Shouldn't the country that unleashed McDonald's upon the world have the best McDonald's menu?
Barely out from under the shadow of one of the continent's most easily recognizable skylines, Chicago's West Loop, once primarily a warehouse district, is these days one of the city's most sought-after neighborhoods, and it all started with the restaurants. Back when nobody wanted to be here after dark, back when rents were a lot cheaper than they are now, this is where you came to experience some of the city's most exciting new food; coming here felt like an adventure, mostly because it was.
Fast forward a little over 20 years, and things are very different—besides the fact that a lot of people live over here now, there are also many more restaurants to consider, some of them tastefully decorated with Michelin stars.
Much of the action is centered along West Randolph Street—mornings, you will find pretty young things sipping cappuccinos in modern cafes, or perhaps indulging in a weekday breakfast at Stephanie Izard's Little Goat. Why, yes, that is Rick Bayless you've just seen, no doubt dropping by to check up on his ambitious brewery/taqueria project, down by the corner of Peoria Street. Au Cheval, which sells the city's most celebrated hamburger, boasts an obsessive fan base, prone to waiting hours for their chance at a table. Things happen here, people appear to like being here—this is New York's Meatpacking District with fewer tourists, and more room to breathe, complete with two Midwest firsts—a Soho House, and an Ace Hotel.
When McDonald's, perhaps the most famous Chicago restaurant of them all, wanted to make a statement, looking to get out of its suburban rut and back where the action is, they not only chose the West Loop as their home, they chose West Randolph Street. The new McDonald's mothership is no mere urban office park, mind you—occupying an entire block along Randolph Street, the loft-like building is fronted by, you guessed it, a stylish-looking McDonald's restaurant, designed very tastefully, as tasteful as these things get, anyway, to the point where it almost blends in with the on-trend surrounds—except, perhaps, for the telltale sign above the door.
Wrapped in a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass, the space commands a complete view of the action out in the street—there are some very slick-looking McDonald's out there, these days, but when I showed up to eat just a few days after the official opening, I felt as if I might have wandered by accident into some new, upscale fast-casual I hadn't yet tried, rather than a place that sells paper-wrapped cheeseburgers for a buck.
Terrazzo tile floors, artfully hung, energy-efficient light fixtures, exposed ducting and concrete pillars; mid-centuryish chairs and tables—it's all here, and it really does look good. The space, while at first glimpse appearing to be somewhat vast, is actually quite intimate; in two seating areas flanking the main entranceway, you could seat perhaps 50 people apiece, maybe a few more.
And what an entry. The first thing you will likely be drawn to is the very yellow, rather large Nuova Simonelli espresso machine to the right; this is the crowning glory of the store's McCafe set-up. Registers sit below those now-standard LCD screen menus. Don't want to talk to a human? You've got touchscreens galore, and because I prefer to take far too long in making up my mind when ordering at restaurants, I plant in front of one of them and start scrolling through my options.
One can find pretty much anything McDonald's-related your heart might desire on the menu here, but I've come to try the international menu. Let's say you've traveled overseas—chances are, and it's completely okay, nobody's judging you, you've stopped by a McDonald's, once or twice, and you know. You know that the menus are different, often quite different. From India's Maharaja Mac to Japan's Tamago Burger, it's a whole other world out there, and often, the food is far better than you were expecting.
That's what's making this new McDonald's such a big deal—for the first time, American diners are being offered a rotating selection of what the company is calling Global Favorites; right now, you will find offerings from the likes of Australia, Hong Kong, Brazil, and others. On my visit, there were two sandwiches, two salads, a side dish, a range of desserts and a full selection of coffee drinks.
Because it looked the most unusual, I began with the Italian Mozzarella Salad, which actually looks a lot like something I've seen being eaten in McDonald's in France. It's pasta salad, basically, lightly dressed in a fairly sweet vinaigrette. There are tasty roasted tomatoes, little scoops of mozzarella cheese, a nice big piece of chicken breast (I opted for grilled, look at me being healthy, rather than fried), and a little nest of arugula on the top. It's a simple salad, and the chicken is clearly processed, but it tastes good. It has been showered with black pepper, and not too much salt—who doesn't like a pasta dish masquerading as a salad, really?
Moving right along, I turned my attention to the McSpicy Chicken Filet, imported from Hong Kong. As McDonald's sandwiches go, this $3 entry on the menu more than did its job. The composition was simple—there was the filet, well breaded, largely comprised of what looked like pressed dark meat, fried nice and crispy; then you have mayonnaise and shredded lettuce, piled onto a sesame bun. There was just the right amount of heat to please both heat freaks and phobes. It wouldn’t tear anyone away from, say, Chick-Fil-A, but I liked it just fine.
Finally, it was time for a burger. The Mighty Angus line is a centerpiece of the Canadian McDonald's menu—here, we're being offered the Original. The 100 percent Angus beef patty sits on a pedestal-like, very large bun, topped with poppy and sesame seeds. Crammed inside, there was very green leaf lettuce, a thick slice of well-ripened tomato, American cheese, grilled onions and shards of cooked bacon. Finally, you get a rather generous portion of what you or I might refer to as chipotle mayo, smoky and creamy; in Canada, it is referred to as Angus Sauce. You don’t really go to McDonald's looking for a good burger bun, but this one stood out—really, the whole set-up was just plain good, starting with the meat. Then again, for nearly $6, one would hope so.
And then—finally—here come the Loaded Fries, all the way from Australia. Down Under, you have a choice of toppers, for instance, gravy or guacamole. Here, we must content ourselves with cheese and bacon. Then again, what's not to like about tangy cheddar sauce, and generous amounts of shredded bacon? Loaded With Flavour, the box promises. Well, yes, kind of, at least until you figure out that for 60 cents more (atop a nearly $4 base price), you can double the cheese sauce and bacon toppings, and you should absolutely do that. This, it can be revealed, makes for very good fries, indeed.
The rest of the offerings are, well, they're there—the Manhattan Salad from France is mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, apple slices and cranberries, once again topped with chicken—it's healthy, it's a salad, let's move on. Desserts are fine, and are currently being outsourced to Brazil. The McFlurry with Prestigio chocolate bon bons (it's coconut enrobed in milk chocolate, and it's something like their version of a Mounds bar) and tangy strawberry sauce is a nice little tropical diversion, while a series of sundaes topped with crushed peanut candy and adorned with cookie straws will please, if not wow. The McCafe menu imported from Australia appears to lose something in the translation—a flat white, a chai latte and something called an iced chocolate (chocolate milk, by any other name) all fall short of being interesting, even if they're all nicely priced at $2 apiece.
On the whole, this is perhaps the most unique experience you can have at an American McDonald's right now, and if they do end up regularly rotating their Global menu, that could end up turning this block of Randolph Street into something of a destination for fans of the brand.
All of which poses the question—should McDonald's be thinking about doing this elsewhere? Why not have flagship stores with expanded menus, in high-profile locations around the country? Is it so hard to whip up a pasta salad, or ship a few boxes of Angus beef patties across the border? The company is enjoying something of a moment this spring, with recently-announced earnings exceeding expectations, no doubt on the heels of all of those store renovations, with the advent of mobile ordering, with menu tweaks and partnerships with popular delivery services.
Let's not stop there. Let's make the food better, too—we invented McDonald's, after all. Shouldn't our McDonald's be the best in the world?