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True, this particular Olive Garden is the first ever to exist within Chicago city limits—hey, if middle-income people are moving into cities from the burbs, why the hell wouldn't moderately priced chain restaurants follow their lead?—and, yes, it had just opened its doors the day before, to much fanfare, I might add. Except for maybe the big guy at the bar who was on his third never-ending pasta bowl, it seemed no one was quite as excited about OG's entrance into the Chicago market as Governor Pat Quinn, who spent valuable campaign face time at a ribbon-cutting ceremony last Monday morning. Quinn said: "Illinois's restaurant industry is thriving, and establishments like Olive Garden are helping drive our economic comeback." So, OK, if it sounds like Quinn's being a bit of a sycophant, a press release sent out that day explains that's because the restaurant created 170 new jobs, and new jobs make a fella who wants to keep being governor look good.
I didn't do a head count, but there's a chance all 170 people were on duty the night we went. There was a guy to open the door, at least three people behind the host's stand and several more to escort guests to tables, four or five people behind the bar, trainers and trainees alike, and exactly one man in an embroidered chef's coat pacing about and wringing his hands like a nervous papa waiting for his wife to give birth. To meatballs. We'll call this man "someone from corporate."
Anyway, a great thing about way too many people working at an Olive Garden at once is that there's a lot of confusion. So when someone tells you it'll take 45 minutes to be seated, there's a good chance they have no idea what they're talking about; my colleague Brianna Wellen and I arrived around 7:15 or so and our little buzzer thing went off after fewer than ten minutes, which is less time than it took to get drinks from the bar. (One of the newbies seemed resistant to making our Red Citrus Wine Spritzer.) All of that said, the place was crowded: there were groups of your mom's middle-aged friends, large families with multiple kids who maybe don't go out as a group all that often, and, I imagine, a number of tables of people who were just passing through on the Kennedy and had no idea they were living chain-restaurant history in the making.
Despite a rave review out of the Grand Forks area—and at the risk of sounding like a snob—Olive Garden is not a very good restaurant. Even the investment firm that owns the place doesn't think so. So why is this place so packed?
My theory is twofold.
The first is the immense and immensely insidious power of advertising. Olive Garden will be goddamned if you're allowed to live your life without at least being aware of whatever cheese-smothered, vaguely seasonal mama cucina poopina special menu they're featuring at the moment. When you're besieged by advertisements, there's a chance that during at least one instance of exposure you'll be hungry, and your brain, in its weakened state, might lie to you and tell you that eating chicken marsala that's stuffed with salty cheese slime is a good idea. You might even be hungry enough to think you could take on the famous never-ending pasta bowl, which leads me to the second part of this theory, which is the perception of value.
At the moment, and at many moments throughout history, OG is hard-selling its never-ending pasta bowl. That's all the pasta and sauce you can eat, as well as unlimited bread sticks and soup or salad for $9.99, as long as you don't go wild and add a topping like sausage or shrimp to your pasta because that costs extra. Sounds like an OK deal. But, c'mon, how much pasta can you really eat? Unless you're training for a marathon or you're a compulsive binge eater (nothing wrong with that), maybe two bowls. So about a half pound of pasta, which costs about 50 cents. So, I've talked you out of the pasta bowl, and now you're gonna order a regular eat-as-much-as-we-give-you-at-one-time meal. Well, the bad news there: the entrees aren't that cheap. Nothing costs more than $20 (as far as I can tell, the filet mignon is the priciest item at $19.99), but most dishes hover in the $15-$18 range. An affordable family dinner out can quickly become not terribly affordable. Brianna and I had definitely set out to pig out—three small plates, two entrees, wine, and a dessert—but by the end, our meal with tax and tip was roughly $100.
I don't want to pull a Hagerty and labor over descriptions of the atmosphere and food. If I had to sum up the experience in two words: aggressively salty. Whatever keeps them coming back for more, I guess.
Olive Garden, 3555 W. Addison, 773-250-2005, olivegarden.com