It makes for quite a paradox. Here is the quintessential all-American hamburger joint without any hamburgers and with a decidedly Indian flavor, what with a menu that features lamb burgers, veggie burgers (potatoes, peas, sweet corn, carrots, onions and spices) and Vegetable McNuggets with chili and masala dipping sauces.
No matter. Even if this is India's version of American fare, the crowds are eating it up.
``It's a new craze,'' said Dilip Odhrani, as his wife, children and friend's children gobbled McChicken burgers, fish filet sandwiches, Vegetable McNuggets, fries, sodas and more.
The first McDonald's franchises in India opened more than a year ago in New Delhi and Bombay. Since then, New Delhi has added four more and Bombay two, all told serving more than 6 million customers, according to Brad Trask, spokesman for the Oak Brook, Ill.-based company. McDonald's plans another dozen locations in India by the close of the year.
On Christmas Day, a holiday for most Indians, lines four abreast stretched some 30 feet out the door of Bombay's first McDonald's, past the security guard and the life-size Ronald McDonald and through the wrought-iron gates on fashionable Linking Road.
The popularity of McDonald's holds true across the world, except, ironically, in the United States, where sales have slumped. McDonald's makes 59 percent of its profit outside the United States, Trask said. In Moscow, where the world's busiest McDonald's opened in 1990, lines still spill out the door.
All for a fast burger with a side of fries and a milkshake?
``It's not about the hamburgers,'' said John Stanton, a professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University. ``It's about everything else. McDonald's is still an American icon. It stands for everything that is American.''
Which, it seems, would explain why McDonald's can tinker with its menu, even strike its signature product - the Big Mac - and still pull hordes.
Other symbols of America also attract groupie-like fans abroad. The Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Bangalore, India, is the place to eat for the in crowd. And Domino's now delivers in Bombay in 30 minutes or less, attracting the city's upper crust with toppings that include jalapenos, paneer (an Indian cheese), lamb and chicken.
In Germany, too, Stanton said, locals pay outrageous prices to satisfy a Big Mac attack. In Bombay, the vegetable burger we sampled was served with a smile and a peppy ``Enjoy your meal,'' a level of customer service rarely heard in India. The burger was quite tasty but no bargain at 31 rupees, about 80 cents, considering that the average Rajiv - India's version of the average Joe - can feed himself for the entire day for about 30 cents.
Still, they come - or at least the well-heeled do.
``A lot of these places carry an American message,'' Stanton said, by way of explanation.
But not everyone attributes McDonald's success abroad to its country of origin. According to food historian Elisabeth Rozin, author of the 1994 The Primal Cheeseburger, the meat is the message.
``The cheeseburger with all its component parts represents a common denominator eating experience,'' she said. In her book, she dissects the burger platter, from its juicy, fat-laden beef patty to the icy, effervescent soft drink. ``Beef has always had a great deal of panache.''
But how does she explain McDonald's popularity in a place like India, which gives new meaning to the ad line ``Where's the beef?''
The next most valued red meat is lamb, she said. Enter the Maharaja Mac.
The appeal of fast food, Rozin said, ``is that it not only gives you a quick meal - fills your tummy - but it has to do it in a very familiar, attractive fashion.''
What's more familiar and attractive than an easy-to-handle bundle consisting of a meat patty topped with melted cheese, crisp lettuce and condiments served up on a fresh bun? And never mind the acculturation of the burger. ``That's the nature of the food exchange,'' she said.
Cases in point:
In Japan, McDonald's has the teriyaki burger, a sausage patty with teriyaki sauce.
In New Zealand, it has the kiwi burger, which features a fried egg and slice of beet on top of a beef patty. (Surely, that's an acquired taste.)
In Manila, it has a noodle dish.
And in Norway, it has the McLox, a salmon sandwich.
``I don't think you'll find a more extreme example of cultural sensitivity by McDonald's than in India,'' Trask said. ``The very product we're known for can't be served there.''
Yet everything else about the experience reeks of America, or at least foreigners' impression of America - from the assembly-line efficiency of service to the broad smiles that accompany every ``May I take your order, please?''
The decor is Early Fast Food, modular, bright, clean, with no concessions to Indian architectural style. The ambience is exciting, almost frenzied, as customers surge toward the counter to order their Maharaja Macs and Happy Meals. (Indian customers, it would seem, haven't adopted the American notion of standing in orderly lines with the same zeal as they have American food.)
``In some cases, McDonald's is a place to see and to be seen,'' Trask said of the restaurant's cachet abroad. ``That's very much the case in India.''
Consider Aditya Varma, the essence of cool, what with his hip jeans, stylish crop and jean-clad female friend. The 20-year-old corporate sales representative for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, out on the town, agreed that McDonald's offered tasty food and fast service, all with a friendly smile.
But what's the real attraction for him? ``It's a cool crowd,'' he said.