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The agony and the ecstasy of America's favorite chain restaurant

Eater logo Eater 10/6/2017 Helen Rosner
<p>Starboard said last week that Olive Garden was being wasteful because servers weren't sticking to the policy of providing one breadstick per customer, plus an extra for the table. </p>© Steve Helber/AP Photo

Starboard said last week that Olive Garden was being wasteful because servers weren't sticking to the policy of providing one breadstick per customer, plus an extra for the table.

In the fall of 1889, when he was 41 years old, the painter Paul Gauguin was brutally, furiously alone. Famous now for his saturated, almost hallucinatory paintings of life in Tahiti, at the time he was living in Brittany, still two years away from his first visit to French Polynesia. He was penniless and adrift, trying to paint his way through the devastations of his dying marriage, his rejection by the cliques of the Parisian art establishment, and the precarity of his friendship with Vincent van Gogh, who shortly before Christmas had assaulted him with a razor and, after Gauguin’s departure that evening, used the same blade to cut off his own ear.

Gauguin and Van Gogh had a tumultuous acquaintance, one that served both men better in writing than in person. In their extensive correspondence, Gauguin — originally a stockbroker — refined his beliefs about the purpose of art. Impressionism had thundered into the salons, upending classical formality and with it the rubrics by which a painting could be considered a success. Beauty was no longer the standard, nor was faithful representation of a subject; the artist himself was now part of the consideration, judged by the nuance of his thoughts and his facility with their artistic evocation. Gauguin was dazzled by this idea of art as a vehicle for emotion, a way to depict not things or people, but their essences.

Despite the promises of the name, it can be a challenge to find actual olives at Olive Garden

A religious man, he found profundity in the practice of art: the brushes and paints, the forms and colors on the canvas, and the distillation and expression of his own mind. It was from that last point that his solitude sprang. Gauguin’s contemporaries, including Van Gogh, found it inoffensive — even useful! — to paint from life, referring to models and objects and scenery. To Gauguin, direct observation was anathema, a tool for overwriting the memories and emotions that make a painting worthwhile. He was furious at his cohort for their weakness, disdainful of their inability to see the truth in his vision. He painted it: a garden of sinuous trees, with primitive, black-clad figures in the background hazily merging with the twilight landscape. Filling the foreground is a figure with blazing orange hair and beard, his face — Gauguin’s face — rendered in intricate detail, full of life and warmth, looking to the ground with an expression of infinite wisdom and sorrow.

“There I have painted my own portrait,” he wrote of the work. “But it also represents the crushing of an ideal, and a pain that is both divine and human. Jesus is totally abandoned; his disciples are leaving him, in a setting as sad as his soul.” Gauguin found great richness in the story of Jesus, and often painted himself as the savior. He called this painting, which now hangs in the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida, Le Christ au Jardin des Oliviers, or, Christ in the Garden of Olives.

There are two globally renowned olive gardens: Gethsemane, the grove where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his betrayal and crucifixion, its agony painted by Gauguin and by hundreds of other painters, and the fictional Tuscan hillside that lends its name to Olive Garden, a massive restaurant chain with more than 800 locations in North America. The two appear to be unconnected: According to Darden Restaurants, owner of the Olive Garden chain, the phrase is intended to call to mind ideas of the olive harvest and Tuscan authenticity, not the final, anguished night of a prophet, dark hours spent in prayer, wrath, and silence.

Despite the promises of the name, it can be a challenge to find actual olives at Olive Garden. The omission is intentional, though the irony is not. It's a simple matter of marketing: People don't like olives. They don't know what to do with them. They show up occasionally on the menu; their most recent engagement, on a “Mediterranean flatbread,” seems to no longer be available, part of an unbroken chain of olive-adorned dishes that have languished, unordered and unloved, before being dispatched by less culinarily threatening options like Meatball Stuffed Pizza Fritta.

Still, there are two places you'll always find olives at Olive Garden, no matter which way the menu consultants declare that the wind is blowing: The bar, where green spheroids wait, limply piled, to be pressed into service for a martini, and in the salad bowls. Two black olives — exactly two — are supposed to be in every family-size bowl, though when I was at an Olive Garden in Michigan City, Indiana, my server admitted that about half her tables ask for them to be kept out, or simply leave them on the side.

She was a little surprised when I asked where all the olives were — she said it’s usually the middle-aged men who fling that joke at her, which maybe I should have seen coming. According to her, they all order the Tour of Italy, a three-way sampler of lasagna, chicken parm, and fettuccine alfredo. No one really wants to eat any olives. The other joke she gets, usually from the same sort of men, is “Where’s the garden?” No one actually wants to see a garden, they just want to make the pretty waitress blush.

This was the third Olive Garden I’d been to in two weeks, and in the weeks to come I’d eat at half a dozen more — a grand tour of Tours of Italy, a chain of chains stretching from New York to California. The brand is in the middle of a grand reimagining, an overhauling of its hundreds of stores, that will dispense with its tile and faux-stucco and genially middlebrow upholstery in favor of a more streamlined, anodyne aesthetic of white walls, dark wood, and colorblocking. It’s a massive undertaking — not all locations are transforming at once — so while some restaurants I went to have entered the chain’s glossy future, many were still the Olive Gardens of the prior era. In these, you can still find some olives: On the shoulder-height half-walls that carve cavernous dining rooms into sections, sit potted rows of faux olive trees, slim shoots sprouting dusty green leaves and clusters of dark plastic footballs. You can’t eat them, but they remind you that somewhere, the real thing is growing on a real tree, and maybe you could.

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.

Chain begets chain, or maybe chains are more comfortable among other chains

My own personal Olive Garden, the one of my childhood, the Olive Garden of which all subsequently visited Olive Gardens are projections, is in Matteson, Illinois, on a curb-edged island in the parking lot of a Quality Inn and Suites just off the I-57 interchange, across a six-lane street from the husk of an old shopping mall. It’s five miles to the south of where I went to high school, in a golf-and-doctors suburb; five miles more, and you’re past the edge of Chicago’s exurban sprawl, staring down hundreds of flat, unbroken miles of corn and soy.

It’s not a coincidence that Olive Gardens tend to spring up near highways and shopping malls, within the orbit of mid-range hotels. Chain begets chain, or maybe chains are more comfortable among other chains — and in sufficient concentration they cause a little hiccup in the psychospace of reality, erasing any locality or sense of place, replacing it with a sanitized, brand-driven commercial hospitality. In downtown Salt Lake City or western Massachusetts or on the southern edge of the Chicago suburbs, wherever you see an Olive Garden, you’ll find something like a Quality Inn & Suites nearby. These accretions of commercial activity, stripped from geographic or historical identity, are what the French anthropologist Marc Augé talks about as “non-places.” (He also finds non-place in, of all places, Tahiti — specifically as seen through the eyes of a traveler, someone who is more interested in the fulfillment of his self-conception than in the spectacle that surrounds him.) What it means to be a non-place is the same thing it means to be a chain: A plural nothingness, a physical space without an anchor to any actual location on Earth, or in time, or in any kind of spiritual arc. In its void, it simply is.

Despite its flirtation with the existential abyss, a non-place isn't necessarily a bad thing for a place to be. It may be bad sometimes, or even frequently, but it isn’t always. One of the things I love about the Olive Garden, the reason I continue to love it, despite its gummy pasta and its maladaptive, kale-forward response to modern food culture, 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.

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I haven’t been to the Matteson Olive Garden in nearly two decades, though I may have eaten there more than at any other restaurant in the world. Still, I have only fragmented, sensory memories. The symmetrical architecture, a centered door opening onto a red-lit bar, and carpeted archways leading off to a smoking section to the left and nonsmoking to the right. I couldn’t tell you what the plush dining chairs looked like, but I can still feel how their wheels defied the physics of friction with the smoothest, most silken bearings. The hazy dimness of the wood-framed booth my parents particularly loved, in the very middle of the middle section. The plasticky sheen of a square of tiramisu, formally presented on a dessert tray meant to entice us into a final course, and the small, circular perfection of the chocolate cake we ordered, an off-menu “special occasion cake,” which provided dessert for our family of five for the low cost of $8, a birthday lie, and the indignity of a staff serenade.

I was an inveterate orderer of the fettuccine alfredo, a habit I kicked once I got old enough to internalize the unseemliness of an oversized female body. Despite roughly annual visits to Olive Garden in the intervening years, I didn’t order the dish again for decades — not until a few weeks ago, at an Olive Garden in Glendale, California. I don’t walk around feeling like I’m old, but when I ordered the fettuccine alfredo, maybe I gave away a hint, and my friend asked how long it had been since I’d last had it. I said the words “20 years” out loud, and almost choked on how far away the present turns out to be from the past.

In the infinity of Olive Garden meals that make up my life, one stands out from the great glutinous mass of memory. It took place outside of Madison, Wisconsin, off a commercial strip that I vaguely remember abutting a retaining pond that was home to an extremely aggressive paddling of ducks. At this meal, two great things happened.

The first is that my boyfriend introduced me to toasted ravioli. This was — and remains — the single greatest thing Olive Garden has ever sold. “Toasted” is a euphemism for fried: The breadcrumb-coated squares of pasta are simultaneously crispy and chewy, filled with a savory meat paste that’s not dissimilar to the inside of a mild Jamaican beef patty. You dip them in warm marinara sauce, which comes in a ramekin on the side.

My boyfriend and I broke up a few weeks after we shared that meal, and when I next entered one of the many doors of the infinite and singular Olive Garden, I wanted the toasted ravioli appetizer, but I couldn’t find it on the menu. The toasted ravioli turned out to be a parable: I scanned the name of every dish on the menu, hoping the next and the next and the next would turn out to be the one I was looking for, and came up with nothing. Here’s the secret: They were right at the beginning all along. Tell your server you want to Create A Sampler Italiano, the very first thing listed on the menu, which involves selecting two or three items from a set of options, toasted ravioli among them, listed in the description in quotidian roman type. Then make every single choice the toasted ravioli.

In sufficient concentration, chains cause a little hiccup in the psychospace of reality, erasing any sense of place

The second great thing that happened is that as we were leaving, my boyfriend stopped at the host stand and asked for a bottle of salad dressing. The only thing at Olive Garden that comes close to the greatness of the toasted ravioli is the salad: hunks of iceberg and half-moons of red onion and the crumbly croutons and that shriveled little insouciant pepperoncini and those two contractually obligated olives, all drenched in some kind of mysteriously exquisite dressing, the only thing at the whole restaurant, including the wine list, that seems to have any interest in brightness or acidity. And it turns out that you can just buy bottles of it! To have in your home! What did we ever do to deserve such blessings?

I don’t remember what we ate, besides the toasted ravioli; it didn’t register as particularly wonderful or particularly awful. This is how it should be. This is what chains are: a well-paved path down the middle, a place where convenience for the consumer is surpassed only by convenience for the seller. Be wary of chain restaurants that promise exceptionalism, be wary of promises of freshness or subtlety or sophistication. Food at an Olive Garden scale becomes a commodity; the point of a commodity is that it is infinitely interchangeable.

It had been 20 years since I’d last had that fettuccine alfredo, which at the time was my very favorite food. I’m four inches taller now than I was when I was 15; I live in a louder, dirtier city; I’ve been to Italy; I’ve spent uncountable thousands of hours eating in and thinking about restaurants. I’ve changed, is what I’m saying, so maybe it’s me: The fettuccine alfredo I had in Glendale two weeks ago was awful.

Like so many foods that have been adopted into the American culinary pantheon, alfredo sauce has two simultaneous forms. There’s the version we’re used to eating, sold in heavy glass jars or ladled across chicken cutlets, a viscous concoction of garlic, milk, heavy cream, and the natural MSG of aged hard cheese. It can be magnificent, the particular magnificence of gastronomic absurdity: It seems almost biologically impossible to encounter such a dense concentration of fats and salts and glutamates and not respond with raptures.

Then, there is the real thing, an original recipe complete with cinematic origin story: a turn-of-the-century Roman restaurateur named Alfredo, a beautiful wife with a vanishing hunger, a plate of fettuccine drowning in butter and parmigiano, tossed and tossed and tossed until butter and cheese and water and air marry in a satiny emulsion, not adulterated by even a pinch of salt, until her appetites returned. It’s the sniffing refrain of a certain breed of culinary sass: “A real alfredo doesn’t have cream.”

I’m an alfredo opportunist, a willing advocate for whichever version of the sauce is in front of me. (Next time someone tells you all that cream is an abomination, ask them what they think butter is made from.) But what I was served at Olive Garden defies both my defense and my memories. On the Olive Garden menu, alfredo sauce is both weapon and balm. It comes over pasta, over chicken, over shrimp, over steak, in a standalone ramekin as a dipping sauce, spiked with hot sauce and declared to be “angry.” It’s the reason to order a dish, or it’s the thing that keeps you from hating it.

At least, it’s supposed to be. The pasta itself had no faults — it was competent, a nothingness, a minimum-viable-product that may or may not have been cooked in salted water — but the viscous whiteness puddled around it was pasty and gloppy, thick without being rich, a faintly savory nothingness. You could have used it as a binder for potato salad. You could have poured it over biscuits and called it gravy. You could have patched a hole in your wall.

The lobster ravioli was even worse, fishy how lobster should never be fishy, in an intensely concentrated way that didn’t remotely square up with the relatively small amount of seafood each raviolo contained — but it didn’t matter, because the mistake there belongs to the person ordering lobster ravioli at the Olive Garden. By the same principle, it’s no great achievement that the chicken parmigiana was good. It had also been good at Olive Gardens in Indiana and Times Square. It must be good. The whole thing falls apart if it’s not good. You can’t really go wrong with any of their permutations on the holy trinity of carbohydrate, tomato sauce, and cheese, which are all fundamentally the same. The cheese ravioli is the lasagna classico is the fried mozzarella is the eggplant parm is the (conceptually ludicrous) lasagna fritta. These are the backbones of the menu, the sun around which all other dishes orbit.

When the painting was finished, Gauguin considered Christ in the Garden of Olives to be the best work he had ever created, a vivid and intimate expression of the truth of his heart. To a friend, he wrote “It is a sad abstraction, but God knows that sadness is my cord.” To another friend, in a note sent with a sketch of the painting, he wrote “I keep the item at home,” explaining that he had no intention of ever sending it to be shown and sold. “The canvas is not meant to be understood.”

Gaugin did part with the work eventually, in an 1891 sale that funded his first visit to Tahiti, where he would later move and remain until his death. The serpentine olive trees that make up the painting’s background — which, because of his principled refusal to paint from life, were Gauguin’s own expression of olive trees, an abstracted imagining of them, intentionally filtered through his memories and miseries and anger — appeared again in works made during his time in Tahiti, their curvilinear forms repurposed as swooping palms and vines. The resemblance is particularly uncanny in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?, a monumental canvas painted over 1897 and 1898 that, like Christ in the Garden of Olives before it, Gauguin considered to be both an allegory for his philosophical devastation, and the pinnacle of his artistic achievements; he meant to kill himself when the painting was done, but miscalculated the dose of arsenic.

The echoing forms of the olive trees may be why in 1908, five years after Gauguin’s eventual death in a Tahitian prison, an art adviser confidently (if erroneously) identified Christ in the Garden of Olives as painted in — and a depiction of — Gauguin’s tropical refuge, and urged a wealthy client from Bordeaux to buy it. It’s unclear whether Gauguin’s abstracted Mediterranean olive garden was a premonition of Tahiti, or if his interpretation of Tahiti was colored by the long shadows of his past. What’s clear is that the trees are not really olive trees, and they’re not really palm trees. They’re something else entirely and they both transcend and undermine the things they claim to be.

The well-paid suits who run Olive Garden have tried, many times, to breathe new life into their chain, and it always backfires spectacularly. They’ve flirted with small plates, they put kale and polenta on the menu, they recently started slicing the breadsticks down the middle and making sandwiches out of them. Most tables and bar seats have little unobtrusive video screens on which customers can hail their server for a refill, or pay $1.99 to test their trivia knowledge against other players who allegedly are real, but almost certainly are not. At most locations, the fake olive plants with their twisty branches have already been chucked in the trash, the walls have been un-stuccoed, and the chairs have been stripped of their exquisitely smooth-rolling wheels. By next year, they’ll all be gone.

Related video: Olive Garden Pasta Passes Sell Out Immediately (provided by Wochit News)

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Every time Olive Garden tries to freshen its image, to move away from its cultural role as a punchline for faux authenticity and mediocre mall food, everything collapses. Nobody wants to eat kale at Olive Garden. Nobody wants garlic hummus. We want soup and salad and unlimited breadsticks, we want never-ending bowls of pasta with a variety of sauces, we want giant glasses full of Coke and tiny wine glasses full of plonky reds and fruity whites. Just about the only stunt Olive Garden has ever pulled that’s been successful — and it’s been a raging success, an astounding, nearly unbelievable one — has been the Pasta Pass. For $100, you can buy a card that entitles you to seven weeks of unlimited unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks, and unlimited never-ending pasta bowls. Or you could buy it, if you were one of the 22,000 people who managed to snatch them up before they sold out in one second. One. Second. That’s how much no one cares if Olive Garden serves kale.

You can’t really go wrong with any of their permutations on the holy trinity of carbohydrate, tomato sauce, and cheese

Darden, the company that owns Olive Garden, is publicly traded, and in the last two years, the stock has been steadily on the rise. This may be because in 2014, a hedge fund with a significant stake in the company delivered a 294-page treatise outlining all the ways Olive Garden was getting in the way of its own success, including giving away too much bread, not pushing enough alcohol, and overly dressing the salads.

But I think the real lesson isn’t buried in a PowerPoint deck, it’s right there in the wild success of the Pasta Pass: Olive Garden’s biggest asset is, in fact, that none of the attempts to make it better are working. All the stunts and menu revamps and dining room redesigns are met by diners with indifference at best, and outright hostility at worst. Inevitably Darden retreats and regroups, falling back on the only thing that ever reliably gets people in the door: pasta, a lot of it, cheaply, with soup and salad and breadsticks, and a vague veneer of Italy.

Olive Garden has always gone to great lengths to claim its authentic Italianness, even in the face of overwhelming proof otherwise. This may have been different in the early ’80s, when the chain launched, and America was only beginning to shake off our understanding of the cuisine as a monolith of red sauce, red gingham tablecloths, and candles wedged into wicker chianti bottles. Relaxed trade agreements meant that Americans had easier access to real-deal products like extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, prosciutto di Parma, and serious Italian cheeses. Marcella Hazan had exploded onto the scene in the mid-1970s, with cookbooks that refused to Americanize recipes, techniques, or ingredients; by the time the first Olive Garden opened in December 1982, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso’s The Silver Palate Cookbook had been a runaway bestseller for nearly a year, inculcating home cooks in the novel wonders of pancetta and pesto.

The rejection of red-sauce Italian-American is right there in the name, once you get past all the jokes about the lack of olives on the menu. A garden of olives! It’s lush, sun-drenched, exquisitely Mediterranean, with whispers of both the exotic and the old-world. “Olive Garden,” as a phrase, only implies Italian food — or Italian caricature, black-dressed nonnas and loud family gatherings and the indefinable absurdity of “hospitaliano” — because it asserts the validity of its connection so loudly that it can’t be ignored. Even in 1986, the chain’s advertising budget was in the millions.

Olive Garden’s authenticity hard-sell is less exciting now, in the age of ubiquitous, regionally genuine Italian food. For every mention of their “culinary institute” in Tuscany, there’s a Reddit AMA from an employee actually sent there, happy to debunk the fairy tale with tales of an off-season hotel and a couple of half-hour cooking demos. We can get pesto anywhere now, even at Subway, and balsamic vinegar is so uncool that it’s almost cool again. Some 35 years later, in a world bestrode by Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, a hint of rosemary or a red wine braise doesn’t go quite as far as it used to. But Olive Garden has transcended Olive Garden, the way Gauguin’s olive trees transcended olive trees. It’s the ur-chain, a restaurant whose exquisite mediocrity — heightened, not undermined, by the flashes of greatness in the toasted ravioli, the salad, the shockingly delicious soups — is the very fabric of its appeal. It’s the subject of parody, like the MadTV sketch of a racist, vituperative Italian-American family gathered to eat horrifying food, and it’s immortalized in fine art — Chloe Wise’s installation Olive Garden of Eden is a marble block draped in romaine and croutons, lashed with oozy, willfully sexual splatters of Caesar dressing. Olive Garden doesn’t even serve Caesar salad. But it doesn’t matter.

What matters is this: Olive Garden is a machine of memory. You go to Olive Garden because you’ve always gone there. You bring your children there, and they grow up having always gone there. It is a restaurant that’s good at some things, a few of them on the menu, more of them about price and convenience and a general exhausted tolerance for unruly children and arguing couples. It is extraordinarily good at being a non-place. It’s uncannily good at being itself: A restaurant that calls on Italy without ever looking at Italy, that promises family without community, that is — in its ubiquity — nowhere, and is better for it. Every time it strays from itself, the collective force of memory intervenes, and it returns.

Helen Rosneris over fettucini alfredo for good now.

Julianna Brionis an artist based in Baltimore.

Edited by the ghost of Paul Gauguin

Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter


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