Burger King seemed to have the popular edge over McDonald’s in Orlando, Florida, where I spent most of my formative years. Maybe this is because in 1953, Jacksonville became the original Home of the Whopper. In any case, fast food wasn’t much of an issue when I was growing up. On the very rare occasions that my family went out to eat (usually before the drive-in double feature and always in the car), it was Burger King all the way. I suspect this is because my father preferred the Whaler (as the Big Fish was then called) to the Fillet-O-Fish. My own taste leaned toward the milkshakes, as did my brother’s, and we pronounced them “superb” from the back seat as we discussed (i.e., fought over) the relative merits of strawberry versus chocolate.
Well, it’s a not-so-secret secret that fast food juggernaut McDonald’s has been in a sales decline for at least a few years now. In fact, according to this recent article in the New York Times “Big Food” as an industry is facing some very scary times. Now you may greet that news with glee, dismay or utter indifference, but the fact remains that businesses are in the business of staying alive and growing as much as they possibly can. What is to be done?
This story from the November 2nd issue of The New Yorker suggests that more and more people want a healthy meal at a good price. Of course, “good price” is a relative term and a fully loaded one. The young Manhattanites featured in the article’s opening consider eight to fifteen dollars for a meal a pretty fair deal. While you can certainly spend that much at McDonald’s, a typical lunch might run you a little over five dollars, and get you out of the drive-through line in about that many minutes. When it comes to real value, these same young Manhattanites–as well as increasing numbers of people everywhere–want tasty food, free of antibiotics, unpronounceable additives, and the now thoroughly tarnished reputation of factory farming. Reasonable prices are desirable too, but not as a consolation prize in the absence of those other factors. It would seem that McDonald’s has a complicated trek ahead if it wants to recapture its previous market glory. In fact, it’s difficult to see this happening unless it becomes something quite different indeed.
Still, let it not be said that we Americans don’t love our burgers and subs and chicken and barbeque. Furthermore, we love to eat out…a lot. The average American might eat 5 meals a week or more in restaurants, and most of those restaurants will be fast or what is known in the industry as “fast casual.” Are you fed up with (so to speak) the pack ’em in and move ’em out fast dining experience? Maybe you value reasonable prices and also sustainability and healthier ingredients–or you just want food that tastes better. This recent article from Bon Appetit‘s website will point you toward 32 fast service restaurants to watch. Some of these, like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, are familiar to us here. Others, like the West Coast’s In-N-Out Burger and the British chain Pret-A-Manger, are still expanding. One of them, LocoL, has yet to open at all (as of this writing). Still, the future for restaurant dining looks a little brighter.
Or you could always cook at home.
“Dream on,” you say. “I always pick up a bucket at KFC on Tuesdays. The kids are like wild animals after soccer so why on earth would I fry chicken at home? Besides, think of the mess!”
Believe me, I hear you–but, before you completely dismiss the idea, consider these resources from DCPL.
My partner cherishes a fond memory of Outback Steakhouse’s Bloomin’ Onion. My partner is not a basketball team–which you would have to be (a basketball team, that is) to burn off the heft of this titanic “appetizer.” Deep-fried and lavishly sauced, this well disguised allium resembles the sort of novelty you purchase on a whim at the county fair and regret as soon as the double Ferris wheel starts its ascent. At almost 2000 calories, it is in no way an appropriate teaser for a full steak dinner. This is a highly personal point of view, of course, and one with which my partner, being a reasonable person, has come to agree. However, if I wanted to, I could make it at home, and Todd Wilbur’s Top Secret Restaurant Recipes would coach me every greasy step of the way. Other books by Wilbur include Top Secret Restaurant Recipes 2 (for Chili’s Southwestern Egg Rolls) and Top Secret Recipes Unlocked (for McDonald’s Sweet Iced Tea). Of course, you and I both know that I won’t be making a Bloomin’ Onion any time soon. I mean, think of the mess!
David Zinczenko is the author of the popular Eat This, Not That series of titles in which he schools us all on the better choices we can make at fast food and fast casual restaurants–including, of course, in the mall. For those cooking at home, there is Cook This, Not That. Zinczenko shows us how to save calories, as well reduce the fat and sodium in our diets, by cooking in our own kitchens. This, in itself, would be a bit disingenuous since most nutritionists agree that home cooking is almost always a better choice. However, Zinczenko does come up with some truly tasty alternatives. The book’s title might imply that you are recreating clones of favorite restaurant dishes in your own kitchen, but what you’re actually doing is cooking recipes that mirror the less desirable restaurant meals. It’s your choice, but I will say that the food in Cook This Not That looks remarkably delicious with recipes like Mushroom Swiss Burgers and Cauliflower and Butternut Curry. Let me repeat–this book most emphatically is not in the business of giving you exact recipes for dishes like Olive Garden’s Spaghetti and Italian Sausage or Applebee’s Steakhouse Burger. Instead, Zinczenko shows you how to make Spaghetti with Spicy Tomato Sauce and the previously mentioned Mushroom Swiss Burger. To my mental palate, these are trades well worth making.
The Chinese Takeout Cookbook by Diana Kuan
Mad Hungry Cravings by Lucinda Scala Quinn
Of course, there are times when you want, crave, need a Big Mac or a Spicy Italian Sub, and you’re on the road, exhausted, laid up with the flu or otherwise don’t want to go anywhere near a kitchen. For these times, keep in mind that list of “better” restaurants mentioned above and see if a reasonable alternative presents itself. Just remember–a burger and fries from Five Guys, or the Atomic Wing Combo at Wingstop, are still going to be a burger and fries and a basket full of wings and, not say, a salad and a piece of broiled fish.
Not to ruin your good mood or anything.
As for me, I’m kind of in the mood for a strawberry shake (made at home, of course). Then, maybe I’ll find a handy car to drink it in, surrounded by uncontentious silence, or perhaps in the company of a kindred spirit who remembers the shakes of yesterday with as much fondness as I do.