BAGHDAD – Baghdad's embattled residents 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 the Iraqi capital, 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 explained. "People tell us: 'We feel like we're out of Baghdad. And that makes us feel satisfied.'"
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. Burger King declined to comment on its Iraq plans, and Subway did not respond.
Dining out in Iraq is not without risk. Ice cream parlors, restaurants and cafes were among the targets of a brutal string of attacks that tore through Iraq on Aug. 16, leaving more than 90 people dead.
Iraqis say the chance to relax in clean surroundings over a meal out is worth the gamble. For them, the restaurants are a symbol of progress.
"This gives you a feeling the country's on the right track," said Wameed Fawzi, a chemical engineer enjoying Lee's fried chicken strips with his wife Samara.
Baghdad's Mansour district is the heart of the fast-food scene.
At the height of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, it was tough to find shops open along the neighborhood's main drag. Militants targeted shop owners in a campaign to undermine government efforts to restore normality.
These days, roads are packed with cars. The traditional Arabic restaurants long popular here now find themselves competing against foreign-sounding rivals such as Florida Fried Chicken, Mr. Potato, Pizza Boat and Burger Friends.
There is even a blatant KFC knockoff called KFG, which owner Zaid Sadiq insists stands for Kentucky Family Group. He said he picked the name because he wanted something similar to the world-famous fried chicken chain. And he believes his chicken is just as good.
"In the future my restaurant will be as famous as KFC. Why not?" he said.
One of Mansour's newest additions is Burger Joint, a slick shop serving up respectable burgers and milkshakes to a soundtrack that includes Frank Sinatra. It is the creation of VQ Investment Group, a firm with operations in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.
Its Mansour store is outfitted with stylish stone walls and flat-screen televisions. Another branch just opened across town in the commercial district of Karradah.
The group also runs the Iraq franchises of Pizza Pizza, a Turkish chain, and is planning to launch a new hot submarine sandwich brand called Subz.
Mohammed Sahib, VQ's executive manager in Iraq, said business has been good so far.
Even so, running a restaurant in Iraq is not without its challenges.
Burger Joint's servers had to give up the iPads they originally used to take orders because the Internet kept cutting out, he said. Finding foreign ingredients such as Heinz ketchup and year-round supplies of lettuce is also tricky, and many customers need help understanding foreign menu items like milkshakes and cookies.
Health experts are predictably not thrilled about the new arrivals.
"The opening of these American-style restaurants ... will make Iraqis, especially children, fatter," said Dr. Sarmad Hamid, a physician at a Baghdad government hospital. But even he acknowledged that the new eateries aren't all bad.
"People might benefit psychologically by sitting down in a quiet, clean and relatively fancy place with their families, away from the usual chaos in Iraqi cities," he said.
Purveyors of traditional Iraqi specialties, who might be expected to oppose the foreign-looking imports, don't seem to mind at all.
Ali Issa is the owner of fish restaurant al-Mahar, which specializes in masgouf, the famous Iraqi roasted carp dish. He said every country in the world has burger and fried chicken restaurants, so why shouldn't Iraq?
Besides, he said, he and his family are fans of "Kentucky," the name Iraqis use for fried chicken, regardless of where it's made.
"Sometimes we need Kentucky. Not just fish, fish, fish," he said.
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Sinan Salaheddin and Bushra Juhi contributed reporting.