Popular Culture  •  November 12, 2002

Simulated Garden of Eden

Last night, my friend Steve and I checked out the new Olive Garden on 22nd and 6th Avenue. It was the opening night of this branch, and I had been anxiously waiting for it for a long time. I figured it would be empty because Olive Gardens are popular among tourists, not among the locals, and this particular neighborhood is not a popular destination for tourists. To my surprise, when we arrived there around 7PM, the place was nearly full. The cherry wood decor is decidedly fancier than that of the Times Square branch. It is probably twice as large as the average restaurants in Manhattan, and the tables and the booths are generously spaced to meet the suburban standards. A host with a newly trained smile showed us to a booth for two.

We ordered very well, I think. I ordered mushroom ravioli and Steve ordered eggplant parmigiana, nothing else. No drinks. Just water, for which you have to ask specifically. Every plate comes with quality salad and all-you-can-eat garlic breadsticks, which eliminates the need for ordering appetizers. When the waitress was about to start her long presentation for the wine of the day, I intervened to tell her that we just wanted water. Steve felt bad that she was deprived of her opportunity to perform what she had been practicing for a full week, so he told her to tell us about the fat bottle of rosé she was holding in her hand anyway. My ravioli was superb, but Steve wasn’t impressed with his parmigiana. He complained about the spaghetti that came on the side. He felt that it was too white trash. I loved the breadsticks precisely because it was so white trash. It cost us altogether $36 with tax and tips. Not bad at all.

Steve chatted with several waitresses, and we felt like we were part of an Italian-American family. Every staff member made multiple attempts to get to know my life, which in New York is refreshing and bizarre at the same time. Olive Garden defies the capitalist reality. It simulates what it would be like to have a restaurant where no one was alienated, where everyone was happy and cared about what they did. It’s like Disneyland, a dream world. It’s also like an urban park that simulates nature, where people can go to escape the reality. Olive Garden simulates what the reality should be. Many are repulsed by it, not because of their friendliness, but because they know they are mere simulacrums. But everything in this world is a simulacrum. Even in places like the Virgin Islands, what you see is intentionally created or preserved in order to match our expectations of how the Caribbean sea should look. Similarly, there is nothing real about “the real Italian restaurants”; even the ones in Italy are simulated. If you are offended by the simulacrums, you should be offended by all. The only difference is that the so-called “real Italian restaurants” are much harder to deconstruct, but you are still being fooled all the same.

What Olive Garden simulates for us is the feeling of “real Italian restaurants.” Manhattan’s fancy restaurants, for those suburbanites, are the stuff movies are made of. They are intimidating and scary, both in terms of cost and cultural literacy. Olive Garden delivers the look and feel of the real Italian restaurants through the tour guides who speak the same language their customers do. Their waiters are like Safari tour guides who entertain the tourists by removing the danger and leaving only the facade.

There is nothing real about Olive Garden. It is equivalent to the Japanese artificial indoor beaches which are generally built near the real beaches. Perhaps Olive Garden appeals to the Japanese side of me. There is some comfort in knowing that things are clearly fake, especially in this world where everything is so intricately fake.