In its latest attempt at gentrified reinvention, McDonald's has opened a deluxe "Burger Bar" in Thornleigh, NSW. The launch of this fancy new restaurant happened to coincide with my wedding anniversary - so I did the unthinkable and took my wife on a Macca's run to celebrate. No, really.
Most women really look forward to their wedding anniversary. For my wife - who is currently juggling three kids, two jobs and university study - it's basically the only night of the year where she gets to dress up and enjoy a luxurious dinner with two free hands.
When McDonald's invited me to visit its gourmet burger bar on the same night as our anniversary, I knew it was going to be a tough sell. Presumably, my wife's definition of "gourmet" differs considerably from Ronald McDonald's. But hey, it was for a story! (Such are the trials and tribulations of being married to a fast food reporter.)
As it turned out, my wife took the news better than I anticipated. "Well, it’s still a night out," she quietly mumbled.
To sweeten the deal, McDonald's provided us with chauffeured transport to and from the restaurant. Given the venue, this felt decidedly more extravagant than Bronwyn Bishop's chartered helicopter flight to Geelong. At least Geelong has wine.
So what makes McDonald's Burger Bar so special? Inspired by international design trends from upmarket cafes and restaurants, the bar boasts an open kitchen where patrons can watch their bespoke burgers come to life in front of them. (The menu follows McDonald's "Create Your Taste" concept, complete with touch screen ordering booths.)
This dedication to transparency means that no step of the process is hidden from the customer. Personally, I'd prefer not see McDonald's fry jockeys splooge out special sauce in plain view. Some procedures just aren't that appetising.
All ingredients are on full display so customers can eye the fresh produce prior to cooking. Patrons are seated in a dedicated "dining zone" away from the cheeseburger-scarfing plebs. This section is distinguished by different lighting, spacious seating and "décor elements", which seem to mainly consist of pot plants. The tables are also equipped with smartphone chargers to ensure you never have to speak to your date. (I kid, I kid.)
Customers are free to order anything from McDonald's regular menu using the Burger Bar touch screens. However, the emphasis is firmly on the build-your-own burger system which offers more than 30 ingredients. Many of these are unique to the Create Your Taste menu, such as tortilla strips, grilled mushrooms and pineapple.
I plumped for a double Angus beef burger topped with sliced jalapenos, chili jam sauce, four types of cheese, tortilla strips, two types of bacon, an egg, grilled mushrooms, caramilised onions and a slice of tomato on a char-grilled bun. I also added a side of crinkle-cut chips and a lemon, lime and bitters soft drink. My wife went with a single patty with onion, lettuce, tomato and egg in a brioche bun with a side of salad.
Watching our creations unfold in the kitchen was mildly entertaining; especially my stupidly overloaded burger which required intense Jenga-style balancing to get right. Here's what the finished products looked like:
Well. It's not what I would call "anniversary-worthy" — but it was certainly fancier (and tastier) than the McDonald's we've known and abhorred in the past. Here's a closer look at my meal which could easily pass for premium pub food:
All in all, I was pretty satisfied with my wedding anniversary dinner. Would I do it again? (Assuming my wife hasn't divorced me in the meantime.) Um, probably not.
The lack of alcohol is obviously a deal killer and despite the fancier decor, it's still a brightly lit McDonald's restaurant filled with squalling babies and teens macking on each other. (On the plus side, the entire dinner cost around $35 which barely covered a single entree during last year's anniversary. Bargain!)
"It was a different experience. I had fun. Can we go somewhere different next year?"