We did a wholly uncharacteristic thing the other evening and dined at Olive Garden. In our neighborhood, the closest hope of a food source is a mall, and Olive Garden was not only a prudent choice in that situation, but a forced one, as the Chevy’s next door had moved out and landed a cooler location, near the tourists in SOMA. I’m against big corporate food as much as the next left-leaning, establishment-eschewing, source-wary girl pup from Oregon, but I also remember from high school outings the call of soft, fluffy, salty breadsticks and weak salad doused in a sharp, tangy dressing.
We chose to dine in the bar, where on the big screen Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic were smashing the final balls of the US Open around Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing. Two sets Murray, one set Djokovic, and it looked like the Serbian would topple the Brit in the present set. They had been playing high-caliber tennis for four hours; I instantly felt shame at my own laziness and restaurant choice upon hearing this fact.
We browsed the menu, shocked to find the pasta prices comparable to those of some of our favorite eateries in New York. Because we had no other options for dinner, apart from Wetzel’s Pretzels, we resigned and ordered a glass of Riesling between us, as well as a meal of lemon-herbed chicken. The first course of salad and breadsticks was presented by our pitch-perfect bartender, and I dove through them, determined to suck nutrients from the plasticized cabbage and carrots and those glorified hotdog buns shrouded in butter and salt. Of course my standards have certainly changed since 16, but jesus, it was the whitest bread I’ve had in a long time. The main course soon followed; the pasta, the chicken, the poor vegetables, even, were drowning in butter.
We watched the game, a fierce battle until Murray overtook his able competitor in the fifth set, but I kept looking around, noticing the hefty amount of patrons tapping away on their mobile devices, almost all of them iPhones. A man and a woman behind us, dressed up as though on a date, slouched over their phones, engrossed in information too important to ignore. In another dining room across from the bar, a family of six busied themselves with scooping seconds and thirds for themselves from the dishes in the middle of the table. But the father, a rotund guy, his head couched in neck rolls, was falling asleep in his food. His nose seemed inches away from his plate, his arms about ready to collapse. I held my breath, and wondered why for so many minutes, his family did nothing to rouse him, even though his wife kept glancing at him. Then he straightened suddenly, and I realize that all that time, he had been studying his iPhone closely while the mother of the children had orchestrated the dining and conversation throughout. She had been engaging with the kids at the dinner table while he had been browsing the internet.
I know that was just a singular snapshot of this family, and I hate high horses, but really. That was a sour picture of American family life that I hope never to emulate. The prices alone are enough to dissuade me from eating at these bland, abiotic restaurant chains, let alone discouraging visions of crumbling family values. Damn this high horse.