HARTSVILLE, TENN. -- The Golden Arch Cafe serves up old-fashioned Coke floats and Salisbury steak platters, but no Big Macs or McNuggets.

McDonald's Corp. is hoping this small-town spinoff from the 1950s will give the company a break in today's sluggish market for typical fast food.

McDonald's is stepping back in time, and possibly creeping toward a new franchise, with a diner where you have to wait awhile for the food but you get an ambience.

With chrome-glass decor, neon lights, spin-seat counter stools, cozy booths and a jukebox that blares 1950s and 1960s hits, the restaurant has been under secret development for two years, targeted at communities with populations of less than 3,000. The restaurant recently held its grand opening in this small Tennessee town.

"Let's just call it the cafe of the Nineties," said John Charlesworth, vice president for McDonald's Nashville region. "Small-town America is nostalgia. This place feels good, and this concept feels good to me."

Aside from its name, which draws upon the famed golden arches outside McDonald's outlets, there is little about the restaurant to suggest it is owned by the same people who introduced the world to Quarter-Pounders with cheese.

The typical menu fare includes a Salisbury steak platter with two vegetables for $2.99, lasagna for $3.99 and Coke floats in glasses at $1.19. Burgers and fries are there, too, but without the McNames.

True, patrons must place their orders at a counter, similar to the fast-food system. But afterward they find seats and restaurant workers dressed in 1950s-style bowling shirts serve them the food on ceramic plates.

"I think it's great," said Bob Rickman, 57, a local contractor lunching there during opening week. "Hartsville needs it and I hope they need Hartsville."

McDonald's executives said the Hartsville restaurant is the only one planned for now.

Charlesworth said the town was chosen because it represents the model locale where such a restaurant could thrive, a small town that can't generate enough business for a regular McDonald's. Hartsville, population 2,674, is about 50 miles east of Nashville.

"This is an opportunity to go places we normally might not go," Charlesworth said.

The restaurant's premiere was news to some analysts and competitors, who scrutinize everything McDonald's does because it shapes trends in the industry.

"Sounds like a New Jersey diner to me," said Joseph Doyle, a fast-food strategist at Smith Barney, Harris, Upham & Co. in New York.

Doyle said the new McDonald's concept puzzled him, partly because it is limited.

"If this thing works," Doyle said, "why would they keep it just in the small towns?"

At least one McDonald's rival wasn't impressed.

"What you're going to have is a McNightmare," said John Merritt, spokesman for Hardee's Food Systems Inc. "They are the masters at what they do well, but when they get out of the coloring lines, it doesn't work as well."

Hardee's calls itself the dominant fast-food restaurant in towns with populations of less than 10,000. The company's research shows customers go to fast-food restaurants in small towns for the same reasons as people in the city, Merritt said.

The opening of the restaurant comes at a time of slow sales for McDonald's, which has unsettled some investors and industry experts because the company historically has been considered one of the country's most successful businesses.

John Maxwell Jr., a securities analyst who follows the business for Wheat First Butcher & Singer in Richmond, said he wasn't surprised McDonald's would try a new concept. The company has been experimenting for years, from breakfast to pizza to salad bars. Some have endured while others have been quietly dropped.

"McDonald's has tried about everything under the sun," Maxwell said. The new restaurant concept "may or may not signal a new direction for them."