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A first look at downtown’s new Ross Barney-designed McDonald’s

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The glassy, solar-powered restaurant showcases the brand’s high-tech future aspirations

Photos by Jay Koziarz

The futuristic makeover of Chicago’s infamous Rock ‘N’ Roll McDonald’s at the corner of Clark and Ontario streets will open its doors and welcome its first walk-in customers on Thursday, August 9.

Taking just 13 months from design conceptualization to completion, the transformation ditches the kitschy Elvis and Beatles memorabilia of its predecessor for a sleek contemporary design with an emphasizes on technology and sustainability.

The essentially all-new building (only the kitchen enclosure is carried over from the old store) comes from Chicago-based architect Carol Ross Barney. It is a steel, glass, and cross laminated timber structure topped by a canopy of solar panels. The latter is expected to cover 60 percent of the building’s electrical demands—which are roughly half that of its predecessor.

The sustainability theme is reflected in the project’s landscaping, green roof, rain-permeable outdoor plaza, suspended living plant walls, and a “floating” glass-walled garden of white birch trees and ferns suspending in the center of the building. The structure also features a rooftop orchard of apple trees.

The inside of the 19,000-square-foot River North restaurant arguably looks more like an Apple Store than a burger joint. The bright space draws customers to a centrally located corridor lined with six double-sided electronic kiosks similar to those found in the company’s store at its recently completed West Loop global headquarters.

At the River North location, the self-service stations are supplemented by traditional ordering counters and a dedicated McCafe coffee bar. Customers can also place their orders remotely using the company’s mobile app or in the store’s double drive-thru lanes that opened late last week.

The original Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonald’s debuted at the site in 1983. It was eventually knocked down for a larger two-story building modeled on an oversized version of Ray Kroc’s first franchise store in 2005. The River North location was a popular spot for late night snacking (and brawls) and was immortalized in a song by Chicago musician Wesley Willis.

“I loved that old building,” said franchise owner and operator Nick Karavites at a press event on Wednesday. “But what’s more important than looking back is looking forward and to where we are today. Looking at this building, it reminds me that McDonald’s is very young, very creative, forward-thinking, and a growth company.”

The River North location with its kiosks and table service embodies the company’s “Experience of the Future” initiative already found at 5,000 U.S. locations. McDonald’s plans to increase that number by 1,000 stores each quarter moving forward. In the Chicago area, the company plans to update all 93 restaurants and open seven new locations over the next two years.

The redesigned downtown flagship will serve guests 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Update: This post originally stated that the apple tree orchard was removed from the final design. There are, in fact, 15 apple trees located on the building’s roof.