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 such as 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 -- such as eating pizza.
Iraqi entrepreneurs and investors from nearby countries, not big multinational chains, are driving the food craze. They consider Iraq an untapped market of adventurous eaters where competition is low and potential returns are high.
"We're fed up with traditional food," government employee Osama al-Ani said as he munched on pizza at one of the new restaurants. "We want to try something different."
Among the latest additions is a sit-down restaurant called Chili House. Its menu touts Caesar salads and hot wings along with all-American entrees including 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 teens. Toddlers wandered around a play area.
The restaurant, 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 has plans to open several more branches.
"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 had outposts of big American chains, including Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Subway, but they shut down as U.S. troops left last year. Because the restaurants were 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, spokesman Christopher Fuller said. Burger King declined to comment, and Subway did not respond.
Still, some of the fast-food places have suspiciously foreign-sounding names 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.
Dining out in Iraq is not without risk. Ice cream parlors, restaurants, and cafes were among the targets of a string of attacks that tore through Iraq on Aug. 16, leaving more than 90 dead.
But Iraqis say the chance to relax in clean surroundings over a meal out is worth the gamble.
"This gives you a feeling the country's on the right track," said Wameed Fawzi, a chemical engineer enjoying Lee's fried chicken with his wife.