- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 28, 2012

BAGHDAD — The embattled residents of Iraq’s capital can finally get their milkshakes, chili-cheese dogs and buckets of crispy fried chicken. Original recipe or extra spicy, of course.

A wave of new American-style restaurants is spreading across Baghdad, enticing customers hungry for alternatives to traditional offerings like lamb kebabs and fire-roasted carp.

The fad is a sign that Iraqis, saddled with violence for years and still experiencing almost daily bombings and shootings, are prepared to move on and embrace ordinary pleasures — like stuffing their faces with pizza.

Iraqi entrepreneurs and investors from nearby countries, not big multinational chains, are driving the food craze. They see Iraq as an untapped market of increasingly adventurous eaters where competition is low and the potential returns are high.

“We’re fed up with traditional food,” said government employee Osama al-Ani, as he munched on pizza at one of the packed new restaurants last week. “We want to try something different.”

Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its glossy menu touts Caesar salads and hot wing appetizers along with all-American entrees like three-way chili, Philly cheesesteaks and a nearly half-pound “Big Mouth Chizzila” burger.

On a recent afternoon, uniformed servers navigated a two-story dining room bustling with extended families and groups of teenagers. Toddlers wandered around an indoor play area.

The restaurant, located in the upscale neighborhood of Jadiriyah, is connected to Baghdad’s only branch of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, a U.S. chain concentrated in a handful of Midwestern and Southern states.

Azad al-Hadad, managing director of a company called Kurdistan Bridge that brought the restaurants to Iraq, said he and his fellow investors decided to open them because they couldn’t find decent fried chicken and burgers in Iraq.

He called the restaurants a safe investment for companies like his that are getting in early. He already has plans to open several more branches in the next six months.

“Everybody likes to eat and dress up. This is something that brings people together,” he said. “People tell us: ‘We feel like we’re out of Baghdad. And that makes us feel satisfied.’”

Eating out still a risk

Baghdad’s Green Zone and nearby U.S. military bases once sported outposts of big American chains, including Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway, but they shut down as American troops left last year.

Because they were hidden behind checkpoint-controlled fortifications, most ordinary Iraqis never had a chance to get close to them, anyway.

Yum Brands Inc., owner of the Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and KFC chains, has no plans to return to Iraq for now, spokesman Christopher Fuller said.

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