Monday, March 21, 2016

Table or Booth, Goat Cheese or No

This weekend my wife Andrea and I went out to enjoy some fine Italian dining. So we went to Olive Garden because we apparently do not have a functioning concept of fine Italian dining. 

You know what? I'm not going be one of those elitist stuck up Olive Garden haters. Is it the best Italian food in the world? No but it beats S'barros and Chef Boy R Dee and Andrea and I usually have an enjoyable experience when we eat there.

Still, I wish I could talk Andrea into trying one of the locally owned Italian bistros. We did go to one once. It was highly recommended by friends and local reviews. It had a lovely decor with candle lit tables; it was very nice. Anyway, Andrea and I ordered a dish that was made with goat cheese. I thought it was excellent but Andrea was not as enamored with it. And she won't go back because "they put goat cheese on everything". 

"No, they don't put goat cheese on everything," I attempt to explain to her. "They do put goat cheese on the dishes that use goat cheese. If you don't want goat cheese, don't order a dish with goat cheese." 

But no, Andrea insists on going to Olive Garden where the food is safe and predictable and devoid of goat derived dairy products.  

Locally, we used to have only one Olive Garden and that placed stayed packed all the time. Wait times were ridiculously long. I remember one time waiting to get a table at this particular Olive Garden for about an hour. Across the street was a Burger King that was advertising a chicken parmesan sandwich and I'm thinking, "Why am I do this to myself? I'm in this long wait for a table and what am I going to order? Probably chicken parmesan and there's a perfectly acceptable chicken parmesan sandwich right across the street that I could eat RIGHT NOW for 1/4 the price!"  

The lone Olive Garden in town had a sort of late 1970's/early 1980's atmosphere that still managed to exude some sense that dining there was a special experience. And apparently a lot of people continued to buy into that. Even as Olive Garden would get mocked in the general press as being kind of bleh, this location continued to have a packed parking lot every night.  

A couple of years ago, a 2nd Olive Garden opened up. Last year, for our anniversary, Andrea wanted to go to Olive Garden and we decided to try the new location.  

It was not the same experience as our city's original Olive Garden. The atmosphere of this new Olive Garden was more on par with Golden Corral or Bob Evans than the faux sophistication of the other location. Light colored wood instead of dark cherry, bright lighting, it all looks more like a cafeteria than an Italian place. If you're OK with the idea that Olive Garden is not the best Italian food in the world but not the worst, that's exactly what the decor of this place immediately conveyed to me. 

Welcome to Olive Garden: eh, you could do worse.  

Yesterday (Sunday), with our daughter out of town (more on that later this week), Andrea wanted to go to Olive Garden so we went there for lunch. Despite my misgivings, we went to the new location again because it is much closer to our house and the wait is nowhere near as long. 

Thanks to diminished expectations, I enjoyed dining at second location more than I did last time. I still missed the darker, more intimate setting of the first location but maybe because it was lunch and not dinner, I really didn't care that much. 

We did have something happen with our hostess at Olive Garden that I have encountered at other restaurants as well. 

I want to go on record that I prefer booths to tables. I just feel less exposed and its easier to have a conversation while dining. That being said, I'm not a complete snob about it. If a particular establishment is really busy and I can see there are no booths, I will sit at a table, no problem. 

But as our hostess yesterday was leading us to a table, I glanced around and saw at least three empty booths, cleaned and ready for use. There were two others that were empty but had not been cleaned yet. 

So I asked the hostess, "Sorry but could we have a booth instead?"  

This, apparently, was a tough question. She looked around the restaurant, furrowing her brow with worry as she attempted to address this most decidedly unexpected question. A booth instead of a table? I wondered, is it possible no one has ever asked her this before?  

The thing was is that there were, as I noted earlier, 3 empty booths, cleaned and ready to use. And one of the two that needed to be cleaned was, at that moment, being cleaned.

Still, our hostess looked around, desperately trying to discern the answer to this mystery. A booth instead of a table? 

"Wait here a moment," she said as she left Andrea and I standing awkwardly in the middle of the restaurant. Perhaps we had asked for too much? Then our hostess returned and instructed us to follow her. And she led us to...

The one booth that had not been cleaned yet. "One more moment," she said as she and a busboy quickly cleared and cleaned the booth. I thought about asking if my wife and I could have a seat at one of the other empty booths while they cleared this booth but I thought better of it. We had, it seemed, caused enough trouble.   

Once we were seated, I kept an eye on the four other empty booths and they were eventually filled with people. But not right away. In fact, our waiter was asking us if we cared for dessert by the time the last of those particular booths had been occupied. 

Now I don't want to throw too much shade towards Olive Garden over this because this has actually happened to us before at other restaurants.  We're being led to a table when I see a booth or booths available so I ask if we can have a booth instead. And the host or hostess inevitably looks really daunted by that request even though there's an empty booth right over there, I can see it, no one is using it. 

Are hosts also working as bouncers, keeping the booths free of riff-raff and losers? The booths are apparently only for the really special people, people looking to avoid the watchful gaze of fans and paparazzi.  

I have no idea why this keeps happening but it perplexes and confounds me. 

And I'm so glad my suffering amuses you. 

I'll be back with another post tomorrow. Until then, remember to be good to one another. And accept only premium grade-A goat cheese.  

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