“So where’s this mystery location we’re going for lunch, Gwen?” asked Dania, as they hurried down LaSalle Drive.
“You’ll see,” Gwen said.
“You’ve checked about price and everything?” Eleanor asked. “I’m on a tight budget.”
“I’m aware, El,” Gwen responded. “It’s going to be just fine.”
They braced themselves against the chill of the January breeze and shuffled down the pavement. About a block away, Eleanor caught sight of the massive illuminated guitar sign, and gasped.
“We’re not going to the Hard Rock Café, are we?” she trembled. The tacky décor and high prices were completely outside of her wheelhouse.
“No, not the Hard Rock,” Gwen said. “But you’re closer.”
“Rainforest Café?” Dania asked. “I know there’s one downtown.”
Neither of them could think of another comparable “theme” restaurant – where the décor and aesthetic vastly overshadowed any cuisine you could order – with a location in Chicago Gwen could be leading towards. Besides, Gwen, foodie that she was, had to have selected a location for its food, not it’s architecture.
“Right there,” Gwen said, as they reached the intersection of LaSalle and Ontario. She motioned generally, a sweeping hand that could have covered everything from the McDonald’s in the foreground to the distant peak of the Willis Tower just peeking above the horizon.
“Portillo’s?” Dania asked. The windy city staple was off to the side – perhaps Gwen had indicated incorrectly.
“No,” Gwen said. She gestured presentationally towards the large parking lot in the center of the clearing. “This fine specimen here.”
“Behind the McDonald’s?”
“It is the McDonald’s,” Gwen grumbled.
Dania and Eleanor paused for a moment, registering the golden arches that hovered above the street and inserting them into Gwen’s earlier indication of an exciting “mystery location” for lunch. Suddenly, Dania began to laugh.
“You cannot be serious,” Eleanor said, as her friend’s laughter began to catch the attention of passersby.
“Look at it!” Gwen said. “Does that look anything like any McDonald’s you’ve seen before?”
“I was prepared for a culinary experience, Gwen!” Eleanor added. “I was sure this was going to be somewhere fancy! Notable!”
“This is notable!” Gwen said. “Listen: have you ever heard of the Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s?”
The light changed, and the trio crossed the street. As the building came more into view, Dania glanced up at the squat, glass exterior – a stark contrast from the dark and mirrored surfaces of the skyscrapers that huddled around this urban valley.
“It was this famous McDonald’s location, from the 1980s,” Gwen explained. “Basically, it was built around 1950s nostalgia, for some reason, and when they remodeled it in 2005, they made it this massive, unwieldy 300-occupant temple in the middle of the city. It had a rock and roll museum attached to it, and all this memorabilia on the walls, and…plush seating. It was wild.”
“So, basically,” Eleanor summed up, “a kids version of the Hard Rock Café?”
“A Soft Rock Café?” Dania suggested, looking back at the genuine article behind them.
“Essentially,” Gwen said. “And this is the flagship location in Chicago. McDonald’s has their corporate headquarters here and everything. Then, last year, they announce they’re going to tear it down and replace it with a new building, which is going to be eco-friendly and look honestly nothing like a McDonald’s at all. And…”
Gwen made a big show of pointing to the building, now just ahead of them.
“Voilà,” she finished. The location punctuated Gwen’s story on its own – nary a spot of the brand’s distinctive red or yellow decked the exterior of the building.
“It was here?” Dania asked.
“Yep,” Gwen said. “So here’s the brand-new, futuristic, eco-friendly, minimalist version of a McDonald’s.”
They entered through the northeast entrance into a room with thirty-foot ceilings – all glass walls leading up to a genuine wood ceiling, with individual beams stretching all the way from one side to the other. At the center, a section of the roof had been cut out, and in its place hung an atrium of sorts: a glass box open to the sky above, containing three now-barren trees, still decked in holiday lights and providing the scrubbed interior with the subtlest indication of organic life.
“It’s something, all right,” Eleanor murmured. She glanced towards the seating area, recognizing immediately the familiar burnt ocher of the booth seating. While dull in color, it stood out against the revised chrome-and-black palette the rest of the store had adopted. The franchise’s faux-wood tables stretched out to three or four times their family-dinner length, into what a marketing executive had almost certainly termed “a gathering place” during a board meeting.
“It’s like if the Apple Store and a greenhouse had a baby,” Dania said.
Gwen nodded. “Carol Ross Barney is the architect. She’s big on designs that float above the ground, that give a sense of height when you interact with them.”
As they walked under the atrium into the caged walkway of self-order kiosks, Eleanor considered this idea of “floating.” Certainly, the building was lightweight, almost skeletal, and the 30-foot window-walls seemed to encouraged comparisons to the heavy mid-century architecture that surrounded it. Still, the building’s single story – even if that story was thrice the height one would expect from a McDonald’s – was utterly dwarfed by the ring of skyscrapers that surrounded it. Eleanor was briefly shot back to her STEM learning: the image of a black hole, how it warped the area around it and weighed down the space-time around it.
“Oh, what do I order,” Gwen considered. “I haven’t been here in so long…”
“Go for the 10-piece nuggets,” Dania pressed. “With the honey mustard sauce. I know what I’m about.”
“I feel like I should get a Big Mac or something else simple,” Gwen said. “To counterbalance the weirdness of the location.”
“Only change one variable in the experiment at a time.”
Food was ordered, and the group took a seat in the center of the seating area. Hovering several feet above their heads, two free-hanging walls were covered in potted plants, receiving heat and light from a row of specially designed lamps embedded into the wooden ceiling. They certainly gave the room more of a personality, and prevented the seating area from feeling empty below the high walls.
“Do they have…” Dania began, looking around. Not a single table had a napkin dispenser, or any sort of receptacle for utensils or condiments. Everything had been cleared – the only objects sitting on the tabletops of neighboring patrons were the products themselves. Once again, the Apple Store sprung to mind.
“Everything’s over on that side,” Gwen indicated. Dania walked off, leaving Gwen and Eleanor to ponder the space on their own.
“It still…feels like a McDonald’s, somehow,” Eleanor began.
“Does it?” Gwen asked. She glanced again out the window at the parking lot, which held the neighboring buildings at a distance.
“A little,” Eleanor said. “I’m not really sure how. Or I’m just having trouble divorcing my ideas about the food from the building.”
“You don’t hate McDonald’s, do you?”
“I don’t ha––” Eleanor stopped, reconsidered, continued. “I have nothing against them, except that they’re the Ur-Example of a fast-food corporation. Just enough variety in the food to satisfy whatever hunger you have, without challenging you or turning you off from coming back again.”
Gwen sipped from an iced tea. “I will recall that you are always the one telling me about the perfectly serviceable if uninteresting jazz music you praise.”
“Well, that’s it, right? When I’m working, I want to listen to music that doesn’t get in the way. That just exists in the distance. McDonald’s is, like, the Muzak of food.”
“I’d agree,” Gwen said. “Astute observation. But you know I came here for the architecture, not the food.”
Eleanor glanced around the minimal location once again. “If you play elevator music at Ravinia, it’s still elevator music.”
“I think there’s more to appreciate here,” Gwen said. “Ross Barney Architects has such a distinctive style, and it’s perfectly suited to Chicago. They did the Riverfront walking path, too. Combining that with something like McDonald’s – with any licenseable, franchised company – gives this fascinating sense of watching someone other than the company put the pieces of the restaurant together.”
“A remixed McDonald’s, perhaps?” Eleanor said.
“Maybe,” said Gwen.
“It’s like when you’re playing with Legos and you throw in a couple of pieces that aren’t Lego, and it feels like it’s sort of wrong, but distinct. Right?”
“That’s almost it.”
Dania returned, carrying a host of napkins.
“It’s weirdly quiet – do you think it’s quiet?”
Ears perked, they suddenly noticed the background music within the restaurant had been set to an oddly low level. The white noise filling the glass space, contrarily, was mainly the distant conversations of the other patrons, as the sound echoed and distorted in the high corners of the room.
“We should be careful what we say about the company while we’re in here,” Eleanor warned.”They might be able to hear us.”
“Eh, it’s muddled,” Gwen said. “Besides, it’s not as though they’re going to change the building now.”
A server, no older than any of them, arrived with two trays of food, setting them onto the empty tabletop. Dania, for a moment, forgot the physical space around her as she took in the familiar array of food in front of her. McDonald’s, the international brand that brought the promise of consistency to every one of its locations, was what arrived on the tray, no matter what glass walls sealed it off from the rest of Chicago.
“They only gave me one dip,” Dania said, holding the offending cup. “It’s a ten piece!”
“Ask for more.”
Dania groaned, and looked towards the front counter, tucked away under a massive steel wall with the Arches engraved into it. “It’s all the way over there,” she dismissed, and popped the dip open.
Image Source: Ross Barney Architects