Photos by Rachel Yeh
I am not a big fan of Russian food. I’ve tried my share, and to be frank, it’s not good. So I’ve found myself indulging at the American fast-food chains as often as possible.
Go to a Kentucky Fried Chicken in New York and you will generally find a few things: a non-enthusiastic staff (but what fast-food chain doesn’t have one?) resulting in slow service and about a 10 minute wait for service. Go to McDonald’s and it’s a bit bitter inside. The service is better but the drive-thru and any customization of your order is always a gamble. Last time I ate in at a Pizza Hut in NY, I waited an hour for my pizza to arrive. Clearly our standards are not very high in America, but we like the food so we go back time and time again.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been in a St. Petersburg, Russia, and eating regularly at a McDonald’s. It is one of over 240 locations located throughout Russia. It is spectacular. Two stories high, it’s golden arches overlook the Vasileostraskaya metro stop as it serves customers 24-hours-a-day. It has a walk-thru that pedestrians can just stroll right up to as they wait for the number 6 bus or trolley to take them back home. Even 20 years after the fast-food giant arrived in Russia, it is still a craze; reminiscent of Beatlemania in the States. Eight registers are open but it is still a 15-20 minute wait for food. But to my surprise, the stressed staff was still very willing to help me. I don’t know if it was because I am an English-speaking foreigner and they knew I would need special attention, but either way I was impressed.
McDonald’s customizes its menu for its customer base, so I found a few Russian-style selections available to me that, as an American, I’d never seen before. These included items such as Beef-a-la-Rus, a cheeseburger with a Russian wheat bread, Russian-style pancakes in the morning, and items such as the Chicken McMuffin. They also have chicken fingers, which I learned the hard way is not a universal term (In Russia, they are chicken shanks). And like KFC, cheese is an option as a dipping sauce. I am puzzled why that is not an option in America. Then, as I take my seat, I notice there is a McCafe stand right in the middle of the seating area. It’s like a McDonald’s-version of Starbucks. Coffee, lattes, you name it- they have it. This McDonald’s blew away any standards I’d previously had for them back home.
Up next was KFC. Much less glamourous on the outside than in NY. When I started to write this blog, they had an odd chicken logo outside the restaurant that I had passed a few times before I had even realized it was a KFC. Before I returned home, however,KFC had replaced the Russian chicken, as I had come to call it, with the traditional picture of Col. Sanders. Unlike McDonald’s and Pizza Hut, KFC failed to provide an English menu. Not that I should have any right to expect one, but an English menu is a nice touch. Struggling to order in Russian gave me a taste of what it must be like as a Spanish-speaking immigrant in the United States. It’s not an easy life to live.
Back to KFC. The cashier, Oxana, sheepishly smiled at my friend and I as we struggled to communicate with her. But even more so than McDonald’s, she was very willing to help us out to the best of her abilities. The service was much faster than in the States. I had my food in just a minute or two. The food was of higher quality than America and to my surprise it came with french fries, an option not available back home. I even had six choices for sauce (which, like McDonald’s, they charge for, which left me a bit annoyed). I could only decipher two of them with my basic Russian language skills so I was limited to barbecue and cheese, but I later learned the list included choices such as garlic and sweet-and-sour.
This KFC, like the McDonald’s, was more of a restaurant than a typical fast-food joint. It also had two stories and was decorated with advertisements inside, although KFC’s were primarily in English and McDonald’s had more in Russian. It was easily the best KFC experience I’ve ever had. That’s two in a row for American fast-food restaurants in Russia.
Finally I ended up at Pizza Hut. I was very unsure of what to expect. I’d eaten at Pizza Hut back home just once in the last 10 years or so and left with a bad impression because of the wait. So I arrive at the Russian version and immediately they were able to provide a waitress who spoke English. They also had menus in both languages. They were clearly the chain most-accustomed to dealing with English-speaking tourists. They told us our pizza would be ready in “17-18 minutes,” which I found to be a bit odd. But there it was after just a short wait. It was surprisingly good. Much better than back home. It tasted much more like “real” pizza, so-to-speak, than chain pizza, something I had not expected. It was decked-out on the inside, comically like a Chinese restaurant with streamers and what can only be described as paper-mache disco balls.The only downside was that there was no “stuffed-crust” option, where the crust is filled with cheese (It happens to be my personal favorite). Other than that, it was a fantastic experience.
As surprised as I was with the high all-around quality I experienced at these restaurants, especially as an English-speaking foreigner, I left more disappointed in the American versions. It was obvious that each chain had tried very hard to give the Russians their absolute best in every aspect of their dining experience. But back home, it is as if the Americans are taken for granted. Most Americans have never dined in a European version of these restaurants, so they don’t know what they are missing. We accept what we are given and don’t demand anything more than mediocrity out of these chains. It is a shame that I had to travel across the Atlantic Ocean to experience the best that American fast-food chains have to offer.