In Austria, they serve warm curried noodles. In China, a purple taro root pie. In Japan, a golden, panko-crusted Ebi shrimp burger.
You might never recognize these dishes as McDonald’s, but they are. Because when a global restaurant serves 69 million customers a day, across 120 countries, it has to localize some flavors beyond the stock Big Mac. And now, McDonald’s is taking its first step toward bringing its international cuisine to America. At the base of McDonald’s new headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop–a trendy, foodie mecca in the city–the company has teamed with a local owner/operator to open a one-of-a-kind McDonald’s that serves menu items from across the globe.
For McDonald’s, it’s a bold brand statement–one that embraces and capitalizes on its global presence, rather than sweeps it under the rug. “If there’s one thing people know about us almost immediately it’s, they see us all over the world,” says Robert Gibbs, chief communications officer at McDonald’s. “What you know about McDonald’s is they’re big and they’re everywhere. We can’t say we’re just this tiny little restaurant.”
After years of stagnation, the company recently posted its best same-store growth in six years. That’s thanks to initiatives like all-day breakfast, new chicken tenders, and a budget-friendly menu that starts at $1. By 2020, the company wants to remake the experience of its restaurants, with higher-end finishes, table service, and the option to order via kiosks and apps. All of these initiatives–from cheap eating to froofy coffee drinks to the promise of cleaner eating options and fresh beef burgers to better designed stores–are all created in hopes of breaking its bad track record with millennials. None of these initiatives has been a panacea. But maybe McDonald’s latest idea could fare better: leveraging its global food footprint to create an Instagrammable experience.
The new 6,000-square-foot global Chicago restaurant is an early taste of that new idea in its poshest form. Leather-coated midcentury modern chairs fill the facility. Birch veneer coats the walls, warming up the colder concrete, stainless steel, and charcoal finishes.
On the wall, a global map is etched with the glowing arches dotting the world. This map advertises the origin of the menu options available at the restaurant–options that will be swapped out every two months or so. (The store also features the full McDonald’s American menu that you know.)
It’s a clever play: Woo the millennial-Bourdain-wannabe in all of us simply by offering up a McDonald’s burger from another land. So can it work? I, globetrotting, Big Mac-eating millennial, decided to find out.
At the store’s press preview, I went on an international taste adventure that included a spicy chicken sandwich from Hong Kong, cheese fries from Australia, and sweets from Brazil. I take up McDonald’s executives on their offer to order everything on the menu, creating something like my own, improvised prix fixe experience. It amounts to a two-tray, $35 indulgence. (Thank god, I used enough restraint not to finish it, but not quite enough that the heavy-footed Uber driver didn’t make me feel a bit nauseous on the way home.)
See each menu item McDonald’s is currently offering below, complete with their description and my own.
The Mighty Angus Burger From Canada
A 1/3 lb. Angus burger topped with a glazed poppy and sesame seed bun, lettuce, onion, cheese, bacon, and smoky Angus sauce
Tasting notes: Rich! A mix of Angus sauce (I don’t know what that is, either, but it tastes a lot like Special Sauce without the relish), grilled onion, and bacon. It’s remarkably rich. Needs acid. Or maybe just ketchup.
The McSpicy Chicken Sandwich From Hong Kong
A spicy breaded, deeply marinated chicken breast fried to crispy perfection served on a classic sesame seed bun with lettuce
Tasting notes: I’m warned that this innocuous-looking chicken sandwich is a mouth burner that is probably unsuitable for the American palate. It seems crispier and more unctuous than the standard McD’s chicken sammie. As for the heat . . . it has a peppery kick that lingers, but this is really Wendy’s spicy chicken territory. It’s perfectly good! But it’s not polarizing. I really want it to be polarizing. That said, I mostly finish it.
Cheese & Bacon-Loaded Fries From Australia
Our World Famous Fries, served with warm melted cheese and crispy bacon bits
Tasting notes: Okay, at this point, the charade is clear. McDonald’s really chose some safe, American-friendly ringers for its first international items. I mean, it’s cheese and bacon on french fries! And they taste as satisfyingly salty, oozy, and cheesy as you’d hope.
The Mozza Salad From France
A balsamic-dressed pasta salad with roasted tomatoes, served with mozzarella cheese, arugula leaves, choice of crispy or grilled chicken, and a breadstick
Tasting notes: This salad is less of a salad, and more of a pasta salad. “Tastes like a Midwestern picnic,” I write in my notes. The mozzarella isn’t subtle, but it’s satisfyingly springy. McD’s knows their cheese. The breadstick is a missed opportunity. They really sell this in the land of baguettes?
The Manhattan Salad From France
A mix of lettuces, baby kale, romaine, and spring lettuce topped with grape tomatoes, dried cranberries, and sliced apples, served with choice of crispy or grilled chicken and a breadstick
Tasting notes: This looks like a mashup of everything McDs had laying around in the test kitchen–those apple slices from the healthier Happy Meals, lettuce from various sandwiches. It tastes the same way, too. But then I begin to wonder, so this is France’s view of a salad from Manhattan–but it was created by the McDonald’s global food team, likely in the U.S.? So it’s the U.S., trying to imagine how France thinks about the U.S.? Frankly, I get more enjoyment out of this wasted lap of pseudo-intellectualism than I do the salad itself.
The McFlurry Prestígio From Brazil
Vanilla soft-serve ice cream, mixed with strawberry sauce and chocolate-covered coconut bites
Tasting notes: Ann Wahlgren, vice president global menu strategy at McDonald’s, tells me that desserts are actually a bigger thing in McD’s globally than in the U.S., and so this U.S. location–like many abroad–has its own dessert station to accommodate that.
This McFlurry, however, tastes like America. It’s a sweet, strawberry sundae. Its pleasant twist is when you bite into a super chewy, chocolate-coconut bite.
Espresso And Croissant
Tasting notes: The most interesting part of this McDonald’s may be its take on McCafe, with a full time barista pulling espresso shots to order. I try a double espresso and pair it with a Canadian croissant. The espresso is serviceable–like what you get out of a decent automated machine, but lacking the crema and mouth feel that American espresso drinkers crave. As for the croissant, it was fluffy but tasted like margarine.
A Missed Opportunity
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun (and filling!) meal–and probably offers the most amusement you can get from eating at a fast-food restaurant. But I’m left hungry for the promise: I’m not here for an Angus burger. I’m here for crazy, adventurous international cuisine. I want the durian fruit McFlurry. I want the McAloo Tiki, the vegetarian burger sold across India that’s as iconic in the East as the Big Mac is in the West.
In short, I’m your stereotypical millennial diner who wants every meal to be an unforgettable experience. As much as I hate to admit this, I want to be challenged by McDonald’s, to be educated, to be surprised, and to be enlightened about what the middle class likes to eat at a mega franchise around the world. And of course, all of this would give me the driving impetus to Instragram the heck out of it, too.
I can’t help but wonder if McDonald’s is just so used to appeasing the conservative American palate that it can’t break character, even at this restaurant.
When I bring this up to Gibbs, he nods sympathetically–but reminds me that this is an experimental, rotational menu, with plenty of room to test out the waters and grow. “There are unique local dishes that are not just sort of a hamburger with Italian cheese on it or something. There are places in China that you can get real, authentic Chinese breakfast,” he says. “The good news is, we get to paint with a pretty big brush.”