McDonald’s 2.0

How fast-food chains are using design to go local

On a recent Saturday night, I invited a couple of friends out for dinner and drinks. We got in a car in Los Angeles, where we all live, and drove 40 miles south to Newport Beach, a pricey oceanfront Orange County city known for its nightlife. We had journeyed this obscene distance across multiple Southern California freeways to try a new restaurant. Its name is Taco Bell Cantina.

Yes, the restaurant is a part of the Taco Bell fast-food chain, which has more than 6,000 outposts in the U.S. serving a variety of Mexican and Mexican-ish foods. Taco Bell Cantina, unlike most of those 6,000, is a “concept” restaurant, one of about a dozen being rolled out across the country to test out a new permutation of the Taco Bell format. Taco Bell Cantina’s main distinguishing feature? It serves beer.

The restaurant is located on a tight footprint on a corner about a block from the beach. There’s no drive-thru or parking lot, and on the Saturday night of my recent visit, the dining area was nearly full with mostly teenagers and 20-somethings. There was a line for the bathroom.

My friends and I ordered several thousand calories worth of the usual Taco Bell food: chalupas, cheesy gorditas, nachos, a quesadilla wrapped around a burrito. On draft, the restaurant had an amber lager from a local brewery rebranded as “Beach Bell.” It was a novelty on top of the novelty.

Taco Bell Cantina verges on the sleek, with dark wood-topped tables and black metal chairs, tall stools along a central dining bar, and hanging Edison bulbs. Murals by a local artist adorn the walls, and giant folding windows open up its edges to the outside. Next to the counter, a wall of glass separates and frames the food prep area like some cutting-edge test kitchen.

The beer, it turns out, is only part of what Taco Bell Cantina is experimenting with. The new concept is also testing the theory that what the restaurant looks like is as important as what food and drinks it serves. ...