In the global downturn some of the few winners in the restaurant business have been those selling cheap food like McDonald’s or Burger King. But McDonald’s may have more up its sleeve in the coming year than just the Dollar Menu, and its thanks to way people in Europe are buying and eating its burgers, fries and–believe it or not–paninis.

McDonald’s in Europe isn’t the speedy refueling stop it is in the United States. Here it’s increasingly become a gathering place for young and old, offering food that’s suited to the region’s varied cultural tastes, from porridge in England, to baguettes in France, to soup in Portugal. Most of the chain’s European outlets now offer free Wi-fi, along with decor that’s a classier than what you’ll find across the Atlantic.

Take the McDonald’s in Notting Hill, London, where a large, glass front opens into a room with soft armchairs, tasteful art and a fresh flower on every table. It’s not Starbucks, but the company is clearly looking to take some market share from coffee-house businesses and get people to spend more time on the premises.

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