When I told Mrs L that I was treating her to a meal out, she can be forgiven for expecting a candle-lit, romantic experience, with linen tablecloths and napkins to match – even silver service.
But this week, one restaurant has dominated the headlines. After more than a decade of trying, the colossal American fast-food chain McDonald’s finally opened its doors in Alnwick.
Last Wednesday, the branch became the newest of the 35,000-plus outlets around the world (although it soon relinquished that accolade as a new McDonald’s opens every four hours on average) and it can boast the absolute latest in design, gadgets, technology and menus.
The food, however, promised to be as familiar as your favourite aunt.
Whether you are in New York, Munich, Copenhagen or Alnwick, you have a fair idea of what you are letting yourself in for – it’s practically the same!
As we walked through the door, it took me back to my first visit to a McDonald’s restaurant back in my student days in London around 35 years ago.
McDonald’s then was still a relative newcomer to these shores, the first outlet having opened in Woolwich, south London, in October 1974.
Until that point, every meal I had eaten, discounting picnics on the beach, was with a knife and fork and off a china plate.
I distinctly remember it coming as a shock to receive a burger in a polystyrene carton and french fries in a paper bag, all on a plastic tray. I asked where the cutlery was but instead had to rely on my fingers to feed me.
Since then, of course, the concept of fast food has become part of our cultural fabric, however unwelcome.
Although times have galloped on, my feelings were very much the same on entering the new Alnwick – again, it was a brave new world.
Touch-screen units to order and pay for your own food – making the experience a bit like a trip to Argos – iPads to amuse anyone suffering withdrawal symptoms away from their computer screens and a space-age design fused with the odd bit of olde worlde charm – a mock, brown leather sofa sitting awkwardly along one wall, in deference to a bygone age.
Having negotiated the labyrinthine ordering system, which younger and more agile minds than mine would find a breeze, the machine spat out a ticket on which was printed our number.
When our turn came, the tray was ceremoniously handed over and we headed off to find a quiet corner – not an easy task in a restaurant packed with excited teenagers.
I went for something other than the tried-and-tested favourites. Chicken Legend with Cool Mayo large meal with a cup of tea. I’m afraid I couldn’t stomach the more common McDonald’s beverages of milk shakes or fizzy drinks.
You can’t argue with the prices. That combo was £5.59, the sandwich alone would have been £3.69.
But I was disappointed with the food. The taste of preservatives pervaded the ‘wholemeal’ bun and chicken burger, although I was surprised to see something that resembled proper, unprocessed meat after my first bite.
The fries too were not what they used to be – they were limp, rubbery, insipid and tasteless, and as they cooled, the harder they became.
Mrs L opted to go down the Quarter Pounder with Cheese route, bigging up her meal, too (£4.89) and adding Mozzarella Dippers. She felt a little deflated with her over-salty fries and bland burger, but we both agreed that as fast food goes, McDonald’s is probably still our guilty pleasure.
We topped our meal with a Triple Caramel McFlurry ice-cream (£1.29) and an apple pie (99p).
The swirled soft ice-cream was peppered with chocolate chunks and fudge pieces and entwined with caramel sauce. It would be heaven for anyone with the sweetest of teeth. It made my eyes water - boh!
We took back a Chicken Selects (3 pieces) large meal (£4.99) for our daughter to gauge the opinion of the younger generation and, as we suspected, it was devoured.
I would never advocate McDonald’s for a staple diet, nor would I ever choose it over a local restaurant serving local, home-cooked produce, but as occasional emergency rations, it did the job. Loving it, or loathing it, there’s no denying McDonald’s has a wide appeal.
But since those heady student days, I’m convinced the burgers have shrunk.
HEALTH DEBATE THAT RUMBLES ON
The debate over the health values of McDonald’s and similar fast-food chains has raged for years. As obesity rates rise, it is easy to pick on this style of eating when you need a scapegoat. They do pay lip-service to healthier options such as salads, fruit bag and carrot sticks, but given the choice most youngsters would steer towards the burgers.
The nutritional values on each item gives you an idea what you are taking on. For example, my meal supplied 93% of my recommended daily dose of fat; 92% of saturated fats; 62% of salt and 65% of sugar. Does that say it all?
I have to admit, though, to popping into McDonald’s in New York, Munich, Copenhagen and now Alnwick!
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Sandwiches (extra value meals, with fries and drink)
Chicken McNuggets (6)......£4.49
Deli Choices (meals)
Sweet chilli crispy chicken......£4.59
Crispy chicken & bacon......£4.59
Crispy chicken & bacon......£3.69
Happy Meals (children)
Chicken McNuggets (4)......£2.50
Fish fingers (3)......£2.50
STAR RATINGS (out of ten)
Quality of food......6
Use of local food......0
Children catered for......9
Verdict: As a stop-gap or on-the-go stomach filler, McDonald’s is one of the better examples of the genre.
Contact: Visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk