This year has been a good one for many stock market niches, but investors left several popular restaurant stocks out of the rally. In fact, most of the largest restaurant companies underperformed the S&P 500 and its nearly 30% gain in 2019.

Below, we'll look at the biggest losers with an eye toward their prospects in the year ahead. The listing below is based on the worst stock performances through Dec. 17, in descending order.

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Return data as of Dec. 17. ^SPX data by YCharts.

5. Domino's Pizza

Given this stock's massive rally over the last decade, investors were bound to be disappointed in Domino's Pizza (NYSE:DPZ) at some point. And that moment came in 2019. The pizza delivery leader gained just under 20% on the year as it stumbled through the flood of new entries into the delivery space. That extra competition has knocked Domino's growth pace down a notch, at home and internationally.

A couple eating pizza.

Image source: Getty Images.

The good news is that the pizza giant still expects to achieve market-beating comparable-store sales growth that will translate into robust earnings with help from its small-store format. Yet investors have had to scale back their expectations for a company that had been routinely boosting revenue at near 10% a year through 2018.

4. Dunkin' Brands

Dunkin' Brands (NASDAQ:DNKN) lands a spot on this list with a performance similar to Domino's. The snack and coffee specialist is struggling with weak customer traffic that stands at odds with Starbucks' booming gains in the U.S. market.

Yet it's too early to count Dunkin' Brands out as a strong investment. CEO David Hoffmann and his team are excited about the potential for new menu items to lift guest counts into 2020. Looking further out, they're hoping that a push into home delivery will improve comps, just as it has for Starbucks in recent quarters.

3. Darden Restaurants

Darden Restaurants (NYSE:DRI) has been logging growth at its core Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse franchises for several years. Yet that expansion pace slowed early in fiscal 2020, with comps landing below 1%, compared with 2.5% during the prior year. That deceleration was partly driven by a lower level of promotions like its never-ending pasta bowl, so it wasn't a huge cause for concern by investors.

Still, Wall Street isn't happy to see comps gains cut in half from one year to the next. And so it has punished the stock as it waits to learn whether those sluggish traffic levels (when compared with fast-casual meal options) are part of some larger shift away from full-service dining.

2. McDonald's

It wasn't a great year for McDonald's (NYSE:MCD), whose 11% stock price gain makes it one of the relative laggards in 2019. The fast-food titan has struggled to get its U.S. division up to the impressive operating level in markets like France and China. In fact, even after pouring billions into store remodels, customer traffic declined in Mickey D's recent fiscal third quarter, just as it has since early 2018.

The chain's global numbers are strong, and its long-term returns are stellar. However, the persistent traffic problems in the U.S., plus a surprise turnover in the CEO position, has investors acting cautiously on this stock today.

1. Yum! Brands

Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) is 2019's worst-performing restaurant stock, having gained less than 10% as the year heads to a close. Investors are concerned mainly with the struggling Pizza Hut franchise, which last quarter announced falling sales and declining margins.

Worse yet, executives predict a period of continued weakness as the restaurant stock tries to transition to more of a delivery focus. That shift would open Pizza Hut up to far better economics and growth potential. Yet the move will put it in more-direct competition with rivals like Domino's, the tech leader in the space. Investors who like the chain's international growth profile and its wide fast-food portfolio might take the stock price slump as a good opportunity to buy shares. They should be prepared to hold through some volatility over the coming quarters, though, as Yum! Brands works to stabilize the Pizza Hut franchise.