When, in 1996, I hung up my bib as the restaurant critic of the Observer, I went out with a grande bouffe by eating at McDonald's and La Tante Claire in a single lunchtime. It seemed to me that yoking a Michelin three-star temple of cuisine to a fast-food joint where the keener staff wore three plastic stars perfectly expressed the taste of the nation. If only I could have foreseen what was to come. This culinary de bas en haut was soon to become the very Kulturkampf of New Labour's Britain.
I never really wanted to review food anyway. What interested me was fancy restaurants as a theatrical experience - the bourgeoisie ogling itself in mirrored booths. Perhaps now, at last, the time is ripe for a little deflation, and maybe we should all start paying attention to what's on the end of our plastic forks, not Nigella, Marco Pierre, F***ing Gordon and all the other celebrity egg-flippers. It's in this, more grounded, spirit that I undertake to survey the establishments where we actually eat, and the real meals they serve. Only a fraction of the population will ever nosh in La Tante Claire, whereas, at current sales levels, the 1,115 McDonald's in Britain could serve a meal to every man, woman and child in the country given a mere 35 days.
The chain may no longer be the largest in the fast-food world - that's Yum! Brands, parent company of KFC - but it remains the foodies' biggest McBogeyman. Proper people don't eat there - only the chavs; besides, for the left, McDonald's, with its global reach and aggressive uniformity, isn't so much a food outlet as the fourth arm of American military power. They may serve McRice in Indonesia but, barring a few regional variations, when you enter a McDonald's - whether in Seoul or Scunthorpe - you're making a contract: place your lips here to suck on the tailpipe of globalisation.
I - consciously - hadn't eaten in a McDonald's for at least five years before visiting one for this piece, since one afternoon when my then three-year-old had a full-blown hyperglycaemic fit after taking a couple of slurps on a McFlurry. So, walking into the McDonald's on Oxford Street, through a funnelled passage with a floor-length VDU screen on one side, along which ran the continuous thread "I'm lovin' it", made me feel like Rip Van Winkle. Three years ago, the chain underwent the first major corporate redesign in aeons. All that yellow and orange has been infused with terracotta. Then there are the "linger", the "grab & go" and the "family" zones - all of them differently detailed.
I noted that ethnic delicacies such as an oriental snack wrap and a chorizo melt were on the menu, but I wanted to remain within the cave of the Platonic burger, so I ordered the upmarket equivalent, something called an "M", which, at £3.49, was basically a square burger on "Italian" bread. Naturally, I had to have a small fries (99p), and a small Coke (89p), and also a garden salad (99p) that turned out to be a tiny nest of lettuce, grated carrot and radicchio, in which lay a clutch of cherry tomatoes. It came with a sachet of sweet dressing, ostentatiously labelled "2.2% FAT", which was the size of a mobile phone. Once I'd spurted it into the waxed paper pot, the leaves were drowning in this gloop.
Upstairs in the "grab & go" zone, on moulded barstools, a svelte-looking and multiracial gaggle of narcissists watched themselves eat in mirrors, while glancing occasionally at a monitor on which African-American men and women toyed with each other's underwear to musical accompaniment. What a triumph for the Blairite social revolutionaries! There was even someone reading a book - albeit one written by Bill Bryson.
So far, so predictable - but the whole experience took a strange turn when I started asking my fellow snarfers what they thought of the place.
They were all only too ready to impart. The Spanish girl standing and gulping down a cheeseburger, and the young guy in the silk shirt stuffing fries into his mouth, both took time out to explain they only ate beneath the golden arches because "it's fast". Other diners were more voluble. "For a while, they stopped salting the fries," one animadverted, "but now they've started again." A young, working-class woman with toddlers explained that "I've started eating here again. I didn't used to 'cause my parents told me it was unhealthy."
A smart-looking Kiwi sitting beside me chimed in: "I confess, I eat here about three times a week - the breakfast is perfectly all right; I mean, there's not a lot you can do wrong to a hash brown. Besides, I'm a builder and I burn it off during the day."
His blonde companion was less sanguine: "This Filet-o-Fish has 16.5 grams of fat in it - that's a quarter of a woman's healthy daily allowance."
“You seem to know a lot about these things," I observed.
“That's because I'm a nurse," she replied, shamefacedly.
Indeed, as her companion expatiated more (the meat is fresher and the food served hotter in Bordeaux) and other folk stopped by to fat-chat, it occurred to me that the whole McDonald's experience had been enormously enriched by our awareness of healthy eating, becoming a communal exercise in chomping through false consciousness. It made me suspect that the entire McLibel business, Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me had all been secretly funded by the corporation in order to impart the pleasing flavour of guilt to its comestibles.
But what, I hear you cry, did your succulent juicy beef, your Emmenthal cheese and your toasted, stone-baked ciabbata actually taste like? Let alone your Pentland Dell potatoes, sliced then fried in non-hydrogenated sunflower oil? To which I can only reply: the same old shit.
Real Meals will appear fortnightly. Next week: Will Self's Madness of Crowds.