I had lunch at Olive Garden today.
And the timing was especially poignant, as just this morning, I wrote to a friend, as part of a discussion of all things ubiquitous and predictable: "Such is the way of the world, m'dear, and the same reason that the parking lot of Olive Garden is always full."
I guess people like knowing what they're going to get.
Now, I will fully cop to having McDonald's on my first trip to London, but that's because I was curious to know if a cheeseburger in London would taste the same as a cheeseburger here. I figured they must, that all suppliers must abide by identical standards, but still, I wanted to taste for myself.
Yup. Exactly the same.
I am happy to report that I skipped McDonald's on my second trip to London. I was far too taken with EAT.
Though I did pop into Starbucks. Twice. So sue me.
Anyway, today was an adventure. And I should clarify that the only reason I found myself dining at Olive Garden was because my mom had a gift card to spend.
I hadn't been in about 20 years.
Since the parking lot is always jam-packed, we decided to go first thing, before running another errand. We arrived at 10:57 a.m. People were sitting in their cars.
We waited by the door until someone opened it from inside. Past the airlock, we were greeted by the uniformed horde. It was a bit intimidating, really. Easily a dozen Olive Garden staff, if not more, were standing there, staring at us. It was a little "West Side Story."
We were sent on our way with a server who led us to our table, a booth.
We both ordered ice water, no lemon. (If you're not hip to the lemon scene in restaurants, a) they're almost never washed before they're sliced, and b) once they're sliced, folks just reach in and grab slices to pop into or onto glasses. And I reckon those folks aren't washing their hands first.)
I can say this for Olive Garden: I like the water glasses.
Our server looked as though she might have a skin condition and was wearing a lot of makeup to compensate. Which is not a criticism. People should feel pretty. But her very purple and pink eyeshadow threw me for a momentary loop.
Mom opted for the Venetian Apricot Chicken
. I ordered the Grilled Steak & Portobello Panini
Our server asked if I'd like the soup with the panini or before.
"With her salad," I said, gesturing to mom, forgetting for the moment that I would be having salad, too.
She disappeared and returned with a tray.
I can also say this for Olive Garden: I like that Parmesan cheese comes fresh from a Zyliss grater.
The soup was hot. Too hot, actually. I stirred it a bit while mom helped herself to salad. A woman at the next table spoke, loudly, of a dissected artery.
I looked at my soup. Minestrone. It was pretty bland.
I set the bowl aside and proceeded to salad.
I can also say this for Olive Garden: I like that the salad plates are chilled.
Yup, the salad tasted exactly as I remembered it tasting. And it was just as overdressed as I remembered it, too.
And behold the breadsticks in the plastic faux basket. Mom wondered why there were only three for the two of us. But more arrived later, even after we had said no to the offer of more.
And then there was lunch. Mom's chicken arrived looking not at all like the picture
. But then, food never does. Have you ever had a Whopper that looks like the picture at Burger King?
And then there was my panini. It was served on a white rectangular plate. As our server set it down, the halves slid sadly to one side. Rarely has a plate containing food looked so forlorn.
Our server explained that normally, it comes plated with a cup of soup.
But I had wanted my soup first. And so my entree was Little Panini Lost.
My mother was almost pissed. "I'd be embarrassed to serve that to someone," she said. "They could have at least included a garnish."
She made me take some of the asparagus off her plate. I laid a spear between my sandwich halves, diagonally.
"Take another one," she said. So I did. And I almost crossed the second one across the first, to be a bit artful. But that seemed unnecessary.
The forlorn panini was fine. Edible. Remarkable in no way.
Mom left part of her chicken. It wasn't a big serving to begin with, and she had said she was hungry.
"You're not going to finish?" I asked, knowing full well she could.
"I don't think it's real chicken," she said. "It seems processed."
I picked up my knife and fork and cut a piece and tried it.
I tried another bit, from the edge. That had a bit more texture, what you'd expect from a breast of chicken. But still, her point was taken.
Whatever they do to process the chicken, whatever marinade or brine, does leave the chicken rather "meh." Why finish "meh"?
Our server returned to ask if we'd saved room for dessert.
Oh, no, I said. Too many breadsticks.
So she brought us the check.
On the way out, I had to stand aside to let the throng of patrons past who were headed to their tables.
Once we were outside, I turned to mom and said, "Let's never do that again."