Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

The crude kitsch of fast-food diners is being abandoned in a bid to communicate sustainability, community and health

Back in the ’90s, when I was a grad student at SCI-Arc, my class was sent out to the desert to meet art critic and raconteur Dave Hickey, who was then teaching at the University of Las Vegas. We met at the Hilton Sportsbook, a cavernous room where, even in the middle of the day, there wasn’t a sliver of natural light. With a backdrop of screens lighting up the gloom, Hickey shared his philosophy of Mediterranean architecture, which applied as much to the Mojave Desert and Los Angeles, as to the coast of Spain or Italy. Shadow. Darkness. Escape the sun.

Radical interiority – the concept flies in the face of California Modernism, which obsessively blurs boundaries between inside and out, and defies conclusions of Learning From Las Vegas by ignoring the exterior. To illustrate his point, perhaps, Hickey took us to The Peppermill Restaurant & Fireside Lounge, a kitschy Vegas establishment that, true to its ’70s roots, features a sunken living room, purple carpet and 24-hour breakfasts. Time doesn’t simply stop here, but congeals. If fast, fresh, and light are core tenets of contemporary food culture, the Peppermill rejects all of them.

But the Peppermill isn’t a singular anomaly; if anything, it is a late entry in the history of diners, coffee shops and steak houses that treat the restaurant experience as a refuge. And it’s part of a fading typology; one eclipsed by economic and cultural changes. Legendary Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold, who died this summer, had a soft spot for such establishments and their deep vinyl banquettes. ‘In our last exchange, we discussed how sad it was that several long-time LA diners were closing down amid the citywide rent crisis,’ Molly Lambert wrote in her New Yorker tribute of Gold. ‘There was Du-par’s, a late-night mainstay that appeared in Boogie Nights and which Gold once said had “the Valley’s best pancakes and worst coffee”. There was Twohey’s, in Alhambra, whose bittersweet-chocolate fudge sundae he praised in several columns as his favourite in LA since the demise of a place called CC Brown’s.’

We could argue that fast food poses a fatal counterpoint to places like Du-par’s, which opened in 1948 in Studio City and closed last year. Certainly, the architectures juxtapose: inside versus outside. The oldest operating McDonald’s restaurant is in Downey, California, a short drive from LA. Built in 1952, it is the third franchise opened by Richard and Maurice McDonald. The landmarked structure is almost all exterior, all sign.

Based on a design by architect Stanley Meston, the restaurant is a paradigm of architectural efficiency: two parabolic arches trimmed in neon (by sign-maker George Dexter, according to architect Alan Hess) seem to hold up a thin roof that covers the enclosed kitchen and extends to shade patrons lining up outside to place orders. The logo, adopted in 1961 after Ray Kroc took over the business, echoes the modern design. While later the brand would adopt the iconic M, with the ‘golden arches’ as a rhetorical flourish, the ’60s variation is a riff on the franchise architecture. Two arches overlapped to form an M and slashed through with the stroke of the roof (illustrated above).

We know the trope: architecture as sign, sign as architecture. In 1990, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, masters of the form, exploited it for their McDonald’s in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. In photos of the design (later remodelled by VSBA), a Claes Oldenburg-like tableau composed of a giant M, an anthropomorphic milkshake, and an exuberant Happy Meal eclipses the boxy restaurant.

Since the interior is irrelevant, we can imagine it to be a calculated environment, the summation of Taylorist diagrams and those old studies that predicted colours to encourage patrons to dine and go. The Ketchup and Mustard theory suggests that red amps the heart rate and yellow speeds the metabolism. Eat fast. Eat more. Leave.

For decades, fast-food outlets subscribed to the model, but restaurant trends now emphasise lifestyle over sign, leading to increasingly bespoke designs. Your burger now comes with a side of personal values – community, sustainability, and, despite heart-stopping calorie counts, health. It is particularly pronounced in the rise of ‘fast casual’ retailers in the US, such as El Pollo Loco or Panera Bread. While these establishments don’t offer table service, they bet on fresher ingredients, higher-quality food and inviting interiors.

This shift has its roots in the global proliferation of Starbucks and the 1997 bestseller Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time. Written by executive chairman Howard Schultz, the text became an immediate business-school classic, and ‘third place’, one of his guiding philosophies, became mainstream.

Third place, in short, is the concept that people need somewhere to go that is not work and not home. Each coffee retail outlet, then, is a space to hang out. Schultz’s idea was tested last spring, when Starbucks temporarily closed 8,000 stores for racial bias sensitivity training after the manager of a Philadelphia store called the police over two black men who were just waiting for a friend. In Schultz’s subsequent apology – an open letter to Starbucks customers – Forbes magazine contributor Carmine Gallo recognised language that harked back to those principles and the executive’s 1983 trip to Italy. ‘As I walked the streets of Milan, I saw cafés and espresso bars on every street’, wrote Schultz. ‘When I ventured inside, I experienced something powerful: a sense of community and human connection.’

The phenomenon of McRefugees, people who spend the night or long periods at 24-hour McDonald’s (often in lieu of permanent housing), illustrates extreme adoption of Shultz’s philosophy. ‘I wanted our stores to be comfortable, safe spaces where everyone had an opportunity to enjoy coffee, sit, read, write, host a meeting, date, debate, discuss or just relax,’ he continues in his open letter. In 2018, the human rights group Society for Community Organization published a study that there were 384 McRefugees in Hong Kong. The study followed the 2015 death of a homeless woman in one of the stores. Then, McDonald’s Hong Kong issued the statement, which read in part: ‘We welcome all walks of life to visit our restaurants any time’.

So, in many ways, the ballyhoo this summer over a complaint that the architecture of the new McDonald’s flagship in Chicago by Ross Barney Architects resembles Apple’s trademarked glass-box stores misses the point. It’s meant to. The design focuses on the 1,765m2 interior by putting it on display. As famously exemplified by Apple, transparency connotes openness and accessibility.

The flagship’s large roof may be a cool hat tip to the exuberant roofs of the ’50s franchises, but topped with more than 1,000 solar panels, it actually advertises the corporate brand’s commitment to sustainability. (There’s hope the building achieves the greenest honour: LEED Platinum recognition.) The grand roof also provides shade for the outdoor space, a gesture that caught the attention of Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, who writes about both Apple and McDonald’s in his review, ‘[Both stores] seek to give something back to the community in the form of usable public space.’

Glass walls celebrate the interior by putting it on display. The oversized roof canopy, hung with four, tastefully sized golden Ms, is the kind of signage Mies van der Rohe (the city’s architectural patron saint) could love. While third-place philosophy moves our architectural emphasis from outside to inside, from roadside pop of Venturi, Scott Brown to Hickey’s passion for interiority, the Chicago McDonald’s veers towards the non-binary, an underexplored territory for fast food.