Some people get very fussy and pretentious when they travel, particularly when food is involved. I agree that discovering new and interesting experiences, including food, is a huge part of the adventure, but there’s also the very important pop culture element. I love exploring grocery and convenience stores when I travel, but I also make sure to stop by a fast food establishment or two. I don’t do this necessarily to eat, although that’s been known to happen, but I find the differences in regional fast food restaurants fascinating, nowhere more so than at McDonald’s.
McDonald’s has long had a history of adapting its menu to better fit in with local sensibilities, even here in the U.S. Lobster rolls in Maine are a great example of how McDonald’s adapts its menu, but it gets really interesting outside of the United States. I’ve noticed this trend for a long time, ever since my first international trip way back in 1993 when I was a teenager. I remember stopping by a McDonald’s in Paris and being shocked to find beer, McBier to be exact. That created the fascination and since then I’ve really enjoyed finding these regional peculiarities including:
- In Vienna they serve fried Emmentaler with a nice cranberry sauce.
- In Paris they have a rich variety of deserts, including macaroons.
- In Bangkok one can find a chicken and rice bowl, with a corn pie for dessert.
The food isn’t the only difference, the quality of the restaurant is many times different, and almost always better than in the United States. The first time I saw a McCafe was in Singapore in 2007. I was shocked at how nice it was and instantly wondered why they weren’t anywhere to be found in the United States. The McCafe was a refined, comfortable coffee shop attached to the main restaurant. It was packed with people sipping coffee, eating small cakes and working on laptops. McDonald’s had successfully created an alternative to Starbucks.
Since then I’ve seen a few McCafes in the U.S., but nowhere to the degree in which they exist overseas. Every McDonald’s I’ve seen outside of the U.S. lately has had a McCafe, adding more dining options and dare I say a touch of elegance.
But why is a stop to a McDonald’s an important tourist experience? For the same reason that visiting grocery stores or book stores is important – they’re a window into the culture. A great part of this is seen in the menu. I always study them intensely, looking for the differences and peculiarities. Almost always you will see the country’s most popular food habits reflected in a few lines on the McDonald’s menu. McDonald’s is also a fantastic spot to people watch. Very rarely do I see many of my fellow Americans in these restaurants; instead they’re typically packed with locals. For the price of a cup of coffee I can rest for a few minutes and just watch people interact, learning more about them in the process.
Most people would dismiss without thought the idea of visiting a McDonald’s while traveling through some far-flung, exotic locale. What these people haven’t thought about though is the value in studying the restaurants as pop culture, a medium through which you can see first hand how people live every day. Like it or not, the fact that there’s a menu of super fancy pastries on the Paris McDonald’s menu says something about the city and her people. It indicates where they place value and what they buy. That’s not just a nice bit of trivia; it’s a vital component when trying to learn about a new destination.
So the next time you travel, don’t feel bad if you stop by a McDonald’s, you may find it to be more interesting and informative than many of the sites listed in your guidebook.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen on a fast food menu when traveling overseas?