I awarded three world-class medals in the Internet sector earlier this week. Today, I return to my roots -- the restaurant sector, which I covered when I began writing for The Motley Fool in 1995.

Obviously, this isn't the best of times for eateries. Commodity prices have inflated food costs, even as cash-strapped consumers clamor for value-minded menus. Toss in other factors, like higher minimum wages and stratospheric gas prices, and it's easy to see why this niche has been out of favor lately.

Thankfully for opportunistic investors, there are actually plenty of attractive opportunities in restaurant stocks. Some companies are doing a lot better than their peers. It makes them sound investments today, and even better plays if you can get in before the industry swings back into Wall Street's good graces. Here are three restaurant companies standing on the winners' podium.

Gold: Chipotle Mexican Grill
Shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill (NYSE:CMG) (NYSE:CMG-B) have given investors a wild ride lately. The company blew past Wall Street's profit targets in its first eight quarters as a public company, but it's come up short in two of the past three periods.

Is Chipotle falling apart like an unrolled barbacoa burrito? I don't think so. Let's take a closer look at last month's "miss" of a quarterly report. Profits increased 23% to $0.74 a share. A 7.1% uptick in same-store sales and smart expansion fueled a 24% gain on the top line. The market was holding out for a little more, but take a look around. Do you see any other chain pulling in these kinds of numbers in this tricky environment?

Chipotle spoiled investors with perpetual double-digit gains in comps, but if it can deliver its current healthy overall results in an operating climate where both margins and patrons are being squeezed, you have to really like Chipotle's prospects when we start eating out again in even larger numbers. Chipotle is now trading at 24 times next year's profit target. It hasn't traded at a multiple this attractive since its IPO. That worked out well for the company's initial investors, and it should have the same favorable result this time around, too.

Silver: McDonald's
Did somebody say McDonald's (NYSE:MCD)? The world's largest fast-food chain -- with more than 31,000 burger-flipping hubs, and counting, on the planet -- is lovin' it these days. Thrifty times call for thrifty meals, and the golden arches are there to serve.

Few restaurant stocks currently tempt analysts to inch their earnings guesstimates higher, but McDonald's is one of them. The company has easily topped Wall Street's expectations in recent quarters; its Dollar Menu draws in consumers, while upsell items such as premium salads and chicken-breast sandwiches broaden its offerings with healthier alternatives.

McDonald's is rolling along nicely this summer. Stateside comps shot up 6.7% last month, as burger chains such as Burger King (NYSE:BKC) and McDonald's draw both regulars and more finicky eaters who are downsizing their restaurant spending.

This story may be old news to some. The stock is a five-bagger since bottoming out five years ago. However, between its healthy 2.3% yield and its attractive valuation (just 17 times next year's estimated earnings), Mickey D's is an opportunity worth repeating.

Bronze: Buffalo Wild Wings
The wings are flying again at Buffalo Wild Wings (NASDAQ:BWLD). The stock has doubled off its January lows, and it's easy to see why. Did you check out its second-quarter report? Total sales rang in 29% higher, with earnings shooting up 41% to $0.31 a share. Yes, there's actually a restaurant stock whose margins aren't eroding.

It helps that chicken wings haven't been subjected to the escalating commodity spikes seen elsewhere. You won't find a dollar menu at Buffalo Wild Wings, but it's still an economical outing compared to pricier casual-dining chains such as Cheesecake Factory (NASDAQ:CAKE) or Kona Grill (NASDAQ:KONA), both of which are stumbling lately.

Despite its recent buoyancy, shares of Buffalo Wild Wings fetch just 22 times next year's bottom-line expectations. Like the other medalists, growing its net income at a healthier clip than its forward multiple.

Why settle for an eatery that's merely surviving, when you can bank on one that's thriving?

Our medalists have truly earned their honors amid a tough environment. And if you think I've overlooked any other winners, let me know by using the comment box at the bottom of this page.

More medalworthy reads:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.