Was I a picky eater as a child? Yes. But now my parents are pickier.
Selecting an appropriate restaurant for a visit from my folks has made for a decade-long challenge. In theory, I should have no shortage of options — New York City is fairly renowned for its culinary variety — but the city itself is short on a few of my parents’ preferences.
Over countless attempts and hundreds of plates, I’ve learned that the right atmosphere requires a delicate ambience of peace and quiet. (We don’t have that here.) There should be ample space. (We don’t have that, either.) Waitstaff should be more talented than necessary, with a cast-iron sense of humor that can withstand my dad’s idea of fun. (It’s the kind of fun that happens after we’ve left: he’ll rib a server with theatrical just-kidding complaints for two hours, then tip big.) It shouldn’t be crowded but it shouldn’t be empty. The bringer of cheese for the pasta should probably just leave the cheese. Dad won’t eat anything spicy. Mom won’t eat anything raw. Mom will always ask if the table is okay, which always sounds like the table isn’t okay, but when I ask her if she thinks the table is okay, she makes this face like, “Bail me out.”
Have we all become people who shouldn’t be taken anywhere? Probably. I’ve gotten used to my perennial failure to find places that thrive at this impossible nexus of enchantments. I doubt there is a food solution that will always make everyone in this particular triangle of our family totally happy. But for a while there, our solution was Olive Garden.
Olive Garden was our go-to when I was in college. There, everyone was happy — or if we weren’t, everyone was fine. My dad would order Shrimp Scampi; I would order Chicken Marsala; my mom would make their Famous House Salad more famous. We’d eat all the breadsticks, request our first refill, then wrap the second batch to go. I’d reheat them one at a time in my dorm room microwave, wrapping each in a paper towel that would soak up five finger-pressed blots of oil I wouldn’t have to clean. That was where I set the bar those days — that’s all it took to make for a singular restaurant experience with my family. Would there be leftovers? Great. Olive Garden was fine, and fine was good.
In “Dear Olive Garden, Never Change,” the latest installment in Eater‘s Death of Chains series on the slow decline of middlebrow chain restaurants, Helen Rosner reminds me that this anodyne fine-for-the-whole-family feel is completely by design. “One of the things I love about the Olive Garden,” Rosner writes, “is its nowhereness. I love that I can walk in the door of an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, and feel like I’m in the same room I enter when I step into an Olive Garden in Queens or Rhode Island or the middle of Los Angeles. There is only one Olive Garden, but it has a thousand doors.”
After three years at Vox Media as Eater‘s Features Editor turned Executive Editor turned Editor-at-Large, Rosner recently announced her departure from “the best goddamn food publication in the world.” She tweeted mysteriously to watch this space for updates, noting only that she is moving on “to crush some new things.” If they’re anything like her greatest hits thus far — on glorified vending machines, Tina Fey’s sheetcaking, chicken tenders, Trump’s ketchup-covered crime scenes, and takedowns of chocolatiers who may not always have had beards — her readers will be sure to bring their bottomless appetites to her next endeavor.
I feel an intense affinity for Olive Garden, which — like the lack of olives on its menu — is by design. The restaurant was built for affinity, constructed from the foundations to the faux-finished rafters to create a sense of connection, of vague familiarity, to bring to mind some half-lost memory of old-world simplicity and ease. Even if you’ve never been to the Olive Garden before, you’re supposed to feel like you have. You know the next song that’s going to play. You know how the chairs roll against the carpet. You know where the bathrooms are. Its product is nominally pasta and wine, but what Olive Garden is actually selling is Olive Garden, a room of comfort and familiarity, a place to return to over and over.
In that way, it’s just like any other chain restaurant. For any individual mid-range restaurant, return customers have always been an easy majority of the clientele, and chain-wide, it’s overwhelmingly the case: If you’ve been to one Olive Garden, odds are very high you’ve been to two or more. If the restaurant is doing it right, though, all the Olive Gardens of your life will blur together into one Olive Garden, one host stand, one bar, one catacomb of dining alcoves warmly decorated in Toscana-lite. Each Olive Garden is a little bit different, but their souls are all the same.