The absence of Olive Gardens
And how Olive Garden divided America
My hometown of Lawrence, Kansas, doesn't have an Olive Garden. For some of us — picky eaters, fans of unlimited breadsticks — that's a point of contention. But for others, it's a point of pride.
"I am delighted that we don't have a bad-Italian-food chain in town," my aunt told me when I asked my Facebook friends for their Olive Garden opinions.
"I would give anything to never have one in Lawrence," added a longtime Lawrencian.
I myself have never had a strong opinion about the Italian chain, which is why I was so puzzled to find that so many of my friends did. It made me wonder: What, exactly, makes the restaurant so divisive? Would having one in Lawrence, a lively college town in northeast Kansas, really be so bad? What inspires this knee-jerk reaction of disdain, this "not in my backyard" mentality? Are we too cool for fettuccine alfredo? Is the pasta bowl just too basic for our liking?
It is true, Lawrence has a bit of a superiority complex about its reputation for being hip. But it's not for nothing. We pride ourselves on the success of our small, local institutions. In Lawrence, people put up a fuss every time a big-box store comes sniffing around. When practically every city in America was building huge malls in the '80s and '90s, we resisted, investing instead in our beautiful and historic downtown on Massachusetts Street. This strategy has paid dividends, as malls struggle to survive in a changing economy. Three small bookstores outlived our Borders. Five different concert venues host nationwide acts. Our local restaurant scene is thriving. We can get amazing pasta at Basil Leaf, or 715, or Genovese. Why would we even need an Olive Garden?
At the same time, it's not like we're exclusively a haven for small businesses, untarnished by the big guys. Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns Olive Garden, did, after all, build a LongHorn Steakhouse here. When it opted not to build an Olive Garden on the west side of town, it's not like some experimental, locally-owned restaurant popped up in its place; Buffalo Wild Wings opened up there instead.
And there are a lot of places that are way cooler than Lawrence that have at least one Olive Garden: New York City; Boulder, Colorado; Olympia, Washington.
One of the first times I visited an Olive Garden was in 2004 in Roanoke, Virginia, my husband's hometown. I was there with my parents and two younger brothers to tour what would become my alma mater, Hollins University. Roanoke was as different from Lawrence as the mountains are different from the plains. Where Lawrence resisted malls, Roanoke went full-tilt into them, building three different complexes. Two of them have mostly failed, but the Valley View Mall is still bustling. It's where the Target and the movie multiplex are. And yes, it's also home to the local Olive Garden.
In the five years since I've left, Roanoke has become a trendy place in its own right. It has really begun to thrive and build an exciting, fun downtown with a wide variety of great locally-owned restaurants. But 20 years ago, when Roanoke had scant few affordable fine dining options, the Olive Garden was a treat.
"[Olive Garden] was one of the fancier places to eat," said my friend Melanie, who grew up in Roanoke.
"That was fancy dinner! It had real napkins! The waitstaff wore ties! It was a huge deal," said another native of Roanoke.
But then, the Olive Garden conversation on my Facebook survey took a turn for the divisive. When a Roanoke photographer described the Valley View location as "occupying space but contributing almost nothing," a former local took umbrage.
"Must have been cool growing up somewhere where you can sh-t on mediocre Italian food because THE MAN told you to like it," the local said.
It seems as Roanoke gains momentum and niche eateries pop up, people for whom chain restaurants were "fancy" bristle at the idea of their tastes suddenly being viewed as unworthy or inauthentic. They feel looked down upon by the foodies flooding in. And the Olive Garden does tend to inspire a certain brand of condescension.
"Kind of irks me that people feel the need to be sh--ty about it because their privilege makes them take it for granted," Miranda Williams, a Roanoke College alumna, told me. "Since I came from such a small place that didn't have an Olive Garden within a 100-mile drive, it's important to remember that while most of us can take that kind of access for granted, a lot of people can't. When I graduated college, my parents wanted me to pick someplace that we would all like, and it was one thing that I knew everyone would find something they liked to eat."
Many Olive Garden fans defend the restaurant's merits because to them, its charm is about more than big servings of pasta; it's about the memories they made while dining there. My friends remembered dinners at the Valley View location for so many occasions: graduations, proms, homecoming dances, field trips, friend dates, parents day at college, milestone birthdays. "Most of our proms and homecomings and special events meant a 'dressy' group dinner there," Melanie told me. "Even as a proud Italian, I actually really like the food and enjoy the restaurant a lot. It wasn't until I went with a group [in] college that I learned not everyone wears cocktail attire to 'The OG.'"
I hadn't made any memories at Olive Garden since a night out my first year of college in 2005, so I decided to venture out to the Kansas City suburb of Olathe to give one a try. I ordered calamari, and it was pretty good! Or at least, it wasn't bad. It was satisfying in that specific way that takes a lot of carbs and butter to achieve. It was bustling with a Saturday night crowd cheering for the Jayhawks, and the people who ate around me were a lot more racially diverse than I usually see at restaurants in mostly-white Lawrence. The food isn't particularly outstanding, though my husband loved the Zuppa Toscana soup. But it's all decent, especially if you enjoy breadsticks, which, come on, who doesn't?
It's true, a lot of my fellow Lawrencians were a bit snobby about this pasta palace. Maybe we're a little threatened; if a town like Roanoke with a beloved Olive Garden can become so fresh and exciting so quickly, how are we going to hang on to the vibe we've nurtured for decades?
Still, being a little pretentious is part of what I love about Lawrence, because it's a part of how we strive to create a local culture that is vibrant, creative, and unexpected in our pocket of the country. Still, we are in Kansas, peak flyover country. Perhaps next time we think ourselves superior to Olive Garden, we should remember how mad it makes us when the coasts consider us inferior.
No one has to like Olive Garden. But people don't love it because they're dull, or they're tacky, or they're uncultured. They love it because it is a part of them, a part of their history, a living monument to big occasions past. "Olive Garden is a machine of memory. You go to Olive Garden because you've always gone there," Eater's Helen Rosner put it. "You bring your children there, and they grow up having always gone there."
Telling someone that the Olive Garden isn't good enough is telling them that their memories aren't good enough. Lawrence and Roanoke are wonderful and special, not just because they have great restaurants and cool concerts and legit museums, but because they are welcoming, beautiful, and alive, whether they have bottomless breadsticks or not.