@the Olive Garden

breadsticks2We ate at the Olive Garden tonight, the one that used to be a specter, the one that would show up on search engines but that we could never find. Until they finally built it… and people came.

Of course it took us nearly six years after they arrived to make our way to the faux Italian ambience and cookie cutter nature of the restaurant that shares its name with one of my most hated foods.

The woman at the front told me we would have to wait “about 20 minutes,” but the time between getting our fancy pager and actually being seated was more like five minutes when all was said and done. I think I spent more time getting situated on the bench out front than I did waiting.

Kelly was our server, but it wasn’t about her, not really. It hardly ever is when we go to restaurants. It’s really about the people sitting around us, about the inevitable conversation that floods our ears as we wait for our own food to arrive.

…a kid was crawling between the legs of his family members as his adults tried to corral him back into their booth, threatening him with having to sit in the high chair if he didn’t shape up.

Tonight there was a birthday party in the small semi-private room to our right, and I got the feeling this was a regular Friday night occurrence, as another group with balloons took up residence when the ones who were there when we arrived left the building. Luckily we escaped the awkward moment when the cake is about to be cut, and the serving staff all gather ’round to sing off key to the birthday boy/girl. Apparently they’re too evolved to do that at the Olive Garden.

On the other side of the little divide between the booths a kid was crawling between the legs of his family members as his adults tried to corral him back into their booth, threatening him with having to sit in the high chair if he didn’t shape up. They used a couple of choice phrases under their breath, and I hoped my own children didn’t hear them. I needn’t have worried as my two were desperately trying to win at Tic-Tac-Toe at our own table. They had no time for shenanigans, or to learn new swear words.

5ee240bbb237e2e736a6d27bf72da23dOther servers swarmed in the background, always there but somehow only shadows of themselves, melting into walls, blending in with their surroundings like stage hands dressed in all black. Until they arrived at their tables, when they suddenly had everything in hand and smiles on their faces. Kelly showed up when we needed her, but she didn’t hover. She really couldn’t anyway. There were lines up front the entire time we were there, and they probably continued long after we left.

The food was good too, just like we had it at the Olive Garden in Philly, at the Olive Garden in New Jersey, at the Olive Garden in Missouri, pretty much at every Olive Garden that has ever existed, because that’s their shtick, isn’t it?

They’re classic Italian, but they’re not classic Italian, if you get my point. They’re big on the breadsticks, which are first to the table and first scarfed up. Then the appetizer, which was more bread, but this time with cheese. Then the kids’ meals, the main course, and the desperate attempt to get us to order dessert. I don’t blame Kelly. It’s her job. All the while the music played on level one overhead. What else? Italian jazz.

At some point during the evening a glass broke, the sound of shattering reverberating in my ears long after it was reduced to shards and cleaned up — erased from existence. I don’t get these newfangled devices that sit on the tables, the ones that allow us to order desserts and appetizers, to call our server over, and to pay our bills. Eventually, if I stare at the screen long enough it will do what I want on its own. I know it will.

Tucked inside its warm bosom were four mints, carefully wrapped in Olive Garden finery…

But it didn’t, and I had to learn how to use my fingers to press options on the screen, to slide my card through the reader, and to sign as well. It’s strange, not putting my card in the padded envelope, not handing it back to the server and hoping there’s enough money in my account so she doesn’t come back and tell me it was declined. It’s a brave new world out there.

The padded envelope was there, though, almost a ceremonial homage to all things restaurants used to be. Tucked inside its warm bosom were four mints, carefully wrapped in Olive Garden finery, the perfect end to a transaction that passes for a traditional Italian meal anymore. Just ask those people we passed on the way out, seated on the bench with pagers in hand.

Sam

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