It started when I was 9 oz of cheap white wine deep into what would stand to be a mostly forgettable meal at the local Olive Garden. In my younger years, I traversed across the Italian peninsula and ate some of the best food of my life. I soaked up Italian culture as any good Classics student would. So as I sat and pondered over a glass of wine that cost the same as my my meal and happened to cost twice as much in the restaurant as it would have if I purchased the exact same entire bottle outside of the fake stucco arched doorway, I asked myself a simple question:
Why the hell do I come here?
I was seated alone; surrounded on all sides by families and children running around hyped up on after dinner chocolates and soda they weren’t supposed to have but were permissively given because “it was a special occasion”. And I started really thinking about why I still come here. Most people who go to Olive Garden understand that they are not getting an authentic taste of the old country. So why come here? The prices aren’t great, the food’s okay, the restaurants are all the same aside from the occasionally too happy to please server.
To answer the question: we gotta go back in time.
When I was little girl, we (and by “we” I mean my family not some weird notion of the royal we) went to places like Olive Garden or Red Lobster when I did something exceedingly good. Back then Olive Garden was the perfect place for a middle/upper middle class family like mine. More expensive than most casual dining establishments but not out of the price range for a family of 3 to eat multiple courses without breaking the worrying about the state of the light bill. We went to Olive Garden when I made honor roll. When I finished a dance performance. When I ranked in a Latin Club competition (yes, I took Latin in middle school. And junior high. And high school. And college.). It was a place to celebrate. It was a place we didn’t go to often but when we did, we enjoyed it. It was different from Spaghetti Warehouse, a place my dad loved, and so we went to more often and more casually. Going to Olive Garden meant getting dressed up. I had to have my hair up, little stockings on and usually an obnoxiously frilly dress. It was a special occasion kind of place.
During my late teen years and even the post-college career it was a hang out spot. Taylor works there and his roommates did, too. I spent plenty of time there picking him up from work or meeting him there to hang out later. We abused his discount. Got punch drunk off of free bread sticks and drowned our miseries in glasses of wine that costs the same as the damn bottle would if we were at any other places. We stayed because of the discount. We went because of the friendship and we savored because we could use the restaurant as a de-facto headquarters. In fact, I was there so often that I got my own server’s name tag: a gift from hosts and hostesses that came to know me and my order due simply to the fact that I was always around.
So why do I come here now?
Because I can.
Because after the partial collapse of the middle class and the lowering of prices: Olive Garden suddenly went from a place I went to only dressed up for after church to a place I could visit in my sweat pants and a v-neck t-shirt. When you remove the monolithic-like barrier of entry to almost any place: it easily becomes more attainable and thus culturally ubiquitous. Anyone is welcome here. Everyone is sort of family. No one can judge you. The bartender can’t judge Amber and I for getting wine drunk after a hard day at work. Or Taylor and I for shoving mints into my shirt as we attempt to flee the restaurant. No one can judge us for playing the trivia game the electronic payment kiosk at the table offers and no one can say a damn thing about how many bread sticks I eat and with how much Italian dressing.
Olive Garden became a safe haven. A place to relax. The food isn’t the goal; you aren’t there because you want a real taste of Roma. You’re there because it’s attainable, common, simple and accessible. You’re there because you want to be. And don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong for that.
Enjoy your bread sticks.
Drown your sorrows in salad and overpriced wine.
Stuff your pockets with chocolate mints.
I won’t judge you.
Save me a seat.