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Dining out is often less a culinary experience than a social one. Restaurants have become a form of entertainment, a place to meet friends, a chic locale to see and be seen in. Why else would hungry customers endure the noise, crowds and 90-minute waits, all for the privilege of sitting at cramped tables and eating disappointing fare? "I would rather eat mediocre food in a fabulous room than sit somewhere dull and boring and eat fabulous food," says Christine Bastoni, a New York advertising executive and five-night-a-week restaurantgoer. "I'm looking for décor, scale, theatrics, a lot going on." Says Betty Cook, food critic of the Dallas Morning News: "The food doesn't have to be good for the lines to wind out a restaurant door and onto the sidewalk. They all rush in, even if the food is miserable, just so they can be seen."
Fast-food restaurants hardly offer that sort of satisfaction. But they are increasingly trying to provide more appealing settings for a meal out. Sterile, homogenized buildings are being replaced, in at least a few locations, by more distinctive décor. The new McDonald's on Calle Ocho in Miami's Little Havana has downplayed the golden arches in favor of a Spanish-style roof, blue mosaic tiles and a hacienda atmosphere. Another McDonald's, in Freeport, Me., resembles a quaint New England inn, complete with giltframed paintings on the walls. In the next year, Kentucky Fried Chicken will replace the red-and-white color scheme of all its restaurants with warmer earth tones and will start serving the Colonel's favorite recipe on plates instead of in paper boxes.
The food is growing more sophisticated too. Reflecting the currents in gourmet American cuisine, fast-food chains are stressing lighter, more healthful fare. Wendy's, the nation's third largest burger chain, expanded its menu in 1979 by introducing its highly successful salad bar. This year it has added a new "light menu," featuring an array of fruits at the salad bar, reduced-calorie dressings and a multigrain hamburger bun. The restaurant that once asked, "Where's the beef?" now does less than one-fourth of its business in hamburgers.
The trend toward more healthful fare and more natural ingredients is spreading. Arby's, the roast beef sandwich chain, has launched a new advertising campaign emphasizing the nutritional value of its "lean" roast beef. It is also test-marketing a roast chicken breast and a frozen yogurt dessert. Fuddruckers, a San Antonio-based gourmet burger chain with 85 outlets, puts all its ingredients on display for the customers: sides of beef hang in the adjoining butcher shop, while customers dress their own burgers from bins of fresh produce. Health consciousness has even spawned a low-cal chain, Atlanta-based D'Lites of America. Lean hamburgers are served on multigrain, high-fiber buns; the cheese and tar-tar sauce are low in fat and cholesterol. Says D'Lites Spokesman Rex Totty: "There's a growing insistence out there for more nutritious food, because the bottom line is that people want to eat right."