chocolates I tried, Caribou Coffee was the only one that gave me options: white, milk or dark. I was pretty impressed with that! I thought that bit of customization was very smart because some folks prefer sweeter chocolate and others like bitter dark options. Did you know that dark chocolate, in particular, has lots of health benefits?

But you’re dying to know what it tastes like, right? Well, I ordered the milk chocolate option and I found it to be a really excellent treat. It was a nice balance of chocolate, sweetness and milk. Plus, it was topped with a dollop of whipped cream and some mini chocolate chips. It can be a difficult balance to strike, so I was happy to find that Caribou managed it.

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The Bottom Line

When it comes to fast food and chain cafe hot chocolates, there’s a surprising amount of good options out there. This wasn’t necessarily the case when I tried a handful of fast food burgers!

In the end, I’d happily sip any one of the top picks in this taste test, but I have to give it up to Caribou in the end. Like I said, the hot cocoa there found the right balance between chocolate, cream and sweetness. However, what I really liked—and what was totally unique to Caribou Coffe—was that you could choose the kind of chocolate you prefer so everyone from white chocolate to dark chocolate lovers could find something to love.

Next, take a look at these best hot chocolate gift sets perfect for everyone on your holiday list.

Lisa Kaminski
Lisa is a former Taste of Home editor and passionate baker. During her tenure, she poured her love of all things sweet (and sometimes savory) into Bakeable, Taste of Home's baking club. Lisa also dedicated her career here to finding and testing the best ingredients, kitchen gear and home products for our Test Kitchen-Preferred program. At home, you'll find her working on embroidery and other crafts.