Lately, I’ve had contrasting dining experiences and I think they highlight very different perspectives on America. First, my husband wanted to try the Olive Garden. He had been there decades ago and, although he recalled that the food was rather ordinary, he had liked the all-you-can-eat salad and since he often finds he doesn’t otherwise get enough to eat when we dine out, that was a big plus. I’ll admit, I was a little curious too. I had eaten only at an Olive Garden once and also recalled the salads fondly. Usually, we shun chain restaurants, so it was an opportunity to sample how many Americans eat when they go out. A cultural experience, for us, you could say.
So, recently after an afternoon spent in big box store hell, we decided to give the Olive Garden a try. The restaurant was crowded, mostly with Canadians as they like to come down and buy our cheap stuff, then eat before heading back to the border. Basically, Bellingham is, in some respects, a bit of a third-world border town where middle-class foreigners come to shop—like Tijuana used to be for Americans.
The hostess and waiter were friendly and the décor faux Tuscan. I ordered the Chicken Abruzzi from the “Lighter Italian Fare” menu, my husband the Eggplant Parmesan with additional meatballs, and our son the kid’s pepperoni pizza. The salad came and was refilled as often as we wanted but, truth be told, it was lackluster. I have become used to greens with more “oomph,” so pale Romaine lettuce, insipid tomatoes, grated carrots, and California Olives (even my son avoids them because they’re nothing compared to Greek olives) lacked much interest. The dressing was the same–insipid.
The breadsticks almost looked appetizing, but when you bit into them they just sort of squished. They could easily have been gummed, if necessary. It reminded me of the time when I was a kid and I went to a birthday party at a friend’s house. We were playing hide-and-seek and, as I was racing through the kitchen looking for a hiding place, I spotted a loaf of Wonder bread sitting — with the bag open–on the counter. I had never had white bread. My parents were old hippies, Co-op members before it was cool, and only served whole wheat bread that crumbled when you tried to make a sandwich from it and “natural” peanut butter. White bread was verboten, and, therefore, utterly desirable to me. I grabbed a slice and hid behind the tire of a car parked in the street. I tried to gobble down my white holy grail, but it turned into a horrible doughy ball in my mouth. I ended up spitting it out in the gutter never tantalized by its white loveliness again.
Anyway, the main dishes we ordered were even more bland than the salad. Our son’s pizza was certainly kid’s sized. It was mostly crust with a little sauce and a few slices of pepperoni. My chicken was tasteless no matter how much salt and pepper I tried to season it with. My husband’s eggplant was the same. And, instead of many, or even some, meatballs, it came with but one. One sad meatball balanced atop the utterly uniform slices of breaded and fried eggplant.
The next day my husband called the manager and said the service was perfectly good, etc., but if they are going to offer additional “meatballs” on the menu, more than one should be served. If it is going to be just one, than the menu ought to read “meatball.” The manager was quite solicitous and, without being asked, offered to send a gift card. We expected one for $5 or something in that order. Instead, it was for $50. So, with reduced expectations, we again visited the Olive Garden.
Sad to say, it was no better. The salad, of course, was the same. Our son’s pizza was a little better this time as we ordered him a full-sized one and it had 4 toppings which helped. Also, the sauce-to-crust ratio was improved. However, my Baked Tilapia with Shrimp was flavorless (this time I tried red pepper flakes but no luck, it didn’t help). My husband’s Chicken Alfredo might have been better called Piece o’ Protein on Pile of Carbs with Gooey Non-descript Fat Drizzled on Top. It was filling, but that would be its only recommendation.
This is, I suspect, how most Americans dine. In this case, the décor and descriptions are Italian, but the actual food is a pale shadow of what it ought to be. Real Italian cuisine bursts with flavor and freshness. It is not even American-Italian like our two local restaurants Mambo Italiano and D’Anna’s where I can at least find a couple of entrées that are interesting and flavorful without simply relying on salt and fat. I realized that Olive Garden is like when we went to the ClubMed in Tahiti for our honeymoon (planning a wedding and a honeymoon was just too much for us)—that is what I call Faux Foreign. You are provided the illusion that you are experiencing a different culture or cuisine, but you are not. You are experiencing a watered down imitation of the original so that it no longer resembles the original except in form.
Also, I believe the quality of ingredients is so poor it is impossible to make anything flavorful with them. They may use olive oil and kale, but they are tasteless so how could they have anything to offer? It reminded me of when I prepared and ate my first free-range chicken. I thought, “oh, this is what chicken tastes like.” I had almost forgotten how delicious chicken could taste because I had become so accustomed to boneless skinless chicken breasts that were merely pieces of protein. When I first had locally raised and butchered ground beef it actually tasted gamey to me. It had been so long since I had eaten real beef that it reminded me of venison or bear meat. I quickly realized I could eat far less of it to be satisfied as it was so much more flavorful.
Recently I went out dinner with some friends at one of the several micro-breweries that have popped up around town. I chose Wander Brewing because that was where the food truck StrEat Food was going to be and I wanted to try their food. I used to drink beer on occasion years ago back when I lived in Wisconsin where it’s practically mandatory. After I moved to California, I switched to wine. Nowadays, I don’t drink often at all as I am so afraid it will mess up my sleeping cycles and I have had enough trouble with insomnia that I don’t even want to go there.
What some of our local breweries are doing is, instead of having their own kitchen, they invite one food truck per day or evening to set up with their offerings. Food trucks don’t generally offer long menus, but hey, that just makes it easier to choose—well maybe. I ordered a gyro and it was fabulous. The meat (a lamb-beef combo) was delicious—flavorful without being greasy. It included a generous amount of onions and tomato without overwhelming the meat. The yogurt sauce drizzled over the top kept everything moist. One of my friends had the same and the other had the Veggie Burger and proclaimed it delicious as well. The server explained that they make their own Veggie Burgers and that the ingredients change regularly.
I also ordered the beer sampler. Of their eight offerings, I could choose five and receive a few ounces of each. I didn’t know what kinds to choose, so I just said I didn’t like bitter flavors and let the experts take it from there. The sampler came in a wooden holder with a card that had the names of each kind of beer that I had. They were all terrific! What fun to sample a variety. I had forgotten how good beer can be (and perhaps it has improved over the years).
Also, I must admit I found the atmosphere more interesting than the one I encountered at the Olive Garden. Wander has a bit of an industrial feel to it; however, it did not come across as an act. I think it really is an old industrial building and, hey, they make beer there! Also, the benches and tables were made of this really cool heavily varnished wood. It was beautiful just to look at. They had inside and outside seating. We had ended up inside only because that was the only table available and we had to do a little “table-stalking” to even get that one.
What a difference this was from the meals at the Olive Garden! There, dinner felt as if it had been carefully crafted in order to avoid offending anyone’s palate. The net result was that it failed to excite one’s taste buds. I am sure that if I ordered the same thing at any Olive Garden across the country it would have been exactly the same. Its predictability would be assured. And so, I realized that Olive Garden, and all restaurants of its ilk (this post is not meant to be just a slam of OG. It is a criticism of aiming for the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to as many as possible that has become so pervasive in America), are probably popular partly because they are “safe.”
While I was at Wander Brewery, I could have allowed myself to feel a little out of place: I think my table-mates and I were the only ones in the place free of ink (besides babes in arms). Instead I enjoyed the more youthful vibe. And, I’m actually looking forward to returning.