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A Pilgrimage to the World's Oldest Surviving McDonald's

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Reflections on a visit to the quintessential fast-food restaurant

Lucas Peterson

The oldest existing McDonald's restaurant on earth is in a town called Downey, about a 15-minute drive southeast of Downtown Los Angeles. You might not even recognize it as a McDonald's while driving by — it looks like your archetypal California roadside burger shack, but the look and feel of the modern McDonald's, as perfected by Ray Kroc, somehow didn't reach this particular franchise. The fonts are different; the sign features one massive yellow parabola coming out of the ground instead of Stanley Clark Meston's iconic "Golden Arches." There's no mansard roof. And there's a fat little moon-faced chef mascot parading around on top of the sign (his name is Speedee, if you were wondering). This the pre-Kroc, O.G. McDonald's.

This McDonald's, on the corner of Lakewood Blvd. and Florence Ave. in Downey, was opened in 1953 by Roger Williams and Bud Landon. It was the third restaurant franchised by Richard and Maurice McDonald, who founded the chain in 1948. The Downey restaurant, then, is the fourth oldest McDonald's but remains the oldest still standing today. At the original walk-up hamburger stand in San Bernardino, only the original sign remains.

For years, this location was a bit of a loose cannon. It was able to maintain its original look and feel because it wasn't licensed through Ray Kroc, who purchased the McDonald's franchise in 1961. It was franchised through an original agreement with the McDonald brothers, meaning that it didn't have to keep up with the corporation's modernization requirements.

It was the last remaining independent McDonald's in the chain.

McDonald's adopted the golden arches; the Downey franchise did not have to. McDonald's restaurants everywhere adopted the Big Mac in the late 1960s; the Downey franchise did not, and sales flagged as a result. The restaurant was in danger of shutting down for many years, until Kroc acquired it in 1990. It was the last remaining independent McDonald's in the chain.

Today, the menu is line with other McDonald's. The lone exceptions are the apple pies; McDonald's began baking their apple pies in 1992, instead of deep frying them. You can still get a deep-fried apple pie in Downey. The burgers, fries, and breakfasts are all in keeping with the rest of the franchise.

You can still get a deep-fried apple pie

There's a large sign in the window above the counter comparing the prices of things in 1955 to those of today; gas used to cost 20 cents per gallon, now it costs $2.50. A loaf of bread used to cost 18 cents, now it's $2.75. The McDonald's hamburger, which used to cost 15 cents, now costs 95 cents. Then, in big, red, bold letters: "Our 95 cent hamburger is a better value today than in 1955 when it was 15 cent! [sic]"

About that hamburger — is there still a reason for the original McDonald's hamburger? It's a brown shuffleboard puck, essentially; a thin, perfectly-shaped, stamped-out circle that is really only a hamburger in name only. The Big Mac, which has suffered during the undulating waves of anti-carbohydrate fanaticism over the last 15 years or so, is better, and remains a stolid classic. Don't forget how mind-boggling and utterly decadent the Big Mac seemed when you were a kid. Yes, it was blown out of the water long ago by the ever-escalating largest-and-most-obscene-burger arms race, but two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun will forever represent what it means to be American. Yes, McDonald's told us, you can just put another burger on top of your existing burger.

There's a little museum in the Downey restaurant, filled with toys, artifacts, old advertisements, and a video about Ray Kroc running on a loop. "Ray Kroc was a lot of things..." I heard from a loudspeaker when I walked into the narrow hallway display. "... but 'endearing' was not one of them."

McDonald's, for better or for worse, paved the way for America's obsession with inexpensive, expeditious food

McDonald's, while still the reigning king, is beleaguered now: slumping sales, an out-of-date menu and innovative burger-slinging newcomers like Shake Shack and Five Guys have knocked the franchise back on its heels a bit. Yesterday's worldwide wage protests, while focused on the entire fast-food industry, had McDonald's, in particular, in their crosshairs.

When people think "McDonald's" they don't typically think "innovative," but they should. McDonald's, for better or for worse, paved the way for Americans' obsession with inexpensive, expeditious food. It pioneered the whole red-and-white tile burger-joint aesthetic that California made famous and lives on today in franchises like In-N-Out. It catered to L.A.'s burgeoning car culture by creating the walk-up window for commuters in a hurry, and later widely propagated the drive-through. It's a bit like the Rolling Stones now: once great, young, and hungry; now an out-of-touch, wealthy behemoth that doesn't know what to do with itself, its money, and its aging clientele. Just don't forget that McDonald's, once, used to be great.

McDonald's
10207 Lakewood Blvd.
Downey, California

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