Downtime

“Nonstandard McDonald’s” Is a Happy Meal of Nostalgia for Your Eyes

I may not be dining under the golden arches these days, but I can commune with their weirder expressions on Twitter.

Collage of a neon McDonald's sign, a medieval McDonald's tower, and a midcentury Dinosaur Mickey D's Cafe sign over an animated swirl
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by @flannelkimono via @nonstandardmcd/Twitter and @nonstandardmcd/Twitter.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

This year, while I rarely leave my apartment, I can still travel the globe with the help of the internet. But not by means so pedestrian as Google Earth. No, my preferred method of armchair tourism is the Nonstandard McDonald’s Twitter account. On a balmy summer day, I flash a Vulcan salute at the England UFO McDonald’s. During a brisk evening in Sweden, I take off my McSki gloves to unwrap a McDouble, no pickles. And on a wild and windy night, I am the ghost who haunts the McBarge.

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The Nonstandard McDonald’s account’s mission is, admirably, “preserving the only architectural heritage of the western world.” The tweets span decades and continents, providing an archive of offbeat McDonald’s—many now lost to time. The photos read as kitschy, surreal, and occasionally haunting. The interiors are an Escher-esque intersection of nostalgia culture, capitalism, design, and fast food.

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Some highlights: the ornate interior of the Riverboat McDonald’s in St. Louis, Missouri. The Blade Runner–esque neon of the A&S Plaza McDonald’s in New York City. The McDonald’s built over a Roman road in Italy—with actual human skeletons on display in the floor. What a thrilling conclusion, to curl into your eternal sleep while tourists stand on top of your bones to order McGriddles.

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I grew up in a McDonald’s family. I know more about McDonald’s characters than I do about U.S. presidents. The crafty, baby-faced Hamburglar. Ronald’s dumb purple best friend, Grimace. Birdie, an anthropomorphic bird who loves McDonald’s breakfast. These names seem to have always existed in my brain, like Mickey Mouse or my cousins on my mom’s side.

McDonald’s culture is surprisingly easy to lose yourself in. From the Nonstandard McDonald’s account, you can jump to the McDonald’s wiki, a fan-run encyclopedia with facts like “Grimace was last seen at Dodger Stadium on July 18th, 2012 […] dancing to Ram Jam’s 1977 classic, Black Betty.” From there, it’s a simple sidestep to YouTubing old McDonaldland commercials. The McNugget puppets strike a chord deep in your memory—it’s a quick hop over to Etsy to search “90S MCNUGGET HALLOWEEN TOY.” When you’re on a Zoom call the next day, you look down to see you’ve doodled Grimace in the margin of your notes. He looks so happy there.

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That said, happiness is not always guaranteed in the land of Happy Meals. Scrolling Nonstandard McDonald’s can sometimes feel like strolling a graveyard. Tweets mark locations as “active,” “deceased,” or “deceased (remodeled).” But the photographic evidence remains compelling: This place was here, and now it is gone. You can never revisit the Sacramento Undersea Surf Rock Dinosaur McDonald’s, where you once sat under a ceiling fresco of fish and whales, facing a statue of a velociraptor with an electric guitar and real swagger. You can’t go back, but you can tweet your eulogy to @nonstandardmcdonalds. And maybe someone will chime in and remember, too, how it felt to drink a Diet Coke beneath the sculpture of a shark bursting from the wall, chomping on a surfboard.

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McDonald’s began dialing back its interior design during the Starbucks boom of 2006. A decade later, this affected my city in a dramatic way. In 2017, McDonald’s tore down Chicago’s Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s—inspiration behind the iconic Wesley Willis song—and replaced it with a two-story behemoth of glass and chrome. The new design is as sleek and sterile as an Apple Store. As the years pass by, it’s hard to imagine this location inspiring any nostalgia, let alone any legendary keyboard tunes.

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It’s easy to forget, as I scroll through endless images of the golden arches, that a fiberglass Fry Guy and a self-service kiosk have the same goal: to sell as many Big Macs as possible. My treasured memories are the successful marketing attempts of a corporation that built an empire on fast food and all the problems that come with it. Nonstandard McDonald’s recently added a line to its bio: “tweets not endorsements.”

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Sometimes I think I can only really love a place if it’s gone. I look around my favorite dive bar, or my studio apartment, and I think of how intensely I will miss these places when they are separated from me. That premature nostalgia shades everything I do. I’m not always confident that’s the best way to move through the world.

Chicago loves to memorialize the Rock ’n’ Roll McDonald’s, but the one that sticks in my mind is the McDonald’s The Future they built at Navy Pier in 1995. A product of new millennium futurism, it boasted Corinthian pillars and glass orbs of blue lightning. I remember visiting as a kid, pressing my McNugget-greased fingerprints to those orbs, watching the electricity rush to meet my point of contact. When I revisited later, as a teenager, the scrolls of the columns were dusty, and the orbs were just dead circles of glass. They remodeled the restaurant in 2017. Now, it’s strange to look back and feel nostalgic for both the beginning and the end of things. I’m glad I got to see it.

Of course, the real pull of nostalgia isn’t the places themselves. It’s the person you were when you visited them. And that’s the real lynchpin of the Nonstandard McDonald’s account. You’re no longer the kid with a Happy Meal. You’re not the stoned teen ordering a Shamrock Shake. But you can recall those past selves, the same way you can recall an animatronic tree that sings about hamburgers, the memory vivid with absurdity.

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