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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 20th February 2004


ES Magazine - 20th February 2004

It's not every day that a fast food restaurant is used as a location for a Vogue fashion shoot, but, then again, not every fast food restaurant looks like the newly refurbished McDonald's on The Strand. With its black leather banquettes, arty photographs on the walls and a McCafe selling carrot cake and cappuccino, it looks more like a Starbucks than a hamburger joint.

"In terms of ladies who lunch we think we can give Harvey Nichols or The Ivy a run for their money," says Amanda Pierce, a spokesperson for the chain. "We're aiming for it to become a star spotter's paradise."

It's all a publicity stunt, of course. The chances of a bona fide celebrity setting foot in a fast food restaurant are vanishing to zero--unless you count the recent winner of I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. McDonald's paid for the two-page spread in Vogue as a way of publicising a nationwide re-branding exercise. The Strand branch isn't the only one to receive a facelift. Plasma screens and wireless Internet access now feature in 50 branches of the restaurant, with another 50 to follow.

Will McDonald's succeed in poshing itself up? If the aim is to appeal to a more upmarket demographic, the answer must be no. When I was at Oxford, the only undergraduates who regularly dined on Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets were Old Etonians. Everyone else suffered from too much status anxiety to be seen dead in the place. And it's going to take more than a few cosmetic changes to alter the public perception of McDonald's as a glorified soup kitchen.

On the other hand, if the object of the exercise is to keep pace with the changing taste of McDonald's existing customers, then it might just work. In effect, what's happened on The Strand is that the design revolution that began in the 1980s has finally filtered down to the very bottom of our society. Terence Conran may not have personally redecorated this particular branch of McDonald's, but his influence is detectable everywhere, from the understated black uniforms of the staff to the espresso machine behind the counter.

The main reason McDonald's will never break out of the lumpen proletariat ghetto is because the food just isn't good for you. The most talked-about movie of last month's Sundance film festival was Super Size Me, a documentary in which a healthy, 33-year-old man conducts an experiment in which he eats nothing but McDonald's food for a month. (To up the stakes, every time a member of staff says, "Would you like me to super size that for you, Sir?" he has to say yes.) 30 days later, his cholesterol level has skyrocketed, his liver is clogged with fat, he's suffering from asthma, chest pains, depression, headaches and heart palpitations, and he's gained 25 pounds.

In the hope of avoiding similar problems, I opted for the most healthy things on the menu. I started with a fruit bag, a plastic container about the size of a crisp packet that contains a few slices of apple and some seedless grapes. It's a little known fact that, following the introduction of this item to the menu last year, McDonald's is now the number one retailer of pre-packaged fruit in the UK. I was actually surprised by how tasty it was. No complaints there.

For my main course, I chose a chicken caesar salad with ranch dressing. Unfortunately, this didn't turn out to be quite as healthy. According to Eric Schlosser, the author of Fast Food Nation, Chicken McNuggets are injected with beef extract and actually contain twice as much fat per ounce as hamburger meat. The chicken in my salad tasted as though it had been subjected to the same treatment. However, it wouldn't have been so bad if I'd opted for the balsamic vinaigrette instead of the ranch dressing. Next time British squaddies want to test the effectiveness of their nuclear, biological and chemical warfare suits, I suggest they fill some water pistols with this acred, white gunk and fire it at each other.

All in all, this new, upmarket branch of McDonald's is a big improvement on the ordinary highstreet outlets. But the chain has a long way to go before it poses any threat to Harvey Nicks and the Ivy.

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