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Farewell to Chicago's 'Rock N Roll McDonald's'

Like rock 'n' roll itself, the iconic restaurant has been demolished as part of a corporate push toward modernization. We blame Maroon 5.
Photo via Flickr user Brett Flanders

“McDonald's is the place to rock
It is a restaurant where they buy food to eat
It is a good place to listen to the music
People flock here to get down to the rock music”
-Wesley Willis, “Rock ’N’ Roll McDonalds,” 1995

Just like rock 'n' roll itself, the iconic Rock N Roll McDonald’s in Chicago is dead.

Originally opened in 1983, the restaurant closed for business on December 30, and is presently being demolished by a wrecking crew to make way for what promises to be a more modern and much lamer McDonald’s.


The first incarnation, then officially called the Original Rock & Roll McDonald’s, was adorned with pieces of rock memorabilia ranging from one of Elvis’s guitars to statues of the Beatles (who were, ironically, mostly vegetarians).

The iconic McDonald’s was the chain’s busiest location for much of the 90s. At the beginning of that decade, it experimented with pizza delivery. In 1990, three employees were arrested after selling undercover cops crack cocaine at the restaurant. A police official told the Chicago Tribune that the place had been a center of drug trafficking for the prior two years—very rock ‘n’ roll, indeed.

In 2004, the original building was razed and rebuilt on a larger scale. The 2005 grand opening, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the chain’s first location in nearby Des Plaines, was attended by Elton John and Colin Powell. The 24,000-square foot glass-heavy structure had seating capacity for 300 patrons, thrice that of a typical McDonald’s. They served gelato upstairs, and customers could eat Big Macs while sitting in replicas of famous piece of furniture, like Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chair.

Although the renovations were significant, the 2005 manifestation of Rock N Roll McDonald’s did maintain its rock-era thematics. Much of the musical memorabilia, along with epochal non-musical memorabilia like a 1950s Corvette and an Elmo doll, was moved into a pavilion next to the restaurant area.


Photo via Flickr user duncan c

Music was, however, de-emphasized in favor of corporate fetishism; while the Elvis records were relegated to the adjacent pavilion, trinkets and information constituting a sort of McDonald’s museum were displayed more prominently in the main upstairs area. Although the place was nominally still rock-based, it was more of a “McDonald’s McDonald’s” than a Rock N Roll McDonald’s.

Quite appropriately, the year of the remodeling, Maroon 5 won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Ostensibly a rock band, at least through the visual branding of the members’ tattoos and guitars, Maroon 5 soon revealed themselves to be more of a glitzy corporate vehicle for selling clothes at K-Mart and advertisements on NBC’s The Voice. By the mid-aughts, both rock music and its eponymous McDonald’s had lost their edge, but not their nominal appeal.

The new McDonald’s planned for spring 2018 will abandon the rock ‘n’ roll theme entirely. In line with a massive brand refresh that will modernize tens of thousands of McDonald’s locations nationwide, the redesigned restaurant will feature solar panels, self-service kiosks, and a heavier emphasis on the “cafe.” The memorabilia will return to franchise owner Nick Karavites’s personal collection. (Consider its new form an EDM McDonald’s.)

McDonald’s and rock ‘n’ roll were once an appropriate pairing. Both institutions were born in the mid 1950s; both are iconically American; and most importantly, both rely heavily on the power of nostalgia for their continued existence. A visit to McDonald’s is, for most, a journey back in time to a period when Americans were too concerned about communists to worry about trifling matters like heart disease.

Photo via Flickr user Jason Ernst

Will the public embrace the decidedly un-rock-’n’-roll rebirth of the Rock N Roll McDonalds? Unless the chain’s marketing executives finally convince us to eat the sad iceberg lettuce salads, attempts to modernize might do McDonald’s sales figures a disservice. (Modernization is just a reminder that we’re living in the post- Super Size Me era, after all.) But ultimately, it will be up to Chicagoans to decide.

For those in mourning, thankfully the bizarro late Chicago underground musician Wesley Willis left us with a tribute to Rock N Roll McDonald’s that might be the best restaurant-themed song of all time: