Ah, McDonald’s: that most unholy of core, near-universal American experiences. The cacophony of blaring fryer alarms, the arresting aroma of French fries and the perennially broken ice cream machine are a widely shared experience here in the States. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t, at some point in time, gone to a McDonald’s to hang out with their friends as a kid. It’s just one of those things that’s so formulaically consistent it becomes comforting at a certain point. Even compared to other fast food chains, it’s a design and aesthetic that’s so absurdly, reliably universal that if you don’t look out the window, you might feel like you’re at the one you grew up going to, even if you’re halfway across the country.
Now throw all that out the window.
Imagine you’re in Chicago’s Fulton Market district looking for something to eat in a hurry, and you see the golden arches over what looks like a series of futuristic automated doors. The first set of vaguely transparent, dark red-stained plexiglass doors slides open as you approach. It takes you into a small mezzanine that’s meant to shield the inside from the annual four to six months of bitter cold Chicago sees each year. Before the second set of doors slides open, the mezzanine warns you that something isn’t right; in the saccharine door’s reflection, you see an odd glowing shape.
A quick glance over your shoulder reveals a cylindrical light fixture that feels out of place for a McDonald’s. While your back was turned, the second set of doors opened silently, revealing something deeply uncanny. If an alien was tasked with designing a typical restaurant from Earth but had only been to a McDonald’s and a high-end cocktail lounge, this would be the result. Workers mill throughout the restaurant wearing ties and dress shirts, taking food from the kitchen to guests sitting in what appears to be high-end, custom-made furniture.
Before ordering, the urge to do a double take between the golden arches and the building’s interior takes over. Ducking out and back into the fast food spot reveals that yes, you are, in fact, in a McDonald’s. Not just any McDonald’s, though. You’re at the Global Menu McDonald’s—the only location in the world that serves items from McDonald’s locations in other countries. It is, after all, inside Hamburger University: a sort of boot camp for potential franchise owners and managers and the company’s global headquarters, so it must be important.
On re-entry, it’s unsettlingly calm, like the lobby of a high-end hotel; gone are the fryer alarms and frantic exchanges between workers. Inside the restaurant, the ordering kiosks and a few errant McDonald’s logos are the only recognizable markers that indicate that this is a McDonald’s. The menu features items like goat cheese burgers from Spain and matcha McFlurrys from Japan; the French potato wedges and double barbecue chicken sandwiches don’t replace the standards, but they do stand out. Inclined to blur the lines between the new and the familiar, it’s hard to resist the goat cheese burger.
After sitting down at the curiously well-constructed, minimalist, surprisingly comfortable wooden table, a sharp-dressed employee delivers your burger with a smile. The first bite is shocking thanks to the goat cheese’s relatively pungent kick compared to the standard, inoffensive slice of American cheese, but after the cheese’s pop fades, you’re sure to catch that familiar, comforting albeit mediocre patty you’ve known your whole life. Those first bites perfectly sum up what dining at McDonald’s Global Menu location feels like: an uncanny mix of the familiar, the new and the downright bizarre.
This odd spot’s been in Chicago for a few years now. Sporting a menu of rotating items from McDonald’s menus abroad, the menu gets updated with a new item from a handful of different McDonald’s items from around the world every few weeks. It’s a lot less exciting than it sounds, really. For the most part, you won’t see the more interesting and exciting offerings that you might hear about from locations in other countries on the menu here unless you get really lucky. Instead, the titular global menu plays things safe. You’re sure to see one or two riffs on a burger, the same for a chicken sandwich, a unique side and a special dessert or two; the infamous McSpaghetti or Shaka Shaka chicken are nowhere to be found.
Making the trek to the Global Menu location isn’t something I’d necessarily recommend to anyone—local or otherwise, but I don’t think that’d stop me from going again. Yes, every time that I’ve actually gone, they’ve been out of at least one or two of their specialty items, and even McDonald’s is becoming increasingly unaffordable, but that’s not really what eating there means on a personal level.
To me, it’s always been more of a joke or a conversation piece, coupled with a chance to get out of my four corners with some friends and ride the L (Chicago’s iconic elevated train line, which you might recognize from every other B-roll shot in “The Bear”) around the city. And as a college student with friends who weren’t 21 yet, it was one of the most accessible spots to actually sit down and eat together without dropping $15 on a sandwich too.