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Saturday, 24 December 2005
Chicago Fantasy Land
Topic: Architecture / Chicago
Chicago has its own little Disney within, serving up greasy food with its fiberglass sculptures. The intersection of Clark and Ontario is home to Hard Rock Cafe, the new flagship McDonalds, Rainforest Cafe, and Portillo's Hot Dogs.

The new Mac replaces the old Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds, which was filled with airbrushed murals and memorabilia. There is still an on-site (somewhere in the parking lot), stand-alone shrine to the original restaurant, but the new design is glass curtian walls and high-design, featuring a time-line in dioramas of Pop Culture (and Mac culture) relics through the ages. You can eat your burger in the comfort of designer furniture by Mies, Corbusier, and Saarinen while enjoying your favorite post-war decade's memorabilia and music. Chicago architect Helmut Jahn proposed a structure built around 100ft arches, but McDonalds decided to go with a more modest design by an in-house designer, Dan Wohlfeil.

I presume the Hard Rock and Rainforest Cafe are the same as they are about anywhere else--is this a weird new International Style, where giant fiberglass frogs and neon guitars can be transplanted into any context?

Portillo's, once a modest hot dog stand, is now a franchise empire, with spinoff Italian chain restaurants attached. They are still, however, a deserving favorite for standard Chicago fast food specialties like Italian beef, hot dogs, and Maxwell Street Polishes (left). Their downtown location, across the street from McDonalds and Hard Rock, is in a Tuscan/strip-mall(?) style, with a confusing semi-3-dimensional mural above the entrance. According to their , this location allegedly is built around a "20's, 30's, 40's Gangster" theme.

The new McDonalds is kitsch, a vernacular Disneyfication of high design and high tech (wire-braced glass curtain walls; tons of flat panel TVs), but it's comfortable, interesting, and admittedly fun inside. I feel that if these international chains are going to plop down tourist-attractive, consumerist sites in our cities, ones like the new Mac are infinitely better than the sloppy fiberglass cancer-sores like Rainforest Cafe, or the faked nostalgia of Portillo's. But that char-grilled polish was amazing.

More on Mac:
Lynn Becker, Chicago Reader, on the "Schlock Corridor"
animated walk-through the new site

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