Maybe you’ve had this experience before: You’re driving to Minnesota to buy a futon because you and your girlfriend broke up but still have to share the same apartment for the next six months, and she refuses to sleep in the same bed with you after what you did. You want to get a bite to eat, but you’re driving through some provincial burg that doesn’t have a McDonald’s or any other fast food that you recognize. It’s dark and raining. You haven’t eaten anything since post pre-dinner (also known as lunch 4, or early evening snack 2), almost two hours ago. You can feel your blood sugar dropping—the steering wheel swerves in your suddenly weak fingers, your eyes can’t focus; the road doubles and trebles through your rain streaked windshield. Is this how you’ll die? For a futon? The old gypsy’s warning suddenly makes sense. Then, a neon sign swims out of the darkness: Hamburgers. Uncle Jonnie’s Hamburgers.
The inside of the hamburger joint is like a hall of mirrors. The employee isn’t wearing a uniform, the decor is strange and unique, and the atmosphere is unsettlingly one-of-a-kind. You look at the menu, which might as well be written in Arabic. You ask if they have chicken Mcnuggets—they have chicken fingers. You ask if you can get a number two—they don’t understand. You ask if they have Big Macs—they have Uncle J’s Double Love Burger with Rattlesnake Sauce. You ask to speak to the manager, and instead of rolling his eyes at you, the cashier says “I’m Uncle Jonnie. What can I do for you?” You curl up into a ball and repeat over and over “I’m lovin’ it, I’m lovin’ it, I’m lovin’ it . . .” but the teleportation spell doesn’t work.
If the unknown is the only thing you fear more than being thin, then you probably don’t care that chain restaurants contribute to the homogenization of American culture, the steady decline of hourly wages, the rising obesity epidemic, and whatever other crazy shit Upton Sinclair says from beyond the grave. But whether you like chain restaurants or not, you still eat at them, because if you’re not at home and need to eat, you basically have no other choice except for windfall apples and lichen.
Although the defining characteristics of chain restaurants—a group of separate restaurants rendered identical by an coldly calculating, controlling hive mind like the Borg—are identical for both fast food and casual dining, consumer perception of the two groups diverges drastically.
Fast food at its worst is viewed as a necessary evil, at its best a guilty pleasure—a mercenary industry we grudgingly support in the interest of convenience and economy. The categories on the fast food side of the chart reflect consumers' contempt: here’s the mexican place, here’s the place my friend got food poisoning, here’s the place I eat when I only have a dollar, here’s the place I only eat at because I don’t want to get off the turnpike.
Casual dining, on the other hand, occupies a more personal position in our lives, almost like family. While fast food is a necessity, like taking a shit or mowing the lawn, casual dining is a luxury, albeit a small one, like taking a bubble bath or masturbating at work. Casual dining is there for all the most important parts of lives, reflected in the three major categories: work, play, and love. You just got a promotion? Time for Margaritas at Chili’s. The bar just closed and you want waffles? Time for a triple stack at IHOP. You need to trick someone into thinking you’re interesting and attractive? It’s time for the Melting Pot.
Like a lover, casual dining often lies, but always for our own good; they’re white lies, intended to lift us from the dreariness of everyday reality. “Oh my god, look, we’re in the old west!” or “I’m your server and although we’ve never met, I’m super happy to see you! Here’s a song I wrote about it!” Unlike a lover, casual dining will never say the hurtful lies that are sometimes spat in the heat of an argument. “I never really loved you,” “I’ve had better,” or “Your charts are stupid, especially the one about salad dressing (see page xx).”
Casual dining may lie, but it’s a warm quilt of deceit, knitted to make us feel better and take all our money. Oh, wait, I forgot about that—chain restaurants are only nice to you because they want your money. So I suppose the whole “lover” metaphor doesn’t work. I guess chain restaurants are really more like a hooker. Regardless though, they’re not a hooker that will make you drive to Minnesota to buy a futon. (See how I tied this whole essay together at the end? It’s just like Finnegan’s Wake! But less readable!)