Fast Food Nation?

The founder of Chipotle has reportedly predicted the end of traditional fast food restaurants as a result of the premium fast food phenomenon. Premium fast food chains are certainly well represented in DC. Five Guys and Shake Shack have a number of outlets as do Chipotle and District Taco. Recently I read that a DC chef is hoping his new concept of vegetable-focused fast food will take off.

There are advantages to premium fast food, especially if it lives up to its premium billing. However I have to admit that I think there’s still a place for McDonalds and Burger King – and I’d be sad if I never had the chance to experience those chains I heard about before I came to the States, like Wendy’s and Taco Bell.

Surpringly it was six months before I experienced McDonalds in the states, and nearly seven before I got to a Burger King. The closest I got was in Toronto when it seemed I couldn’t help but go to a Tim Hortons. I actually loved this chain; when you say you want to make your sandwich a meal, rather than handing you a cardboard cup and throwing some cardboard fries at you, they assume you want to add a coffee and your choice of doughnut – my kind of place.

To be honest, the McDonalds and Burger King in my area of DC, Adams Morgan, are not the most attractive destinations. They are cheap certainly but look old and rather grubby and their doorways are usually dogged by panhandlers. It makes sense – if anyone actually gives the local guy the 20 dollars he demands from passers by, he could buy two burgers and still have 15 dollars left to spend on wine. You can get a cheeseburger for a dollar – that’s 62 British pence.

When I finally got to a Burger King I was disappointed by the fries, but amazed by the portion size. In McDonalds I was pretty much happy with everything but baffled by the idea that anyone would ever need to order 50 chicken nuggets – one of the choices I was given. When I opted for a portion of six, I was given a happy meal.

But it’s getting hard to find these traditional fast food chains in city centers. When I was in Charlotte for a conference all I wanted my first night there was to avoid costly room service with a cheap burger. I was on my own, it was already 8.30pm and I just wanted something quick and cheap before heading back to the hotel to watch tv in bed. Unfortunately for me though, Uptown Charlotte (apparently they thought that sounded more positive than downtown) is a cosmopolitan playground for young professionals, full of expensive restaurants, cool sports bars and premium fast food joints. The only uptown McDonalds was in a mall that closed at 7pm and the only Burger King was on the wrong side of the tracks down a quiet, badly-lit road. The only place I could find where I could avoid a service charge and not look weird eating alone was a Five Guys.

Now everyone seems to like Five Guys – they plaster the walls with positive reviews telling you this. Their gimmick of free peanuts makes them popular with everyone – except of course mothers of kids with peanut allergies who steer well clear (I think they also cook their fries in peanut oil). However, I’ve tried them twice now and been thoroughly disappointed both times. The burgers have been thin and pretty tasteless, unable to stand up to the artificial tasting cheese slice. Also, if you take advantage of their free toppings and get the burger ‘with everything’ the resultant sandwich lacks integrity to such an extent that it threatens to fall to pieces in your hands. The only plus I can find is that if you like your ‘chips’ a little soggier than the usual American fries, this is the place for you. For me though, this doesn’t justify the hype or premium price tag, and I probably won’t be going back.

Shake Shack and Chipotle though, I love. I’ll happily spend that little extra for freshness and taste. Chipotle is a quick and healthy feeling lunch/dinner: you can get the burrito with veggies, a choice of beans and rice, and you can get it as a traditional burrito or as a salad bowl. Meanwhile Shake Shack has become one of those places we just have to take our UK friends when they visit. Here they experience the tasty secret sauce, proper medium-rare burgers and the perfect American milkshakes – and all in sensible portion sizes. They can also pair the food with a beer if they want, and enjoy the game on the big screen.

So, all in all, I’m not surprised that these premium chains are replacing McDonalds but I wouldn’t want to call time on the old favourites just yet.

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