Fancy food, be it a filet mignon or a well-prepared foie gras, is a treat for one’s palate like no other—provided one can afford it, that is. There’s a reason places like McDonald’s or Burger King get more foot traffic than your average upscale restaurant, and it has very little to do with the quality of the food. However, a few creative individuals and even corporations have tried to make fast food dining a little more appealing by altering the menu or even the establishment itself, and with an only slightly higher price to boot. Some others have even created upscale versions of fast or casual fare for their own restaurants. The results are intriguing.
8 Subway Café
Conventional Subway restaurants follow a fairly cookie-cutter layout: line up along the counter to specify the contents of your sandwich filling by filling, pay for your food, fill your drink, and either sit down at one of their little tables or take your Five Dollar Foot Long to go. The Subway Café in Alexandria, Virginia takes a different, more bourgeois approach to fast food dining, however. This upscale take on the sandwich shop looks less like a fast food joint and more like a combination pub and coffeehouse, featuring club chairs, a gas fireplace and shelves filled with books and the assorted odds and ends you might find at a smaller, more independent establishment. On top of the higher-end décor, the Café also features an expanded menu that includes coffeehouse-style espresso drinks.
7 Gourmet Big Mac ($5.69, technically)
In May of 2011, a group of Toronto-based chefs collaborated with The Grid, a weekly newsmagazine that focuses on Toronto culture, to craft gourmet versions of McDonald’s Big Mac meal. The results hardly resembled their fast food sources at all and possibly could have passed for food in a ritzier restaurant, at least to somebody with a less-discerning palate. Fabio Bondi, chef and co-owner of Local Kitchen, came up with the McLumi, which turns the standard McDonald’s bun into toasted crostini and features as an entrée a smoked mortadella sausage made from a mixture of the Big Mac’s patties and other garnish. Chefs Craig Harding and Nigel French of Campagnolo’s turned fries into a kind of potato noodle and the patties into the key ingredient of a bolognaise sauce for an interesting pasta dubbed the Big Mac All’Americana. Chef Anthony Rose of the Drake turned the Big Mac into a meaty sort of cake, icing it with a Coke-, ketchup- and special sauce-based glaze (on a humorous note, some of the fries were used as a tasty substitute for birthday candles and were “so greasy, they actually lit up when blasted with a blowtorch”). Lastly, Raj and Aravind Kozhikott of Aravind’s approached the Big Mac as they would their restaurant’s Indian cuisine, crafting a samosa out of the burger with the patties as filling and fried buns as the shell.
6 Luxury McNuggets
Webzine Luxirare took a different approach to culinary alchemy in November of 2012. Rather than try to turn the actual ingredients of a McDonald’s meal into a gourmet entrée, they made the high-class equivalent of a Chicken McNugget combo instead. Instead of chicken, Luxirare used uni, or sea urchin, as the meal’s key protein, wrapping them in nori (dried seaweed) and coating the morsels in tempura in a Japanese twist on the conventional McNugget meal.
Lime zest, black smoked salt and yuzu sauces replaced the usual sweet and sour or honey mustard dips that tend to accompany a McNugget meal. And in place of Coke? Well Champagne Rosé might not exactly be a soft drink, but it fits the definition of classy. Even the actual McNugget packaging received a sleeker, minimalist analogue to fill out the presentation.
5 Caviar Vending Machines ($500 US/ounce)
While vending machines have always been home to relatively cheap fare like chips and chocolate bars, Los Angeles began featuring an indisputably bourgeois alternative in late 2012. Rather than dispensing Skittles or Doritos, these machines—located in Century City, Topanga and Hollywood—will sell you a worldwide selection of caviar, not to mention truffles (the tasty fungus kind, not the chocolates) and escargot. To give you an idea of these machines’ target audience, a mere ounce of Imperial River Beluga Caviar from this machine will go for $500. The machines themselves even look like an experimental transparent refrigerator a rich early adopter might own. They aren’t the first of their kind, either, with Eater.com reporting that the 33 machines of this kind first popped up in Moscow in May 2010.
4 Lobster Surf & Turf Burger ($16 US)
Lobster has been on the pricier end of cuisine since the mid-19th century, when wealthier members of East Coast society became fond of the tasty crustacean. Prior to that, lobster had been used to feed prison inmates and indentured servants, according to the official Maine Secretary of State website (for kids!). Nevertheless, Wendy’s brought lobster back into the—relatively—cheap food fold in their Japanese market in 2012, featuring the shellfish as one of the key ingredients in their limited-time-only Lobster Surf & Turf Burger. The sandwich was priced at the equivalent of $16 US. And if you aren’t comfortable eating beef, Japanese Wendy’s offered the Premium Caviar & Lobster sandwich as an alternative. The Japanese Wendy’s market isn’t a stranger to higher-end burger selections, with the fast food giant introducing the foie gras-based Rossini sandwich to their customers in late 2010.
3 Tribeca Canvas ($13 US average for entrées)
Masaharu Morimoto, best known for his appearances on Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, opened Tribeca Canvas in New York City’s Tribeca neighbourhood in late 2012. It was for all intents and purposes an attempt to upscale fast food and greasy spoon cuisine for trendier patrons, its menu featuring such items as olive-and-shrimp-topped nachos, gourmet macaroni and cheese garnished with a poached egg and tiramisu sliders, if you can believe it. Essentially the kind of offerings found on the menu of a chain sit-down restaurant like Applebee’s or T.G.I. Friday’s, but more elaborate.
Tribeca Canvas closed down in the summer of 2012 due to largely negative reviews, but that didn’t put an end to the Iron Chef’s high-calorie yet high-class dreams…
2 Bisutoro ($17-36 US for entrées)
…as Morimoto reopened a rebranded restaurant at its same location just a short while afterward. Rather than serving ritzier variations on fast and casual food as its predecessor did, his restaurant—now named Bisutoro—focuses on high quality hamburgers and other entrées, but with a Japanese flair. Among its selections are the Wagyu Burger, topped with a wasabi-based sauce, a tofu steak served with zucchini fettuccine and lemon butter, and miso sea bass. Bisutoro has, on the whole, gotten better reviews than its late ancestor, so Morimoto’s personal style lives on.
1 Pizza Cucinova ($5-7 US)
A mainstay of shopping mall food courts, Sbarro’s is attempting to branch out this year by opening its own chain of pizza restaurants, called Pizza Cucinova. The very first “prototype” location opened in Columbus, Ohio—the city where many fast food franchises test out new menu items and services, according to an article on Cracked.com—in October of last year. Pizza Cucinova features Neapolitan-style pizza, wood-oven baking and fancier ingredients than patrons would get with a regular Sbarro’s pizza. According to QSR, a site that focuses on “quick service restaurant” news and trends, Pizza Cucinova’s “artisan pies” fall in the range of $5-$7 US, more affordable than Neapolitan pizza usually is.