Why I Take All My First Dates to Olive Garden
April 18, 2019 5:59 PM   Subscribe

When I meet women on dating apps, I always want to know if I can take them to the Olive Garden, my treat. It’s a solid opener; a way to know if we’re compatible. If they’re the right kind of woman for me, they’ll respond with an enthusiastic yes.

The right kind of woman for me is someone who won’t give me a hard time about the things I like. The kind of woman who will let me pocket all the leftover breadsticks and doesn’t care if we only discuss our favorite sexual positions and what kind of appetizers look best off the limited-time-only menu. We’re at Olive Garden because it’s kitschy and cute. Nothing that happens needs to be a serious thing. It’s no big deal.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (130 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is satire, right?
posted by rodlymight at 6:11 PM on April 18 [11 favorites]


I actually really liked that. For all the bad puns, she had a pretty sly pathos. I may have to keep my eyes open for her book, which has a great title. Thanks Johnny.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:17 PM on April 18 [13 favorites]


Olive Garden fanfic.
posted by benzenedream at 6:18 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


That was certainly a conceptually ambitious ad for Olive Garden, if it wasn't satire.

Maybe the date could have turned into something bigger if I hadn’t made it so it couldn’t possibly. Maybe I could’ve rolled the dice on sustainable companionship if I weren’t so terrified of it backfiring. Maybe. But here’s what I do know: If I ask nicely enough, the restaurant will give me a packet of my very own warm breadsticks to take home. On the house. And if that’s not intimacy, I don’t know what is.

Really beating the reader over the head with this. The narrator has intimacy issues. At Olive Garden, these melt away in an oil slick of olive and butter. Great.
posted by clockzero at 6:18 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


I read it as more tongue-in-cheek than satire.

Also, I found it (and the other essays) delightful!
posted by schroedinger at 6:21 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


That article about the bread at macaroni grill is on point, and I'd happily eat spaghetti with red sauce from a jar, ground beef and powdered parmesean cheese from a green tube three times a week if I could magically absorb that many carbs without gaining a ton of weight--but Olive Garden is pretty insipid food, something that any teenager can outdo with only the slightest effort (even just using the aforementioned jarred sauce and green-tube parmesean). I don't look down upon people who want to go there, rather I genuinely wonder why they wouldn't prefer to go to one of the other casual dining restaurants that serve uninspired but vastly superior food for a similar price. No Olive Garden is more than a mile from a TGIF, Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, Outback or something similar, so it's not lack of options, even assuming a person is only looking for a place to eat that has a national advertising presence.
posted by skewed at 6:23 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Isn't Olive Garden one of those restaurants where the food is mostly prepped in a giant industrial kitchen someplace and then shipped to the restaurants to be heated, finished, and served? I'm pretty sure I heard that. They basically don't cook anything on-site.
posted by hippybear at 6:26 PM on April 18 [6 favorites]


I think Arnett's essay makes it pretty clear she's not there for the food. As she says:
There’s something comforting about the fact that my Olive Garden is located in the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s where my evangelical family and I used to eat together before we stopped speaking. Before I came out, before I stopped going to church, before I held them accountable for all the ways they’d silenced important parts of me. So yeah, Olive Garden reminds me of my family, which is painful, but it also reminds me of home—at least, an idea of what home could be: a never-changing place that isn’t ever going to foist anything new upon me.

This is an essay about Olive Garden, but it's not really about Olive Garden.
posted by schroedinger at 6:26 PM on April 18 [65 favorites]


Isn't Olive Garden one of those restaurants where the food is mostly prepped in a giant industrial kitchen someplace and then shipped to the restaurants to be heated, finished, and served? I'm pretty sure I heard that. They basically don't cook anything on-site.

They actually do cook most things on site, albeit in big batches that are prepped for the day and then finished to order. The breadsticks are of the brown and serve variety, and are brushed with a thick butter-like substance and sprinkled with garlic seasoning as they come out of the oven. The desserts almost all come to the restaurant frozen. The salad dressing shows up already made. But the soups, sauces, pasta (dry, not handmade), lasagna, etc. is mostly made fresh daily.

You don't want to be a server at a Cedar Rapids Olive Garden the day that the chefs ruin the Alfredo sauce. On a Friday during Lent, no less.
posted by terilou at 6:37 PM on April 18 [56 favorites]


I won't judge you for eating at Olive Garden, but I also won't meet you there.
posted by madajb at 6:38 PM on April 18 [23 favorites]


I love the idea. My last time at an Olive Garden was pretty terrible. But swap it out for a Chili's or something and we're cool.
posted by downtohisturtles at 6:41 PM on April 18


I will, however, judge harshly any "celebration of old-school Italian-American restaurants" that includes Olive Garden, it being neither "old school" or even particularly "Italian-American".

It was founded as a corporate chain. By General Mills. In Florida.
posted by madajb at 6:43 PM on April 18 [16 favorites]


Chain restaurants expertly target children and teens, who decide on all such family matters, even when outnumbered by a dozen adults.
posted by Brian B. at 6:45 PM on April 18 [11 favorites]


I love puns, and I don’t even mind Olive Garden*, but she sounds like a bad date.

*I live in an area with an abundance of Italian restaurants, only some of which are owned by the literal Mafia, but those breadsticks, though!
posted by Ruki at 6:47 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


I remember them fondly as the post-rehearsal meal of choice for a folk dance team I was on. "Burn through every calorie you could possibly burn dancing to fiddle tunes, then cram in as much soup and breadsticks as will fit" isn't a bad way to spend Monday nights in college.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:52 PM on April 18 [18 favorites]


I used to carry mild resentment toward my wife for disliking italian food, but the more time passes the more I think it's a blessing in disguise, since really all it means is we're never tempted to go to Olive Garden.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:52 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


I won’t meet you at Olive Garden, but I will meet you at Red Lobster for cheese biscuits and novelty nautical cocktails.
posted by betweenthebars at 7:01 PM on April 18 [21 favorites]


I used to "test" first dates by offering them to drive me to punk shows and then I'd fall asleep in their car afterwards. It’s a solid opener; a way to know if we’re compatible.
posted by Cookiebastard at 7:06 PM on April 18 [13 favorites]


Long ago (I last dated in the early '80s), I had a similar strategy, only with the Mexican restaurant equivalent.... El Torito. (It's a California thing).
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:10 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: a conceptually ambitious ad for Olive Garden
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:12 PM on April 18 [12 favorites]


El Torito yesssssss
posted by Hermione Granger at 7:19 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


OMG now I'm reminded of Casa Bonita in Denver. Mexican food with endless seconds and cliff diving!

If I lived in Denver, that's where I'd take my first dates.
posted by hippybear at 7:26 PM on April 18 [8 favorites]


Two people eating means you get three sticks total. I like to think Olive Garden did that on purpose, so that you’re forced to break bread with your date.
One of my favorite (🍔) little fuck yous that restaurants seemingly always indulge in is the way that shared plates always come in prime numbers. I have this running fantasy of opening a restaurant whose premise is that it doesn't do any of the little annoying things that restaurants do because it's not worth their money to optimize, like not having enough seating space in the waiting area to account for the actual volume of customers, or (in the case of counter-service places) having a giant bottleneck by the bus trays because that's also where the condiment counter is, etc. Anyway, I just added another requirement: shared plates must always come in maximally divisible counts, like 6 or 12. You'll get the occasional five top that runs into the same old problem, but considering that most numbers aren't prime, it's the obvious choice. This is a fantasy because this restaurant would obviously hastily go down in fiscal flames.
posted by invitapriore at 7:26 PM on April 18 [19 favorites]


But they just give you the breadsticks. They could easily count the heads at the table and bring an adjusted number appropriate for those present, rather than being required to do return trips in order for everyone to feel equal.

"Oh, two people? I'll take them four!"

I don't see what the restaurant gains by bringing them three, unless there's some psychological trickery going on, like nobody will eat the last one so they don't ask for more even though they want more.
posted by hippybear at 7:30 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


Back when I in culinary school, you know, those two months of my life, my bread instructor said, every class, "You like those Olive Garden bread sticks? That's my recipe."
posted by greermahoney at 7:34 PM on April 18 [26 favorites]


> Red Lobster for cheese biscuits and novelty nautical cocktails

Ditto. The fall before the 2008 election I exasperated a Red Lobster bartender by repeatedly ordering Obama Mamas.
posted by maggieb at 7:35 PM on April 18 [9 favorites]


I'd go to Olive Garden with her, if only because I like the olives they put in the salad (pretty hard to screw up) and loathe the (mass-produced, out-of-season, mealy) tomatoes. At least through the salad course, we'd be happy.
posted by Daily Alice at 7:36 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


“Hi, I’ve basically given up on even trying to rise above America™️ anymore.”

/not criticism, I’m halfway there myself. Hey kids, who wants Chipotle again tonight?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:37 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite (🍔) little fuck yous that restaurants seemingly always indulge in is the way that shared plates always come in prime numbers.

Oh thank gawd, I'm not the only person who's noticed, and is driven crazy by, this. Toasted Ravioli should not, should NOT come in servings of seven; someone's gonna get stabbed with a salad fork.
posted by notsnot at 7:38 PM on April 18 [12 favorites]


I loved the essay as a snapshot of a time and place. My chain lunch club (it's just four friends, we like funny food and generous parking, we'd never see each other if we didn't plan a monthly lunch and we feel like everyone else we know would be very LA about our pedestrian tastes except everyone who hears about it goes "ooh, I secretly love Red Lobster!" or whatever) just went to Olive Garden last weekend because they are doing this limited time special giant food menu and we were like yeah, challenge accepted.

To our shock the giant meatball was silky and delightful, and the giant chicken parm was delicious (I ordered it, and cut half of it off and stuck it on the appetizer plate for everyone else to eat or take home), and the two who ordered shells and cheese liked it though I found it too cheesy. We got a pitcher of green apple moscato cocktail and it was unpleasantly sweet; we always order coffee to linger over a while longer, which you can usually get away with at chains in LA*.

We almost always talk about our memories of the place we're eating (if we even have them; all of us are natives of central and eastern parts of the country), and it's hard not to have some kind of hook to these places, even if it's just that we thought they were verrrrry fancy as very young people, or we had grandparents who only felt safe eating in these very recognizable settings or there was one at the intersection near our first love's apartment.

Anyway, Olive Garden is one of those places that I rank medium-high on the "work department's going out for lunch and several people are extremely picky" scale. You can mostly cobble together a low carb or vegetarian meal there (or pescatarian - they do surprisingly good fish, and I think they might have taken the mussels off the menu but it used to be a common work travel meal for me), the people who are scared of everything will find something comforting to order, if you're traveling for work you can cobble together a whole glass of wine from free samples (tip: go to a very business-area OG on a weeknight, a bored server will get you wasted on free samples).

*Hands down, the best chain experience I've found in LA is the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey, which has a patio on the gorgeous not-windy marina beach and it's cheaper than any of the other freestanding restaurants on the marina (and presumably cheaper than the hotel restaurants that take up the rest of the waterfront). There is a Bubba Gump on the beach at Santa Monica Pier and their patio-like enclosure is definitely tourist-worthy in a city that doesn't actually have many commercial properties on the actual state park beaches, and frankly Gump's is just as good as the much snootier place up at street level that costs twice as much.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:42 PM on April 18 [27 favorites]


Goddamn but I miss toasted ravs.
posted by invitapriore at 7:42 PM on April 18 [10 favorites]


I grew up in the midwest thinking Olive Garden was awesome, but I moved to a big coastal city (and grew up), so now I know better. But I'm conflicted about whether I'm happy about that, because liking things shouldn't really be about other people and it's not like I've ever been to an Olive Garden and not liked it.

It's more that the hamster wheel of taste and all of its status implications is just kind of horrible. I know a few people that loooove Panera, and every time I'm reminded of this I get an ego boost from how confused I am. Like, did they miss the memo about how Panera is not cool? How its bagels aren't even real bagels? And then I get annoyed at myself for being just a judgy elitist. Why do I have to enjoy looking down at people so much? Who the fuck cares what they like? How much of my happiness is just belief I should be happy because it's what I think other people approve of?

Metafilter is good and bad in this regard because it's definitely introduced me to a lot of great stuff, some of which I would have dismissed out of hand. But the infitite dismissive comments just worm right into my brain and oh man I hope I've been less than obvious about my judginess in so many situations.

Anyway I liked the main linked article quite a bit, thanks.
posted by ropeladder at 7:52 PM on April 18 [28 favorites]


This is an essay about Olive Garden, but it's not really about Olive Garden.

[pulls off schroedinger's mask] Ira Glass!
posted by clockzero at 7:54 PM on April 18 [29 favorites]


The pull quote in the post reads SO differently from the POV of a woman writer than from a man writer as I initially thought.
posted by bleep at 7:57 PM on April 18 [65 favorites]


I met my current husband online and he suggested Panera Bread down at the shopping center for our first meetup. I was disappointed in this choice, firstly, in spite of my solidly Midwestern upbringing I had recently returned from living in Europe so I was aghast at the idea of going to a chain bakery and more importantly because it made me wonder if he was a serial dater who didnt want to lay down heavy investment given the likelihood we wouldnt hit it off. This turned out to be not at all true in the sense he was not a serial dater but completely true in that he was not willing to risk spending too much on a date, first or last. This article has his name written all over it. Years later I am used to him eating all the breadsticks and the rest of my dinner and everyone else's at our table, but never dessert because that costs extra. Is it possible to marry someone who checks so many " I would never date someone like that" boxes? Yes, I tell you so this Olive Garden test isn't so reliable as this writer would have you believe.
posted by waving at 7:59 PM on April 18 [16 favorites]


When I meet women on dating apps,

Women reply to her on the dating apps?! Who is she, a sorcerer? Teach me your ways, Olive Garden Morgana.
posted by pelvicsorcery at 8:02 PM on April 18 [34 favorites]


I liked the essay, but while I understand the appeal of Olive Garden, it wouldn’t be my go-to for dating. (If nothing else, a meal that heavy requires some downtime for digestion.)
posted by Dip Flash at 8:02 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


Olive Garden is pretty insipid food, something that any teenager can outdo with only the slightest effort

Their pasta, sure, but I can assure you that their breadsticks are not replicable with "only the slightest effort". I've tried. (I'm sure there are teenagers that can do it, but it's not trivial.) They're parbaked or 'baked off' at the restaurant, but they're a legitimate bakery item--you're not going to get the same results using Pillsbury dough out of a can, or a chemically-leavened quickbread recipe. (Though I admit to a certain nostalgic thing for Pillsbury breadsticks-from-a-can, as well as many other canned bread products, but that's a different story.) Unless you can find a store that sells really good parbaked breadsticks, which I never really have, they're tough to do at home.

Same with their pizza. Sure, you can make pizza at home, but there's a non-trivial learning curve just to get the thing in and out of the oven and onto a pizza stone correctly. I ruined a lot of pizzas and a lot of high-gluten flour before I could get a homemade pizza to even the quality of what they turn out at OG, and it's still a no-shit daylong process when you include making the dough.

If you were just going to get a bowl of pasta, sure, anybody can do that (well, if you're willing to not boil the living daylights out of the pasta...). But credit where it's due, their menu extends quite a distance beyond pasta.

Anyway, as a filter to weed out obnoxious dudes there are probably worse methods.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:06 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


I was too kind to this author earlier. She really sounds like she deserves the Olive Garden.

That's mean. This reads like a cry for help. I hope she's okay. I think it's the editor who decided to publish it rather than saying, "Hey, have you tried therapy?" is the one who actually deserves the Olive Garden.

Don't eat at chain restaurants. They're not worth the price. If these essays are any indication, that includes a metaphysical one. I can't get on board with these weird celebrations of bland corporate suburbian culture, food or otherwise, that I'm seeing pop up more and more from people in my generation. It's poison for the soul, and you're contributing to your own subjugation when you support that shit instead of a locallly owned restaurant.

This isn't hipster pretention, every corporate chain restaurant near me is as expensive as the locally owned restaurants with food that's a quarter as good. And is probably also less healthy, so even if, like the author of the first article, your tastebuds are so dead you can't tell the difference between red and white wine or another other slop you shovel into your face, you'll still probably live longer if you eat the local food. Just stop it. I'm out.
posted by Caduceus at 8:08 PM on April 18 [14 favorites]


I would love for this author to eat at Olive Garden with the awesome Marilyn Hagerty. Then they could write a joint essay that would make all of our hearts sing.
posted by Maarika at 8:16 PM on April 18 [12 favorites]


I think it's that lots of chain places charge a fair amount but also load the plate up with cheap carbs so it feels like more food.

People feel like local places aren't giving them value because they aren't taking home two bites of meat and a pile of mashed potatoes they'll never actually eat.
posted by Ferreous at 8:18 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I like the Olive Garden OK, but it's the kind of place you go with your grandma or an old friend, not a date. It's comfy and not at all romantic. Which is basically why the writer takes her dates there -- she wants zero romance. Maybe some hooking up, but no actual romance.

I liked the article a lot, but it did have an uncomfortable edge. The writer seemed so unhappy.
posted by rue72 at 8:18 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


Two people eating means you get three sticks total. I like to think Olive Garden did that on purpose, so that you’re forced to break bread with your date.

This is actually a result of the PE firm that purchased the chain getting mad about what it perceived as wanton waste on the part of the restaurant. I am very much not making this up.

Yeah, people think it's snobby not to like restaurants like the OG, but it's not like they're genuinely inexpensive! I know there are places where it's Applebee's or nothing, but where they are in NYC, you are a couple blocks at most from a local restaurant or five that is at least as good and in the same price range.

Those Red Lobster biscuits are pretty tasty, though
posted by praemunire at 8:21 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


I used to carry mild resentment toward my wife for disliking italian food, but the more time passes the more I think it's a blessing in disguise, since really all it means is we're never tempted to go to Olive Garden.

Whatever it is that the Olive Garden serves, it is in no way Italian food.

If people like it, fine, but don’t get it twisted.
posted by snuffleupagus at 8:23 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Once I told my coworker I liked having a Jimmy Johns close by so I could buy lunch if I hadn't had time to make it. She told me that she used to work near the original location when they first opened "so the novelty has kind of worn off for me." I was like... that's not why I go to Jimmy Johns.

Anyway, this essay was an interesting combination of insight and silliness.

I liked the puns too.
posted by Emmy Rae at 8:24 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


The one and only time I went to an olive garden I was served as extremely broken sauce and when I complained was told "that's how it's supposed to be, it's Italian"

I am understandably biased against them.
posted by Ferreous at 8:27 PM on April 18 [8 favorites]


There are plenty of reasons people like chain restaurants, beyond predictability and consistency. They are generally friendly to multigenerational groups, they are mostly ADA compliant, menus are well labeled in terms of allergens, and on and on.

I don’t eat at them often (aside from ordering Jimmy Johns sandwiches at work) but there’s no reason to be dismissive or disparaging of the option.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:29 PM on April 18 [35 favorites]


They literally stopped salting the water they cook pasta in to maintain a warranty on pots. I think thanks a plenty good reason to be dismissive of them.
posted by Ferreous at 8:33 PM on April 18 [11 favorites]


If you're a librarian, you should read her Lithub stuff. If you're not, and you ever go to the library and want to know why all of us are like that, read her Lithub stuff. Knowing who she is makes this hilarious to me.
posted by sir_patrick_o'veal at 8:34 PM on April 18 [14 favorites]


The one and only time I went to an olive garden I was served as extremely broken sauce and when I complained was told "that's how it's supposed to be, it's Italian

Were you by any chance at the Olive Garden in Cedar Rapids on a Friday during Lent?
posted by TedW at 8:35 PM on April 18 [15 favorites]


I use Olive Garden as a test, if you don't enjoy it with me then you're a picky eater and probably less adventurous and open about trying and understanding food than I am.
posted by polymodus at 8:36 PM on April 18 [6 favorites]


I was in New Jersey which made it far far worse.
posted by Ferreous at 8:38 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


I find it so weird that people can't imagine what local restaurants that live and die off feeding the crowds going to the latest Disney production look like.
posted by praemunire at 8:38 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


I find it so weird that people can't imagine what local restaurants that live and die off feeding the crowds going to the latest Disney production look like.

I, um... him.

I lack context for this comment.
posted by hippybear at 8:42 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Re the prime number theory on appetizers and other shared plates... I found (via the "Incredible Costless Abundance of Macaroni Grill’s Free Bread", which is a great article) this 2014 Darden Restaurants slide deck which discusses Olive Garden breadstick rationing.

The rule servers are supposed to follow for the initial breadstick disbursement is N+1 where N is the number of guests at the table. So, for a four-top table you're supposed to get 5 breadsticks, and thus you'll always have an annoyingly indivisible quantity.

Other fun notes: if you want more breadsticks, their intent is that you ask the servers and they're supposed to bring you fresh ones, because apparently an OG breadstick has a half-life measured in single-digit minutes (no, seriously, they say themselves "after sitting just 7 minutes, the breadsticks deteriorate in quality"). On average, they go through 3 breadsticks per customer, but the average customer doesn't actually eat that many breadsticks. (They don't say how many breadsticks the average diner actually eats; must be in the classified version of the report.) There's some tsk-tsking at servers who oversupply customers with breadsticks, apparently to the tune of $4-5 million per year.

And, as fodder for the upsell theory, they do say that by not giving out so many breadsticks initially, "guests inherently [sic] consumed less and ordered more appetizers and desserts". So it's not that they want to drive people away from ordering dessert, quite the opposite. They just can't not give out the breadsticks because it's a core product, people expect it. (I mean... duh.)

There's a bunch of other information in there that I've never seen otherwise published, including a breakdown of food costs--proteins are 38% of their food spend, beverages are 25%, produce 13% and wheat, presumably including breadsticks, only 7%--so yeah there's a reason why they bring out the 'sticks before the unlimited salad.

Also they use, or used back in 2014, dishwasher safe takeout containers. You could take your leftovers home and run the container through the dishwasher and reuse it to your heart's content. That's actually kinda cool--wasteful and insane, since I don't know anyone who's ever done this--but interesting.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:42 PM on April 18 [20 favorites]


The Olive Garden is an overpriced corporate shit hole that is trying to destroy labor by training customers to be our own waiters by ordering from the computer screen, not to mention the food is bad and did I mention expensive?

But as mentioned above, kids love it. Go to the local Olive Garden in my neck of the woods and it's a rainbow of ethnic diversity; families, couples, and an endless churn of people celebrating their birthdays. They're well liked. And I liked this article, and would be honored to go on a date there with the author. I mean, does anyone think she doesn't know about organic grain bowls or "authentic" Korean fried chicken joints?

She knows restaurants, good and bad, and she knows Olive Garden is bad, and she enjoys the fun times that a carefully constructed capitalist restaurant chain can provide. Further, she is burned out on the stresses and anxieties of dating culture, and like many humans is lonely, and found a fun way to connect with a date and suss them out, even as she remains fairly hopeless about love.

We live in America. It's ugly and stupid in many ways. But a funny lady staving off the ennui with a date and a plus sized bowl of pasta is not the problem.
posted by latkes at 8:55 PM on April 18 [36 favorites]


or used back in 2014, dishwasher safe takeout containers

This is pretty common on the left coast now, for what it's worth. I gave up all my Gladware for black meal-prep containers about 2.5 years ago, and many of our takeout options switched to something similar within the past 1.5 years. When they've been microwaved/dishwashered to the point of brittle unstableness, I can still use them as seed-starting trays in the garden a while longer before recycling.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:03 PM on April 18 [9 favorites]


I grew up in the midwest thinking Olive Garden was awesome, but I moved to a big coastal city (and grew up), so now I know better. But I'm conflicted about whether I'm happy about that, because liking things shouldn't really be about other people and it's not like I've ever been to an Olive Garden and not liked it.

I feel this. There's a specific experience I keep trying to explain to my coastal-born friends, of being the young person who hasn't left the Midwest yet. You're going to eventually, because you're liberal & counterculture & likely queer, but more importantly you scored a billion percent on Openness in the Big Five scale & you want to have life experiences.

And sometimes those life experiences involve driving forty minutes to go to the Olive Garden because it's somehow, actually, legitimately fancier than anything in your town, because you love how all-in they went on plastic grapes & fake marble busts & Frank Sinatra on the stereo, because it's a special treat for your friend's birthday & she wants to go to the Olive Garden, because you can get drunk off wine while they keep bringing you breadsticks, because no one has shamed you out of genuinely enjoying mildly sub-par fettucine alfredo.

I'm out of the Midwest & enough of an insufferable foodie now to know that Olive Garden food is less worth the calories than many other meals I could get -- including from an actual authentic Italian joint! -- but I would never tell younger me that she wasn't allowed to derive genuine joy from the friggin' Olive Garden.
posted by taquito sunrise at 9:08 PM on April 18 [64 favorites]


I find it so interesting that chain restaurants are still quite popular in America. Is it the case for Canada, too?

Here in Australia, they were only marginally popular in the eighties. As the decade closed, so did they. There's now only a very few left, and they ate not that busy typically.

I guess there are a few popular chains like din tai fung or papa rich, but they are relatively authentic Asian restaurants, not really parallel universe themes or cuisines unto themselves.

I did it interesting because in many respects I find US and Australian cultures quite similar.
posted by smoke at 9:18 PM on April 18 [7 favorites]


Just tonight I was asked out on a first date. As we were negotiating where to meet, he made it very easy to politely decline meeting him, by being less than enthusiastic about Thai, flat out vetoing Indian, being lukewarm about Mexican, and being all about steak and bloody mary's.

There was also the small issue of his implying he was only after a one night stand.

Any man who wants me to put out, but won't eat chana masala or butter chicken isn't getting past a phone call.
posted by Sequined Ballet Flats at 9:21 PM on April 18 [31 favorites]


i'd hang out with her! she sounds fun. also, bravo for writing a personal essay that is *short*. brevity, wit, and all that, so rare in expositional internet writing.

also, the metaphor of terrible food for terrible loneliness is apt. both have amazing inverses-- that is, love and umm good food.

and olive garden is, indeed, terrible.
posted by wibari at 9:35 PM on April 18 [14 favorites]


I grew up with an Olive Garden in through my backyard! I still think of it fondly! And I love olives!

Thinking about it, I'm kind of baffled by how, two towns over from New Haven, where southern Italians ported their thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, there were really no good Italian restaurants. We did try Pasta Fair once, and service there was dim and slow and the pasta was unsatisfactory.
posted by batter_my_heart at 9:53 PM on April 18


I just don't like the food there. I'm from the Midwest too, and grew up too poor to eat in restaurants, chain or otherwise. I went to Olive Garden once for a friend's birthday, in New York City, and my pasta there was overcooked and gummy. Never again.

If I were going on a first date in Florida, I'd say "How about we get a big ol' sandwich from Publix, and a nice bottle of red, and go to the beach?" I'd eat the prepared food at Publix over anything at Olive Garden any day of the week. And if there were a second date, I wouldn't say no to Cheesecake Factory.
posted by droplet at 9:56 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


Man, I just can't get worked up about the Olive Garden.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:01 PM on April 18 [12 favorites]


This article made me unaccountably sad and I couldn't really put my finger on why. I don't have strong feelings about the Olive Garden; I don't think I've been to one in twenty years. I didn't even really know they were still a thing. Apparently there's one ten minutes from me!
posted by potrzebie at 10:08 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


What a sad tale. I hope she one day finds non-corporate companionship with an extra serving of genuine love.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:41 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


Also, I feel like I need to stick up for El Torito a little. Faux-cantina Amero-mexican is not not actual Mexican food but still good, in the same way that "red tablecloth" Amero-italian is not Italian but still good.

Wheras Olive Garden is an ersatz version of Amero-Italian that hovers somewhere slightly above a cafeteria buffet line, but with breadsticks and other trappings of 70's "Continental" fine dining that somehow make people not notice the ripoff.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:18 PM on April 18 [2 favorites]


Wheras Olive Garden is an ersatz version of Amero-Italian that hovers somewhere slightly above a cafeteria buffet line

I once met a date at a Luby's...
posted by hippybear at 11:27 PM on April 18 [5 favorites]


Here in Australia, they were only marginally popular in the eighties. As the decade closed, so did they. There's now only a very few left, and they ate not that busy typically.


Ehhhh I wonder if we're using the term "chain restaurants" differently. I assume you are not counting fast food, maybe even Nando's etc is in that category, or all the bakery cafes like Pie Face, but although Sizzler specifically disappeared (*sniff*), you can still eat at Pancake Parlour, The Coffee Club, La Porchetta, etc. It's a smaller set because australia is a smaller market, of course, but it's still a thing.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 11:35 PM on April 18 [4 favorites]


Mexican food with endless seconds

I have eaten at Casa Bonita. The food is of the quality that I would pay extra to not have endless seconds.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:19 AM on April 19 [6 favorites]


Asking a first date to Olive Garden would, to me, be a sign that my date is only comfortable with the blandest of white people food. Which is fine, but that means we wouldn't be compatible.

My hot take is that American chain restaurants are not universally comforting + accessible and we should stop pretending that they are. Many chain restaurants are pretty uncomfortable and unappealing to me as a Chinese-American person: if I took my mom there she'd complain about how cheesy/creamy and overportioned the food is to her.
posted by storytam at 3:43 AM on April 19 [22 favorites]


It’s all very romantic, if romance is deciding who gets to take the bigger share of the carbs.

There is a grain of truth in this.

One night I made a pun so bad that a woman actually took out her phone and unmatched me right there at the table.

If you have not had this experience at least once in your life, you lack humor or courage. If you have had it more than twice, you lack a filter or prudence.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:11 AM on April 19 [16 favorites]


I haven't been to an Olive Garden since I moved back from the suburbs a decade ago. I always find it so weird that the chains have almost 100% taken over dining in the suburbs and while there are some in the city, there's still a ton of local options. Even the chain places in the city are mostly locally owned ones that only have a handful of locations but you literally go over the boundary into the closest suburb to me and it's all Red Lobster and Chilis. My wife and I go to the movies a lot and usually end up driving out to the 'burbs because there aren't too many theaters in the city but we're always stumped for dining options when we get out there.
posted by octothorpe at 4:24 AM on April 19


I also can't really get it up about Olive Garden. I've eaten there, there are worse things that have happened in my life, and better.

The linked article about beans and greens in Pittsburgh was kind of news to me, though. I mean, that's not a fairly standard Italian dish everywhere? I've honestly never even took two looks at it on a menu (I tend not to get that when I eat out because we make it frequently at home). And I've certainly never eaten at Alla Famiglia because I don't have hundreds of actual dollars to spend on a meal.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:30 AM on April 19 [6 favorites]


I really like Kristen Arnett's voice and perspective. She's also the author of the terrific The Problem with Writing About Florida (previously).

I recently went to the Olive Garden for the first time in 15 years. I think that makes it 3 times total. It's not a restaurant I seek out, obviously, but neither has it been, IMHO, worthy of the sneering it invariably gets from a certain crowd. I had the braised beef gorgonzola alfredo and it was actually quite delicious, and the service was amazing--we were a table of 8 adults and a baby, and they assigned us 2 servers who were pleasant and accommodating and efficient. I think it only just opened up in my hometown a year ago, and I know everyone was excited to get one. My sister's family has eaten there enough in the time since that my nieces have their ordering system down to a science.
posted by drlith at 5:21 AM on April 19 [9 favorites]


I once met a date at Olive Garden,
And she said “I beg your pardon?”
When I started to pun, she started to run,
And our breadsticks did nothing but harden.
posted by Slinga at 5:26 AM on April 19 [24 favorites]


I used to do a lot of drug deals at an Olive Garden parking lot. it was a great place for it because everyone who entered or left just looked straight at the ground, they never scanned around to see if anyone was hanging out in their car suspiciously looking all around every thirty seconds.
posted by some loser at 5:39 AM on April 19 [17 favorites]


I likewise don't particularly think of beans and greens as being any kind of Pittsburgh ~thing~, but then, I grew up in New Jersey before moving here. So maybe my baseline expectations of the availability and types of Italian food are just skewed by the places I've lived.

The combination of price and crossing the Monongahela, god forbid probably means I'll never go to Alla Famiglia either.
posted by Stacey at 5:46 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


I've lived all my life in Pittsburgh and never even heard of greens and beans, nor all but one of those restaurants.

I travel for work a lot and would rather go to supermarket prepared foods over any chain, with one exception. Ruby Tuesday has a pretty good salad bar and they will make my burger rare.
posted by M-x shell at 5:46 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


I love this comment from taquito sunrise. My husband and I used to go to Olive Garden for special occasions. We lived in a small rural town with very few restaurants. A nearby city (still a small and rural city at that) has restaurants!

We were always warmly treated there, and at the time, to us, it was fancy.

We’ve grown older and learned more about food. The rural town we lived in has a thriving wine culture now and there are some amazing restaurants that we sometimes go to.

We’ve since moved to a town of 300 with a park, a church and a pop machine, no restaurants without a drive to someplace else. I’ve improved my cooking.

But I have fond memories of anniversary dinners at Olive Garden with this good man I’ve spent nearly 20 years with. And though in hindsight I don’t have the same tastes in food that I once did, I’m thankful for having the experience of dressing up with my husband to go out for a nice dinner - because regardless of the reality of the situation, that’s what our memories hold of those nights
posted by hilaryjade at 5:47 AM on April 19 [38 favorites]


For people of a certain age who grew up poor, Olive Garden was an unattainable dream. If you got to go for a birthday or graduation, you were living the dream. Double if you got to sit in a room with a fake fireplace that looked like a house on TV. Some people never experienced that, some people strove to make sure their kids never felt the same, and some people strove but are happy to visit a reminder of their past.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:56 AM on April 19 [24 favorites]


When that ice cold salad plate hits my table, it's as comforting to my dysfunctional, food-insecure GenX soul as Teenage Riot. I don't go to Olive Garden to feel special. I go to feel normal.

The banality is a feature.

And I don't go anymore, because I found therapy more filling than breadsticks.
posted by a complicated history at 6:06 AM on April 19 [21 favorites]


I've lived all my life in Pittsburgh and never even heard of greens and beans, nor all but one of those restaurants.

Yeah, if someone asked me to define Italian-American cuisine in Pittsburgh beans and greens would not be the signature dish I would pick. Or even remotely consider. And why did they pick the Italian restaurants that the owners of the bloody Steelers (and their assorted employees) go to? That's not, like, normal-people Italian restaurants.

Living in Pittsburgh did teach me early and often that I actually hate Italian-American desserts. Moio's is my kryptonite. So much candied fruit and almond paste and anise and ugh. No thank you. I mean, I admire the tradition of the cookie table, but I usually don't want anything to do with 90% of what's on offer.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:13 AM on April 19


And why did they pick the Italian restaurants that the owners of the bloody Steelers (and their assorted employees) go to? That's not, like, normal-people Italian restaurants.

Legends is not fancy, it's a just a little corner Italian place next to Allegheny General. Entrees are like $12. Also, for what it's worth, I've run into Pat Rooney quite a few times, we're neighbors, and she seems like a very normal person.
posted by octothorpe at 6:27 AM on April 19


Thanks Sir Patrick for the link to the author's Lithub articles. She's inspiring me to clean out my personal e-mail inbox and I love learning more about libraries!
posted by narancia at 6:39 AM on April 19


Yeah, people think it's snobby not to like restaurants like the OG, but it's not like they're genuinely inexpensive!

I'd venture that the class distinction (and ensuing allegations of "snobbiness") fractures along lines that are more complex than pure economics. It's more a question of comfort zones than price, and in the snobby end of the disdain, of "authenticity".

To not want to go to Olive Garden (or anywhere else, really), you basically need to have a basis for your distaste, which could be any of three things: quality, adventurousness, or "authenticity".

Starting with the first: it's true that Olive Garden is pretty mediocre even by the standards of chain restaurants or other restaurants at its price point, but that's only obvious if you've eaten better. If you're not adventurous (or if your hometown is devoid of quality downmarket Italian), you might not have that, even if you're rich.

Adventurousness (or the lack thereof) is I think the main feature where Olive Garden fans and detractors split. Having an occasional bad meal is the price of exploration, but a dull meal is, to an adventurous eater, an unforced error, and Olive Garden is a hard place to put together an authentically exciting and interesting meal (for a white person raised in the mainstream white American culinary traditions; see below). Culinary adventurousness is a complex amalgam of upbringing, education, wealth, and possibly genetics (considering, e.g. supertasters, allergies, and cilantro aversion) but I think it is bound up in some ways with class, in that a willingness to breeze into a hole-in-the-wall of a cuisine you've never encountered reads fundamentally as a cosmopolitanism which exists independent of wealth, whereas patronizing chain restaurants is widely seen as a small-minded unwillingness to explore.

Adventurousness, of course, cuts both ways, since Olive Garden is tailored to fit the comfort zone of a particular American taste, and if that's not your native culture it can be threatening. storytam's note above that Olive Garden would be weird and uncomfortable for her mother, whose concept of comfort food doesn't conform to the Olive Garden model, is kind of illuminating.

"Authenticity", I think, is where the intersection of quality-seeking and adventure-seeking goes sour, and is rightly regarded as snobbishness except when an inauthentic experience tips all the way into cultural appropriation. But even this isn't an economic distinction: you don't have to be rich to be a hipster.
posted by jackbishop at 6:43 AM on April 19 [17 favorites]


I was thinking more of Alla Famiglia, which I often hear is the place that Steelers and assorted other sportsball people go. (I just re-read the article and I mixed up my Alla Famiglia prior knowledge with mention of the Rooneys.) As a vegetarian, I am far from an expert on Pittsburgh's red sauce joints and Piccolo Forno is our local Italian (not really red sauce, I guess). I'm not sure what I'd pick from my end of town. Pleasure Bar, I guess? I've done most of my Italian-American food-eating at peoples' Nonnas' houses, tbh.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:46 AM on April 19


We lived in a small rural town with very few restaurants. A nearby city (still a small and rural city at that) has restaurants!

We were always warmly treated there, and at the time, to us, it was fancy.


That was us, too. The nearest Costco was about an hour away, so going there usually meant stopping for lunch.
Sometimes we'd go across town for excellent regional Mexican food, but sometimes you want the chain restaurant vibe, and Olive Garden is far, far from the worst of the chain restaurants -- the food has flavor, there are actual vegetables, and not everything is deep fried. At least at that specific Olive Garden, I liked seeing how the servers did a good job dealing with big family groups with both elderly and very small members -- not something I ever see in the more hipster/high end places I more often eat out at.

Cost-wise, the same money will get you a better meal at a local place, if you are in a city with those kind of options. That's a big if; a lot of the Olive Gardens I see are surrounded by Chilis, Red Lobster, and similar places, not artisanal locovore restaurants.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:55 AM on April 19 [11 favorites]


If we were looking for places in Pittsburgh that sportspuck people go to, I'd say just go to Kavsar and eat delicous dumplings. (I'm told the pancake bags are also amazing but I don't like mushrooms so I'll never know.) Little bit hole-in-the-wall, only a few accessible tables and the rest up a long flight of stairs, but damn, those are some delicious dumplings. I'm told they used to run a perpetual slideshow of Geno Malkin's greatest hits in the upstairs dining room but they seem to have stopped; whether that's a good or bad thing, I leave to you.

Back on the Italian front, my office is obsessed with Girasole and we order vats of their ravioli for most work events. I don't think we've ever even *tried* their escarole/bean situation, though. Maybe I'll suggest a mini-vat of that for the next work party as an experiment.

I have no strong feelings about actual Olive Garden. Haven't been in years, wouldn't hesitate to go if someone else suggested it, am perfectly happy with a chain restaurant, that just doesn't happen to be one of my preferred chain options. I'm the only non-foodie in a foodie family and I'm sure my parents aren't quite sure how I happened, but I'm pretty chill with whatever as long as there's an option for me that's neither seafood nor mushrooms. Chains, fancy restaurants my parents like when they're in town, home cooking, and unique local places all please me in various ways.

But the last time I had a first date was in 2000. We did a local Chinese place, it was delicious, we spent most of the time doing some really unwise sharing of personal traumas that you theoretically shouldn't do on a first date, it went great and we're still together. So I don't really know how date restaurant choice works now, and possibly I never did.
posted by Stacey at 7:06 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


I went to the Olive Garden on a date with my husband. It wasn't our first date, but it was pretty early on, in the strip-mall hellscape of Arlington, VA. It was during one of their "never ending pasta bowl" promotions and we ate until we literally wanted to throw up. We still talk about it, 20 years later. We had to go straight back to my place and just roll around on the bed for hours--not in the fun way, in the moaning, uncomfortable, regretting all our life choices way.

A few years later, after we were married and living in a very rural part of Maryland, we used to go to OG in the nearest town with a movie theater (45 minute drive) as like a big date night. But then we discovered that same town had a really good Thai restaurant hidden away, so that was the end of that tradition. But I have fond memories of Olive Garden date night.

Shit is definitely also different when you have kids. We were eating at Choolaah a couple weeks ago (think Chipotle, but Indian) and looked around and every single table was parents taking their under-10-year-olds out for a special Friday night meal. Including us. It's not spicy, it's Indian food made for an American taste (hot sauces are available as a side), it's always the same, they have kids meals so I'm not paying $10 for a bunch of stuff my kid will pick through and not eat most of. It is not authentic Indian cuisine but my vegetarian kid who has a bone-deep terror of anything that is different from the last time he encountered it will eat it. I ain't going to judge anyone else doing what they need to do in order to have a dinner with their family that isn't an annoying battle of wills.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:21 AM on April 19 [16 favorites]


We were always warmly treated there, and at the time, to us, it was fancy.

I'll take warm service over fancy anyways (not that the two are mutually exclusive). If I'm going out to eat it's usually either because I don't feel like cooking/cleaning OR because I want to be out and about. I don't really go to Olive Garden now, but there have been times where it was a regular option.

As a kid, I think my parents found the Olive Garden near us had the right combination of friendly but fast service that we kids wouldn't get to antsy. We also have some picky eaters in the family and there were usually a couple of things on the menu that they'd be happy with.

In high school and undergrad it was the cheap place to grab a bite. Again where picky eaters could usually find something they'd eat.

I lived in a rural city for a year where Olive Garden was the nicer place to eat. There was a local "fancy" restaurant that served worse food for higher prices. The atmosphere at the fancy local place was darker and colder, so it really had nothing going for it.

Now I want some breadsticks and salad.
posted by ghost phoneme at 7:27 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


This is actually a result of the PE firm that purchased the chain getting mad about what it perceived as wanton waste on the part of the restaurant. I am very much not making this up.

I went to Olive Garden recently, between coupons and $1 kids meals it was priced equivalently to McDonalds, and they gave one round of breadsticks, and I'm sure if we had asked they have given extras but they certainly didn't send us on our way with a bunch of them. The food was worse than it used to be- the used to have a peach tea that had a frozen peach in it - totally made up for the subpar pasta. Now it's the same peach-flavored Brisk that everyone else has.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:34 AM on April 19


if I took my mom there she'd complain about how cheesy/creamy and overportioned the food is to her..
Cheesy/creamy I get but in my neck of the woods all Chinese food places, no matter how Americanized or 'authentic' (I know nothing about how to determine if they are 'authentic' other than I probably can't read the menu), surpass chains in how much food they give you. They give out enough rice where if you like had Lego people they would need oxygen to get to the top of rice mountain.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:42 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


A few years ago my friend was visiting the US from Japan with her husband who is a government stone fruit (including olives) expert. We ended up eating at Olive Garden at his insistence!
posted by vespabelle at 7:52 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: staving off the ennui with a date and a plus-sized bowl of pasta
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:01 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Olive garden has an entire vegetarian/vegan menu, and on their website, lists the source of cheese rennet (i.e. whether it's animal or microbial)! I have literally never seen this anywhere, except vegan places where you can assume there is no rennet because there is no cheese. They also have nutritional information, which I appreciate a lot as someone who is trying to watch what I eat. This is common for chains, but I don't think I've ever seen a local place that posts nutritional information about their food.

Regarding quality, I feel like Olive Garden is at the same level as the very popular Indian restaurants in my neighborhood that doesn't have a large Indian or South Asian community. That is, both are about average. But Indian food is cool and Olive Garden is not, so at least among the people I know, the former is well regarded and ordered from often, while the latter is kind of a joke.
posted by chernoffhoeffding at 8:18 AM on April 19 [6 favorites]


I too have good Olive Garden memories. But remember that news story a few years ago about how they were going to clean their carpets less often to save money? They must be following through, because my local Olive Garden now has an overwhelming wet dog stench. You can hardly smell your food. I'm never going back.
posted by heatvision at 8:24 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Olive Garden is what it is. It's Spaghetti Walmart. It's Denny's With Pepperoncinis. It is a least common denominator for genericized Italian food. If you have no other option in your town that can get above a C on the local health department inspection, it is acceptable.
posted by delfin at 9:09 AM on April 19


The article was great. A little slice of wry humour'n'truth from somebody's life.

The plate of beans was a bit sour for my taste, though.
posted by clawsoon at 9:12 AM on April 19 [10 favorites]


Olive Garden dates were major inflection points for two failed relationships I was in.

Anyway, their gnocchi soup is really good.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:23 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Well now I have a bunch of restaurant names to suggest when Mrs. Shell wants to try something new. Thanks, Pgh'ers.
posted by M-x shell at 9:24 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


My only frame of reference for OG is the highly awesome commercial written by a bot who was forced to watch over 1000 hours of ads.

The sign-off? “Olive Garden. When you’re here, you’re here.”
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:28 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


We will collect authentic independent restaurant recommendations like our parents collected tchotchkes for their living rooms, as class signifiers, and then we'll wonder why our children aren't interested in the inheritance we have so carefully curated for them.
posted by clawsoon at 9:40 AM on April 19 [24 favorites]


In a few generations the original meanings of these symbols will be lost to time, but the essential elements will be remembered -- and misinterpreted. Your great great grandchildren will eat porcelain clowns drenched in alfredo sauce to honor your memory.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:44 AM on April 19 [14 favorites]


When the beau and I were deciding where to go for dinner on our first date I said, "I'm really feeling Indian food. Do you like Indian food? Because there's a place near me." He indicated that no, he had not ever had Indian food before, but he'd be very interested in trying it. It was a marvelous sign, and I'm glad we can go try the new exciting thing together.

That said, we've been at the giardino di olive a time or two, usually because some well-meaning friend hands us a gift card for the place. I loved going there with my grandpa in high school (along with TGI Friday's), and nowadays, I'll gladly visit with my parents. I appreciate the salad, that gnocchi soup mentioned above, the nutritional information, and the vegetarian/vegan options. It might not be the best meal of my life, but it's never terrible, and not every meal can be some gourmet foodie dream.
posted by PearlRose at 9:45 AM on April 19 [2 favorites]


The_Vegetables, this is a bit off-topic and you might already know this but I gotta say that ime Chinese restaurants give you the amount of food they do because it's meant to be shared. You go in with a five-person family and you order three dishes and five bowls of rice (less if you have kids or anyone with a small appetite), then everyone in the family takes a little bit from each dish. Or more realistically, Mom spoons vegetables onto your plate while you're fighting with your brother over the pork.

At Olive Garden the expectation is that everyone orders their own entree just for themselves, the possibility of sharing a couple bites aside. This would be weird in a Chinese restaurant to the point that when someone filmed it the video went viral:
https://nextshark.com/chinese-food-white-people-fail/

But uh, getting back on topic: part of familiarity and comfort is not just the food itself but the whole theater of the restaurant experience. The point isn't just that you know how it tastes but that you know what to do, and that you fit into the milieu there. Someone might be comfortable with all sorts of different cuisines presented in the chain-restaurant format but not with familiar foods in either a fine dining or a street food format. No matter what the restaurant is though, there's always going to be someone somewhere for whom this is a scary new experience where they don't know the rules.
posted by storytam at 9:46 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


My grandma lived in Strongsville, OH, southwest of Cleveland. Until she died in the mid 90s, we’d make the long drive to have fraught visits, which I secretly loved because I grew up in NYC, and the K-mart very white Cleveland suburbs meant “true America” to me, because I was 16 and romanticized things.

So my dad and I would let my mom hang with her mom and sister and we’d go out to the Olive Garden. The cappuccino had whipped cream and sprinkles. One time they brought out the dessert tray and my dad asked if the desserts were real; our waiter picked up the rubber chocolate cake and hit himself on the head with it! It was a super fun place in a bummer of a trip.

Joke was on me when I moved to Cleveland with my family 15 years later, because we haven’t been to Olive Garden even one time.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:49 AM on April 19 [4 favorites]


“Taking your dates to Olive Garden” is the new “insisting you don't know who (hip cultural touchstone) is”.
posted by acb at 10:32 AM on April 19


“Taking your dates to Olive Garden” is the new “insisting you don't know who (hip cultural touchstone) is”.

"Childish Gambino? Italian, right? Probably loves Olive Garden."
posted by clawsoon at 10:55 AM on April 19 [5 favorites]


Am I the only one who remembers when Olive Garden's parent company (they also own Red Lobster and Bahama Breeze) made a big stink because they wanted to be able to fire LGBT employees without any legal consequences? If a woman asked me out to Olive Garden on a date, I'd decline for this reason even if I could still eat gluten. It's like a slightly classier version of being asked to Chik-Fil-A, and I mean slightly classier in that they've lightened up a little on the overt homophobia.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:22 AM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Taquito Sunrise, thank your for your wonderful comment that so wisely and warmly summed up the "rural" Olive Garden experience; your comment brought tears to my eyes. Your comment - that's it. That's it exactly.

When/where I grew up, there were two options: fast food and the one restaurant that the dude ranchers took the dudes to, that was supposed to be great and we went to once or twice a year for celebratory like things, but even as a kid I knew wasn't actually that good. At 20 miles away in "town" (as opposed to the one street berg I'm from), even they were a big deal. Olive Garden and Red Lobster, however, were 90 minutes away. So it was a BIG DEAL when we went to the "city" for other things: the secret conversation between parents conveyed entirely in looks as to whether or not we could afford it, for example. But it was a treat, so yes, let's go to Olive Garden at 2 in the afternoon. As much I don't eat there now because I've "had the real thing", in our minds at the time it was the real thing, it was a real experience, it was a restaurant with all the emphasis in italics I can give it, and until you've been, well, somewhere else, it is. (To my parents it mostly still is.) There's no snobbery in that, there's no elitism. You can't know there's a better breadstick until you've tried other ones, and until you do, it may be the best breadstick you've ever had.

Even in a college town with some good independent restaurants OG was a decent place to go, cheapish, fun, and not pretentious. The Olive Garden did not give me anxiety. Especially as a small town girl who had never eaten Indian or Japanese and or even decent seafood, who got overwhelmed with some of those independent restaurants because I felt like I didn't know what to do. Trying for that better breadstick sometimes requires courage, you see. From all those experiences I remember most is not the food but the conversations, the connections made, the laughing, the serious talk about serious things, the genuine intimacy that can come from being in a place where it feels easy, when you don't have to think too much about what you want and what you want arrives with warmth and ease. And I didn't realize it at the time but it was a treat, because the people sitting around you made it so. The ease of the place made the ease of connection less effortless. Olive Garden is itself, so why shouldn't you be?

That's why this essay made me sad. I don't follow trends in the restaurant world enough to know if there's an article to be written or there's been a million articles already, but it seems like there's been a quiet revolution in independent restaurants in small town America - they've risen, everywhere. Even my small hometown has a pretty good BBQ joint, from someone who had dreamed his whole life of opening a BBQ place that could only seat about 12 people but the food is good, and he thought he would make a living from the tourists passing by on their way to Yellowstone but to his delight and probably his most secret dream fulfillment has regulars - like old ranchers who only used to eat out for dinner once or twice a year that now drive in once or twice a week and get the same thing every time, so when he hears their old Fords rattling down Main Street he starts dishing up what they want. And for many of these old bachelors it's the social event of the week, and they linger, and he's happy because he's made a community around good food - he's created an experience people not just desire but fulfills a need.

So much of what and where we eat isn't about the food, it's about the companionship around us. Olive Garden sells a fantasy that's very much about that, but dammit, sometimes it's true. It's so complex! And there's the irony. This essay made me sad because the author seems like she wants a genuine connection and seems lonely, but is okay for settling superficially is OG type of intimacy - not quite McRomance, nutrition-less snackbites of intimacy, but not independent restaurant passion and commitment either. And haven't many of us been there at some point in our lives? We've been in that Olive Garden, so speak: wanting to be loved for who we are without changing ourselves, hoping to find someone that says yes, I like the puns and the breadsticks, but I want to know more. She's afraid of finding it, but she's afraid of losing that, too, because she has experienced loss of people she loves who didn't love her as she is, and how bad will it hurt if she goes through that again, or worse, the loss of someone who does? Oh, it makes the heart ache.

One of the reasons she goes to OG is because it reminds her of a time with her family when no doubt she had the same kind of connections so many of us have found there, even though everything fell apart afterward. Maybe for her it's the closest thing she still has to the "real thing". She's so hungry for it, pun intended, and today's world has made it easy to "get" with a touchscreen and some scrolling and a date at a restaurant that is exactly what it is. It's just down the street. And it's obvious to her, to the reader, what she's doing, but still - it's so, so accessible, that fantasy, that ease. It made me so sad - not just for her, but for a lot of people dating now. I'm not smart enough to draw out her metaphor completely, but at the same we have this rise of the independent restaurant, where people are pouring passion into creating those communities around good food, humans are using digital applications to find intimacy and love and companionship; there's a connection there. We live in a time in which we've created chain restaurants for love. I have to wonder about the follow-through with that metaphor, in all kinds of ways.
posted by barchan at 11:39 AM on April 19 [22 favorites]


Damn I miss Romano's bread/olive oil, and their pasta bowls.

I discovered recently that both of the "nearby" locations here in Houston had been closed and torn down :(

The closest (and only remaining sort-of-Houston-area) location is now 45 minutes to an hour away from me in Spring, TX.

And I don't drive to Spring anymore if I don't have to, as that's where my ex-girlfriend lives, the one who dumped me over the phone the day after Thanksgiving while I was home sick dealing with chemo side effects...
posted by mrbill at 11:39 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


The Try Guys did an episode recently in which Keith tasted every dish at Olive Garden.
posted by Lexica at 11:48 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


An acquaintance recently offered to set me up on a blind date with a friend of hers (which would the first one in many years for me) and I have to say that in addition to everyone’s thoughts on chain restaurants, this thread is chock full of good ideas regarding first dates.
posted by TedW at 11:51 AM on April 19


Breaking news: Writer likes to date people who enjoy the same things she does. Film at 11.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:52 AM on April 19 [1 favorite]


Breaking news: Writer likes to date people who enjoy the same things she does. Film at 11.

I have literally no idea how you could get this from that article. The whole point is that nobody the writer goes on a date with understands or enjoys the situation she's put them in, and she knows it, and she knows that she does it on purpose to keep other people at a distance.

Writer keeps going on dates even though she and everyone else involved can tell she doesn't want to really be in a relationship, a thing that remains true even as it makes her a little sad, film at 11, I guess.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:12 PM on April 19 [18 favorites]


Honestly, as someone with food allergies and with a partner that has food allergies, chain restaurants are a goddamn godsend, because you can be reasonably sure the gluten-free stuff actually is gluten-free and they actually prepare it properly and minimize cross-contamination. I know it's boring and not-hip but I'd like to not spend the evening in agonizing pain, thanks.

Likewise, when traveling, I'll take a place where I know I'm going to get something decent. Not the best, but I'll take a meal that's going to fill me up and probably not make me sick since I have to spend 8-10 hours in the car the next day.

And between the allergens and people with food restrictions and picky eaters, someplace like an Applebee's or TGI Friday's is fantastic, because everyone can get something they want to eat and we don't have to spend 30 minutes arguing and dickering and consulting menus.

Which is a weird thing but very true. So many small restaurants can't put a goddamn menu on their website to save their lives.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:48 PM on April 19 [5 favorites]


This may be my memory betraying me, but I recall Olive Gardens not being overwhelmingly loud: carpets, lower ceilings, and a series of smaller dining areas tended to keep things reasonable.

I like not being overwhelmed by noise. It's one thing I wish some other restaurants would pick up on.
posted by ghost phoneme at 1:58 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


No Olive Garden is more than a mile from a TGIF, Chili's, Ruby Tuesday, Outback or something similar

But which of those offers you anything comparable to OG's endless breadsticks? You're better off looking for a chain "Mexican" restaurant that will at least bring you endless tortilla chips.
posted by straight at 2:15 PM on April 19


Bile and syntax, I’d never heard of this! I don’t know why; thanks for bringing it up because it is the kind of thing I very much care about.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:01 PM on April 19 [1 favorite]


"Continuing to give large chains like the Olive Garden money is giving them the power corporations like these use to continue the structures of capitalism that are destroying our planet," writes the guy who has an Amazon Prime account in a four-paragraph post getting mad at people for liking the Olive Garden in 2019. Fuck it. All my points would probably have been super cogent, if overwritten like everything I write, but it's a thread of 120 comments on the very website I learned all the things that led me to conclude that we're fucking doomed if we keep supporting corporations like the Olive Garden in any measurable manner, and I still have an Amazon Prime account because there are enough things that my wife and I need that are difficult or impossible to find even in a major metropolitan area without a lot of extra time and money that we don't have, and Amazon is a much bigger problem than the Olive Garden and other chain restaurants.

Whatever. Dance while the sky crashes down. Enjoy your free breadsticks as we live out the waning days of humanity's Golden Age. I'm sure you're getting what you pay for.
posted by Caduceus at 4:39 PM on April 19


Early in our relationship I gone home with my girlfriend for the weekend - suburban Indianapolis. We went to OG, because to two college kids, that was fancy, even though I'm pretty sure we were there for lunch.

The salad came out. I didn't eat salad. My parents never forced veggies on me so I got to sophomore year of college without eating any vegetables, other than potatoes, usually of the fried variety. So I had a choice to make. Suck it up and eat salad, or pass on the salad and look lame in front of my new girlfriend.

I sucked it up and ate the salad. And I liked it.

Would she have still married me 4 years later if I had passed on the salad? We will never know...
posted by COD at 4:45 PM on April 19 [3 favorites]


Whatever. Dance while the sky crashes down. Enjoy your free breadsticks as we live out the waning days of humanity's Golden Age. I'm sure you're getting what you pay for.

. . . Did somebody take your breadstick?
posted by schroedinger at 6:31 PM on April 19 [8 favorites]


It's great for folks to cancel their Amazon Prime accounts but individual consumer choice will never pack the wollop of mass action, strikes, or government regulation. So I propose that instead of criticizing anyone's choice to eat unlimited bread sticks, we unionize the dishwashers or support legislation that limits corporate chains or stop subsidising car culture that sends our purchase power to exurban malls and instead insist our taxes go to fund fast, free public transit that makes going out to dinner in the city easy.
posted by latkes at 9:45 PM on April 19 [12 favorites]


"Am I the only one who remembers when Olive Garden's parent company (they also own Red Lobster and Bahama Breeze) made a big stink because they wanted to be able to fire LGBT employees without any legal consequences? If a woman asked me out to Olive Garden on a date, I'd decline for this reason even if I could still eat gluten. It's like a slightly classier version of being asked to Chik-Fil-A, and I mean slightly classier in that they've lightened up a little on the overt homophobia."

An article about LBGTQ support in southern based companies..
Darden Restaurants, a Florida-based restaurant company that owns brands including Red Lobster and Olive Garden, received the full 100 points on the [HRC's Corporate Equality Index] index last year for the first time. Darden executive Samir Gupte said the improvements Darden has made in the last several years were integral to the company's bottom line. "If we don't create an environment where everyone can bring their true self to work, we're going to miss engaging our employees, retaining the best people in the business and then delivering a great guest experience," Gupte said.


Apparently you weren't wrong in your memory, but they seemed to have moved from having an awful stance to being a leader in southern employers relations with the LGBTQ community. 20 years ago (when they were known for their bigotry) the Democratic Party was against gay marriage.
posted by el io at 9:54 PM on April 19 [11 favorites]


I love Olive Garden because it reminds me of when I was poor and 23 years old and from a small southern town where there were no Olive Gardens. I went to visit my extremely wealthy boyfriend and his parents in their vast St. Louis mansion, and they announced that we were going to dinner at Olive Garden.

I didn't know what Olive Garden was, but, I reasoned, these people are extremely wealthy, so it's probably super fancy. I better dress up. I went upstairs and put on this floor-length velvet empire waisted gown that featured sparkly brocade, beads, bell sleeves and an honest to God train in the back. I swanned down the main staircase in this get-up to find them waiting for me in cargo shorts and flipflops.

I was the grandest thing ever to hit the St. Louis Olive Garden, let me tell you. It was so hilariously embarrassing and inappropriate that all I could think to do was to talk to the server in an accent that was unidentifiable and different each time, hoping she'd think I was not from there and didn't understand anything. Which was true.

Now, 25 years later, whenever I hear or think about or see an Olive Garden, I laugh and laugh. Oh, lands.
posted by staggering termagant at 10:08 AM on April 20 [36 favorites]


staggering termagant, let me introduce you to the story of the court lobster.
posted by jenfullmoon at 2:29 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure when Darden was particularly crappy, but it's perhaps worth noting that they were for several decades a division within General Mills and only became an independent organization in 1995. It seemingly took them a while to get their shit straightened out after that.

It's entirely possible that the crap behavior they were demonstrating in the 90s was actually a holdover from General Mills, since they seem to have become significantly better since then, presumably as management changed over post-divestiture, and so the anger (and desire to boycott) might be better aimed at their former parent organization.

Also I'm always surprised by the list of brands that Darden owns. I'd wager that a lot of people who wouldn't be caught dead in an Olive Garden eat at their other restaurants, perhaps without even knowing it.

Anyway, I've never had the strongly negative feelings that people have for Olive Garden, I think perhaps because I have never, ever ordered the pasta there and never would. That's my sole recommendation: don't order the pasta. If you order the soup/salad/breadsticks, you are getting actual homemade soup (which, per the Starboard slide deck I linked earlier, is or was as of 2014 actually made from scratch in each restaurant; not made elsewhere and brought in), rather expensive and reasonably good-quality produce for the salad, and breadsticks... which are breadsticks. Nearly all the complaints from foodies I've ever heard about OG center around the pasta. Yeah, they're terrible at pasta, or at best hit-or-miss—just don't order it and IMO you'll have a much more enjoyable time.

Pasta is one of those rare things that's way better when it's cooked at home than when it's made in a restaurant setting, particularly a mass-market restaurant. A lot of Americans don't like properly-cooked (which is to say, al dente) pasta, so it tends to be overcooked; some people will moan about it being "too salty" if you salt the water properly, so restaurants don't (without getting into the pot thing); tomato sauce with lots of sugar tends to be a crowd-pleaser compared to better stuff... it's a mess. Pasta is something that I'll only order at a restaurant that I'm fairly confident caters to people who have the same taste in pasta that I do. Which, I suppose, is not a bad rule of thumb in general: if you look around a restaurant and think "what do everyone else in this restaurant, including the proprietor and/or staff, and I have in common, in terms of what food we'd like and how we'd prepare it" and order that thing, it'll probably be fine.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:20 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]


Okay, fine, so my mom is visiting for Easter and wanted to go to the Olive Garden, Here is my review:

(a) Fairly crowded but still got a table around 8:15 p.m. Saturday night.
(b) Server was nice. Restaurant crowd was fine.
(c) Ordered peach raspberry iced tea, which tasted neither like peach or raspberry, but regular ol' iced tea. if I had to say there was a "worst" thing there, that might have been it due to the false advertising. But you could drink it, it just wasn't like I expected.
(d) The breadsticks are breadsticks. Kinda oily but fairly tasty.
(e) Same goes for the salad. I'm not a fan of oily salads but I like the olives and croutons and what the heck, all of that is just there to amuse me until the dinner comes anyway.
(f) I had the mushroom ravioli. It tasted creamy and like mushrooms and that is what I wanted, so good for me. My mom ordered the shells (which the server raved about) and Mom also liked. I tried it and it was creamy. Usually I get something like chicken parm or Tour of Italy.
(g) I would like to point out that they had stuffed chicken marsala (which as far as I can tell was two chicken pieces operating as bread, stuffed with tomatoes and cheese as a filling; and no joke, a GIANT MEATBALL on the menu. I was rather tempted to order the giant meatball for review purposes except I wasn't starving. The giant meatball is limited, so if you're interested, go now!

You know what? It was perfectly fine. It was neither McDonald's nor the French Laundry, a restaurant I will never ever be in in my life. It has its place in the ecosystem of food, choose to patronize it or not as you will. I liked it well enough, the mind was not blown but I ate everything and went away feeling fine, so there you go.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:55 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]


You know what they say about dating and Olive Garden:

'When you're here, you're family'
posted by exparrot at 6:37 AM on April 22 [2 favorites]


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