Olive Garden

“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday.  The regular crowd shuffles in…”  An evening at the local Olive Garden brings to mind those opening lines of Billy Joel’s Piano Man.  Except in this case, it’s five o’clock on a Sunday.  What I presume to be the regular crowd, is indeed shuffling in, howeverThat’s because the majority of them are over 65 and shuffling is the best they can manage.

We arrive at 5:10 and are told to expect a 30-minute wait to be seated.  That’s fine with me and the maximum amount of time I’ll wait to eat anywhere, even Olive Garden. 

Luckily, there’s a live, constantly changing floor show in the form of the number of hopeful patrons entering, the ones waiting like we are, the constant stream toward the restrooms and those smart enough to arrive even earlier who are now trickling out the door.  This is better than sitting at the airport if you want to people watch. 

Eventually we find seats on one of the few recently vacated benches which offers an even better view of the flow of hungry humanity.  Stacy London would be appalled by the fashion choices made for dinner out.  Yes, it’s Olive Garden, but must we all dress as if we’d just come in from mowing the lawn or searching out bargains at the local flea market? 

One in particular stands out.  A woman old enough to know better who’s under the illusion she’s a size six.  She isn’t.  Not by a long shot.  She’s poured herself into a pair of skinny jeans which I can tell are not too happy about it and spike-heeled ankle boots.  I know she thinks she looks hot, but one look at the denim straining across her derrierre and I’m here to tell you, she does not. 

We offer our seats to two ladies, one of whom is using a cane.  We always do this because one day soon, we know we might be the ones in need of a cane and we’ll hope someone will offer us a seat.  The show continues.  The wait time eventually moves to forty minutes.  We’ve decided to time our predicted wait to see how accurate it is.  Our signal light goes off at just about the 30-minute mark and we follow one of the two senior citizens who are in charge of seating to a table for two.  At last. 

Our waiter (Jerry) appears and I notice he is the first of the Olive Garden staff to offer us a smile.  I tell him so and ask him is this a horrible place to work. He says it isn’t really, he’s been there for three years.  But all it takes sometime is for one thing to bring one person down it’s like when one person yawns.  Everyone starts doing it. 

I’m facing the dining area as well as my companion, so I am constantly entertained.  I enjoy watching the servers and the diners.  Eventually I notice our seater standing a short distance away keeping an eye on the section we are in.  There’s an ear bud in one ear and I think she must be much like an air traffic controller staying in contact with the hostess stand.  “Table 38  is starting on their salad.  44 was just served dessert.  69 has their check, but they’re just sitting there talking.  Shit, they just asked for more coffee.” 

I’m pretty sure Olive Garden has a computer system linked in to the hostess stand so they know the status of every table at any point in time.  Much like Dominos now allows you to watch the progress of your pizza if you order online.  As soon as a table is vacated a Code Blue goes out to the bussers:  “Clear table 19.  Stat!” 

There are a few servers who look to be twenty-somethings, like our boy Jerry.  One fellow who looks like he might be in his 30’s and maybe this isn’t his first or ideal career choice.  I comment that probably no child ever says, “When I grow up I want to be a server at Olive Garden.”  I imagine some of them, maybe many of them, were knocked out of other jobs and are doing their best to make ends meet by waiting tables.  My husband suggests if that’s the case, they were most likely real estate developers.  Or maybe they’re all realtors but they have to also have a job where they can make an actual income. 

I notice one server who’s 80 if she’s a day toddling toward the kitchen.  She then reappears with a bowl of soup.  Is it her goal to be the oldest living server at Olive Garden just like it’s my goal to be the world’s oldest living barista?  That will be me some day, toddling around in my green apron on a perpetual caffeine high. 

A table of four is seated next to us.  At first I think they might be Italian, but I soon realize they are speaking French.  Darn.  If they were Italian and eating at Olive Garden that’s like the same stamp of approval Taco Bell gets when Latinos eat there.  Are there Olive Gardens in France?  On the Riviera perhaps?  One of the men is wearing a too-tight tee shirt over his barrel chest that says NBA Basketball.  I’m pretty sure he picked that up at one of the outlet malls earlier in the day.  In my head I can hear the woman later tell her friends “We ate at the Oleeve GarDEN!”  I can’t do accents but you get the idea.  I want to know if this is a special treat for them.  Or are there Olive Gardens throughout Europe?  I also want to interview that 80-year-old server because I’m fascinated and curious. 

I’ve had one glass of wine, (Beringer white zin, $6.65 a glass;  Side Note:  The day before I noticed Publix sells the entire bottle for $6.99.) lots of salad, one breadstick and Chicken and Shrimp Carbonara.  I’m stuffed.  I’m sure Olive Garden is often mocked, but the truth is, I’ve eaten at more upscale Italian restaurants and didn’t enjoy the food as much.  I vaguely wonder if Tom Collicchio ever eats at Olive Garden.  Or any chain restaurants for that matter.  Would he enjoy it?  Or would he be appalled? 

Our plates are nearly empty.  There’s no way we have room for dessert.  The check arrives.  It’s less than $50 and barely over that including the tip. The floor show was free.  We’re home by seven. 

I am learning why senior citizens go out to eat at 4:30.  It’s because they’re tired.  It’s a lot of effort just to get yourself out of the house.  You go early so you don’t have to wait.  You can eat your dinner, go home, watch Jeopardy and go to bed.  

Or (since I’m not quite at senior citizen level yet) go home, write a blog about your trip to Olive Garden, make a pot of decaf, read for a while and then go to bed.