First off, I apologize in advance for the following comparison to anyone struggling with serious addiction. But my two visits to the new greenish McDonald's in Berkeley (at 1198 San Pablo) brought to mind nothing less than the way a heroin addict I know on occasion used to make a big production out of not just kicking it, and not just turning his life around, but of suddenly becoming the most churchgoing, Eagle Scout-y, all-American straight-arrow he could be. For a couple weeks, he would insist -- with that shaky, desperate persuasiveness the true addict can muster -- that he'd traded the needle for the minivan, and not knowing how else to handle this, his friends and family would all play along. It was an act of collective wishing -- and lying.
Anyway, the new kinda/sorta eco-McDonald's is exactly like that. Instead of being fully rehabbed and dedicated to serious treatment, it is instead covering up its bad habits beneath a veneer of respectability. The Starbucks look of the dining room and all the signs promoting yogurt and apples don't quite disguise the truth: That folks come here to feed at the salty teat of the greatest abattoir-beast the world has ever known.
Anyway, here's a couple observations after my first (and last) two visits to a revamped McDonald's that is being marketed as a local and sustainability-oriented destination for healthy eating.
- You know that nickle-thick glaze of cleaning chemicals that coats McDonald's floors like Magic Shell coats ice cream? The one that seems to kiss-suck the bottoms of your shoes? The floor at the new Berkeley McDonald's is not like that, not even in the bathroom, which was relatively clean -- and much less pee-stinking than the one in the McDonald's at Shattuck and University, which is the unofficial public restroom of all downtown Berkeley.
- Perhaps the most notable thing about this McDonald's is that it doesn't smell like a McDonald's. Instead of that familiar stink of scalded coffee, relentless deep frying, and either fresh kid puke or the cleaning sludge used to clean up the last batch, this place smells like absolutely nothing. That's an improvement. Also, the lighting in the dining room is nicely muted, even somewhat warm, and there's no cartoon clowns or kid-targeted characters decorating the joint.
- Hilariously, the islands in the parking lot are cordoned off to protect their precious, precious weeds.
That'll make up for decades of deforestation! Also, hunching down like a goat and munching on a bioswale is probably better for you than hitting the drive through.
- It's old news that Happy Meals have been slimmed down across the country and that they often include milk and apples and smaller bags of French fries. That's a curious approach: Lure people to your restaurant by promising you'll give them less of your food.
- Trip One: I had planned to order the new, "healthy" options of a refrigerated salad and a yogurt parfait, a quick glance around the restaurant revealed an unsurprising truth: All the customers were actually eating burgers and fries. So, at about 7 p.m., I joined them, ordering a Big Mac and "regular" fries. The franchisee told the Berkeleyside blog that lettuce and tomatoes are fresh, and that when possible vegetables and fruits are locally sourced. I can confirm this much: Any reasonable person would agree that the lettuce on in my Big Mac qualifies as "lettuce." The last time I scarfed down a McDonald's burger -- in the summer of 2001 -- the lettuce was more like a greasy old dollar bill and the tomato a tomato-flavored wetnap, so this is an improvement. Still, just like in '01, I wound up smearing special sauce all over a napkin because shitdamnshit enough with the Thousand Island goop already!
- The fries seemed less salty than I remember them. That's nice. I saw one dude salting the hell out of his, so the dedicated can still prove they're real Americans or whatever, while the rest of us can enjoy fries that don't taste like someone made soft sandpaper out of salt.
- Percentages of Food Eaten, Trip One: Big Mac, 40%; French fries, 100%
- Trip Two: At about 8:45 a.m., I ordered a sausage biscuit and an Egg McMuffin. (Weird how the sausage biscuit warrants no capital letters, but the Egg McMuffin is inconceivable without them.) On both sandwiches, the English muffins were appealingly browned, and the sausage in the sausage biscuit was gently but notably spiced. But both are undone by sad, glue-like, flavorless cheese that coats the meat like mucus coats the sinuses.
Seriously, is this a breakfast sandwich or one of those terrible disease photos from a medical textbook?
- The cheese in the Egg McMuffin was more slablike but still tasted more like Daiya than, say, cheese. What is the point of cheese that offers none of the pleasure of cheese? But at least it peeled off cleanly, so I was able to get through a couple bites of egg, ham, and muffin.
- I had forgotten about how seriously fast fast food is. Within two minutes of placing my order, my breakfast sandwiches were wrapped and ready on my tray.
- Percentages of Food Eaten, Trip Two: Sausage biscuit, 20%; Egg McMuffin, 50%
- Number of People Sleeping in Cars/Trucks in the Parking Lot, Per Visit: Trip One, 1; Trip Two, 2.
- In short, the new eco-friendly McDonald's is like a regular McDonald's but with an improved sense of design, some of the most depressing parts removed, and a big lie underneath everything: That people want to come here and order either a burger or fries and then substitute an apple or a yogurt parfait for the other. Considering the addictive properties of high-fat, high-calorie fast food, it's a little like a dealer bragging that his or her high-grade shit is cut with the healthiest of baking sodas.
You go, McDonald's! I'm lovin' it, and by "it" I mean diabetes!
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