- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Well, la-di-da — with a side of curly fries, please. The esteemed Zagat Survey has just issued the first serious, comprehensive review of the nation’s fast-food eateries, offering aesthetic observations about Blizzards, Frostys, Icedreams, Triple Whoppers, Crispy Twisters, Meximelts, Cheesy Tots, Chicken Planks, Coolwraps, Jumbo Jacks and Big Macs.

Ah, the proverbial McDonald’s Big Mac weighs in at 540 calories, 29 grams of fat, 1,040 milligrams of sodium, 45 carbs and all the rest of that dietary singsong that keeps the food police in business. But the nation’s burger-and-fries meisters are getting very canny and very transparent these days. Fast-food chains are falling all over themselves to share every excruciating iota of information about their fare, providing complicated nutritional advice on all menu items, right down to fixin’s and condiments.

Yes, our hamburger does contain kryptonite. All tomatoes have a shelf life of three years. No chicken beaks were used in the preparation of this sandwich. Our milkshakes are dairy-free.

To be fair, McDonald’s scored an amazing and rather tasteful victory in the global culinary-industrial complex at the height of the Freedom Fries wars. In 2004, a pair of French nutritionists gave a spirited “oui, oui” to both the Big Mac and the classic cheeseburger, declaring them more healthful to eat than scandalously rich quiche, cassoulet and other traditional French dishes.

There was much hue and cry among those who viewed McDonald’s as an insult to French heritage and a harbinger of pushy Yankee culture.

Nevertheless, hoity-toity dietary researchers Jean-Michel Cohen and Patrick Serog dared put their renegade commendations in the “Savoir Manger Guide,” which more or less translates as “to know how to eat,” and is a French best-seller.

“Strangely enough, the products which are the most demonised are not necessarily the worst,” the two monsieurs said upon awarding the two burgers — buns and all — a coup de coeur, or seal of approval.

Oo-la-la. A coup de coeur for malbouffe — which is French for junky, primarily American, food.

“It is easy to vilify bread, meat and cheese. This objective look at our menu is very refreshing,” a McDonald’s spokesman told this newspaper at the time.

But back to the Zagat survey, a massive undertaking if there ever was one.

To qualify for a review, each of the fast-food franchises had to maintain at least 5,000 locations; 24 made the cut. Not one, not two, but 24. Almost 6,000 consumers provided eager input about their gustatory experiences.

It is a testimony to our restless, voracious appetites; we can never have too many fast-food restaurants, and we revel in our untrammeled burgerhood. Consider that there once was only a single McDonald’s, in Des Plaines, Ill. Now there are 30,000 in 118 countries, providing much opportunity for the world to sample two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun — or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

But hey, the Big Mac got a coup de coeur — maybe with oak leaves and a bypass cluster. More than 1,000 McDonald’s are scattered around the precious countryside of France alone.

Zagat, meanwhile, is giving all the franchises some white-glove treatment. As if it were examining the truffles and flourishes of the most urbane of establishments, the august reviewer has provided a snappy description, a four-part numerical rating system and customer commentary for its readers — just in case they need help in discerning between, say, Wendy’s and Burger King.

But Zagat is not without a sense of humor. Like a burger joint publicizing its nutritional underpinnings, Zagat also has revealed customer comments that its legal department deemed too dicey to include in the survey itself. The asides include, “Don’t tell my cardiologist,” “Bucket o’ death,” “Not sure they use real cows” and “E-coli free with every order.”

Yes, well. Zagat says cleanliness was the most important factor cited by fast-food aficionados, followed by nutritional concerns such as fat and calorie content. Oh, and there was some piece-de-resistance kind of stuff going on in the fast-food derby.

The “top food” award went to Wendy’s, followed by Subway and Pizza Hut. “Top facilities” were found at Wendy’s, followed by McDonald’s and Subway. “Top service” went to Subway, then Wendy’s and Domino’s Pizza. Finally, “tops overall” went to Wendy’s, followed by Subway and Pizza Hut. The best burger was found at Wendy’s, the best french fries at McDonald’s. Ronald McDonald was cited as the best mascot, though Subway spokesman Jared Fogle — who lost 245 pounds on a submarine sandwich diet — came in a close second.

Mr. Fogle is not one to be crossed, though. Inquiring minds want to know: Who would win in a wrestling match, Ronald or Jared?

“I think I could take him,” Mr. Fogle said recently. “Those funny gloves might affect his grip.”

Jennifer Harper covers media, politics and scandalously rich quiche for The Washington Times’ national desk. Reach her at jharper@washington times.com or 202/636-3085.

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