The feeling was a little weird, like waking from a fuzzy afternoon nap to find my brain floating about two feet to the left. It was the McDonald’s Restaurant’s fault. It had to be, even though I didn’t do anything crazy like eat there; I just walked by. The Golden Arches hung on the front of the restaurant, the customary yellow-upon-red scheme as normal to me as my face in the mirror. But the slim brick building wedged between a moneychanger/souvenir shop (“Best Rates! Euro! American! I Heart London shirts, cheap!”) and the Bolivian consulate (or maybe restaurant. I can’t read Aymaran), was probably 500 years old. Things 500 years old back in the States are dug up by archeologists and put in museums; in the U.K. people buy Big Macs in them.
I think this is what bothered me; the McDonald’s Restaurant wasn’t in its natural environment. The restaurant chain, that began as a barbecue joint in Monrovia, California, in 1937 (offering more than 20 barbecue items on its menu), moved to San Bernadino, California, in 1948 and became a hamburger, French fry, and milkshake drive in. Mixer salesman Ray Crock bought franchising rights to the restaurant in 1955 and, boom, 58 years later America is the second fattest country in the world (thank you Mexico for making us Number Two). The first McDonald’s sat on the side of a highway. That’s where McDonald’s are supposed to be, on busy sidewalk-free roadways Americans have to drive to. This restaurant in London was right on the pavement where just anyone could walk in, which is a bit careless of the planning and zoning department.
My shoes slapped the London pavement as I went by the building’s tall glass windows, stickers for the “Great Tastes of America: Louisiana BBQ, Chicago Supreme, Arizona Nacho Grande, California Melt, New York Classic,” making me wonder why, in a city with food readily available from almost every culture on this planet, would anyone go out of their way to eat an Arizona Nacho Grande Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s? Looking past the stickers I realized quite a lot of people would. The place was packed.
As frightening as this is, American food might just be part of the international cultural experience. Probably so, American restaurants in general seemed to be everywhere. There are 1,200 McDonald’s in the United Kingdom, but, unlike back home, McDonald’s doesn’t sit at the top of the fast food mountain. It’s not Burger King either, although the charbroiled burger chain has 1,400 locations in the U.K. The biggest American fast food location here is Subway with 1,500 restaurants.
A bread and lunchmeat store? Really?
Walk down most business district streets in U.K. cities and you’ll not only find McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, but Pizza Hut (400 U.K. stores), Dominos Pizza (770), KFC (777), and Starbucks (556). I also saw a couple of TGIFridays in London, as well as a Chipotle Mexican Grill. What’s next for the British? Eating grits at Waffle House?
This made me wonder where all the British fast food franchises were. I saw a few Pret a Manger restaurants, which sell healthy freshly made sandwiches, but there are only 230 of these shops in England (and one in Wales), and the famous British hamburger joint Wimpy only has 150 locations in the entire United Kingdom. They must be well hidden because I didn’t see one.
As I continued down the street I walked the walk of the righteous food snob because I didn’t eat any American food while I was there. I ate at traditional British pubs, restaurants operated by people from countries most Americans don’t know exist, and street vendors. The French truffade I purchased for £4.50 from a vendor near Westminster Abbey, is sort of a pancake made with potatoes cooked in goose fat mixed with cheese, sausage, and ham. It was delicious. They don’t sell that at McDonald’s, even in France. Seriously, I checked.
Home now I can safely say I would have gone to one American restaurant if I’d known it was there; a Hooter’s in Nottingham. Oh sure, it sells hot wings, burgers, fries (chips), onion rings, and everything else from the States that’s “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined,” but in a 7 October 2010 London Daily Mail article the author called her visit to the restaurant, “probably the worst Friday night of my life.” This article brought with it a pang of regret. Not from the article itself, but from one the 644 comments attached to it. A man complained that all the Nottingham waitress’s boobs were natural. Now there’s something you can’t find in the States.