The McDonald's Diner Concept You Forgot Happened In The '90s

Anyone who's lived, well, just about anywhere in the United States probably remembers going to McDonald's during their childhood. One guy in Denver may remember playing Super Mario with his older brother on one of those Nintendo GameCube kiosks with the controllers that always seemed to be inappropriately moist. One woman in Philadelphia may remember hiding in that PlayPlace super-structure from her friends, crawling through those fabric-belt tunnels and that one room with the giant red exercise balls that used to give them the most wonderful of concussions. And somewhere, in the back of some dusty wooden entertainment center in someone's basement are a few well-worn VHS copies of "The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald." Everyone has memories of McDonald's: the good ones, the bad ones, and the slightly awkward ones.

But, there is one concept from the land of Big Macs and Value Meals that you probably forgot about, or at least buried in the back of your mind like some sort of long-lost primal memory you can't exactly remember, in the way you share your ancestors' fear of saber-toothed beasts and thunder. You may remember Mayor McCheese. You may remember PlayPlace. But do you remember McDonald's return to traditional restaurant fare?

Enter the McDiner.

The Golden Arch Cafe was a thing in the '90s

Picture this: It's the end of summer in '90s Tennessee, before the last days of August slip into the dream-like hazes of September. In the small town of Hartsville, a diner hums with the ethereal twangs of Santo and Johnny's pedal steel guitar as it fades into the far-off whistles and western guitar strums of Guy Mitchell's "Heartaches by the Number." There are glasses of Coke sitting on polished chrome tabletops, and a menu advertises a $3.99 lasagna and a $2.99 Salisbury steak platter. A crimson red telephone at every booth illustrates the ease and comfort of ordering your food directly from your booth. Employees in bowling shirts carry burgers and fries on plastic plates, illuminated by neon lights that form the familiar golden arches.

This is the Golden Arch Cafe, but it's perhaps better known to us now as "The McDiner."

In the 1990s, in a market saturated by fast-food giants slugging it out to become the champion of modern convivence, McDonald's looked back to the nostalgic days of the classic American dinner. Indeed, this "blast to the past" mentality is reflected in the words of John Charlesworth, vice president for McDonald's Nashville region at the time. "Let's just call it the cafe of the '90s," Charlesworth said to The Washington Post in 1990, referring to the Golden Arch Cafe. "Small-town America is nostalgia. This place feels good, and this concept feels good to me."

Responses to the Golden Arch Cafe were mixed

In the '90s, McDonald's was famous for its burgers — not lasagna, waffles, Salisbury steaks, or root beer floats. And the response to the Golden Arch Cafe was decidedly lukewarm.

Bob Rickman, a then-57-year old contractor who called Hartsville, Tenn. home, weighed in on the arrival of the McDiner to his little town. (And little it was; at the time, Hartsville had a population of just 2,674 people, per Tulsa World.) "I think it's great," Rickman said to The Washington Post at the time. "Hartsville needs it, and I hope they need Hartsville." Indeed, Hartsville did need it; one of the main ideas behind the Golden Arch Cafe was to generate McDonald's revenue in a small town that otherwise couldn't generate enough profit to have a mainstream McDonald's set up shop there.

One of Ronald McDonald's rivals, however, wasn't as impressed as Rickman. John Merritt, a spokesperson for Hardee's Food Systems Inc., gave a very frank opinion on what he viewed as a "McNightmare" during a conversation with AP. "They [McDonald's] are the masters at what they do well, but when they get out of the coloring lines, it doesn't work as well," Merritt said to AP. Merritt's words seemed to ring true on some level. The McDiner debuted around the time of a rather slow sales period for McDonald's, and that while it wasn't unheard of for McDonald's to try new things, the results of past experimentations with food and dining additions were mostly hit-or-miss.

The Golden Arch Cafe was an unfortunate Mc-Mistake

Sadly, John Merritt's words later rung true for the Golden Arch Cafe, and they are proven simply by the fact that no McDiner exists today. It was unfortunately a failure, another ill-fated plunge into uncharted territory. But what exactly caused the failure of the McDiner? It's not like the food would be that bad, right? Maybe they didn't dress Ronald McDonald up as Elvis Presley and have him gyrate his hips to a McDonald's-themed rock-and-roll ballad whenever you ordered a quarter pounder

According to the blog Advertising and Consumer Culture, the reasons for the McDiner's failure were simple: The whole gimmick seemed superfluous and low-quality. It felt too dissociated from the McDonald's brand. When you think of McDonald's, do you imagine sitting in a stuffy booth, ordering on a little red phone diner-style lasagna and waiting 15 minutes to get it, or do you imagine ordering a Big Mac, fries, and a Sprite and getting that in no less than, say, two to four minutes without ever leaving your car?

The problem wasn't the food, but the concept. McDonald's was, and is, fast-food to the core, and to subvert those expectations is confusing to those who call the Golden Arches their gateway to heaven and Ronald McDonald their St. Peter.

Fans still remember the Golden Arch Cafe

So, there you have it. In the 1990s and early 2000s, McDonald's attempted an experiment to diversify its stocks and shake up its sales. Although it ended in failure and was quietly hush-hushed by the Big Macs in Marketing, McDonald's continues to be a powerhouse in the world of fast food.

Still, it's not just McDonald's that performed certain strange stunts. Taco Bell had a healthy menu option called Border Lights sometime in the mid-'90s, per the Los Angeles Times. Dominos Pizza had the Noid back in the '80s, and that resulted in a gunman with the same last name taking a couple of pizza makers hostage (and the Noid's coming back for 2021!). And Rax Roast Beef, in its final roars to stay afloat, released the cynical, bitter, and modern-day anti-comedy hero Mr. Delicious. 

Perhaps, in another time, in another place as beautiful as the imagination can allow, you and I are sitting in a Golden Arch Cafe. You're enjoying a Hamburglar's Hash with fried egg, and I'm waiting for my meal of Mayor McCheese melts and fries. The bubbling jukebox plays another Patsy Cline record as the neighborhood sound of laughter and friendship echoes into the warm evening sun.