LongHouse Day 10

Ten days is and isn’t a long time. But we had another workshop of our feature pieces tonight (of four of them, anyway), and Becca commented on how different they are when compared to when we read them aloud for the first time ten days ago.

It’s true. We’ve been writing and writing and writing in the midst of the busyness of learning about recipe-testing, eating roast pig, and taking tons of photographs. The days focused almost exclusively on writing might be my favorite, though it would be hard to choose. But the freedom to structure those days however we want is calming, and I usually end up involved in some wonderful conversation about food and culture.

Today, Becca, Collin, Sarah, and I compared Olive Garden to Macaroni Grill and the different aesthetics they’re going for. Aren’t chain restaurants interesting? I find them fascinating. They want to be able to promise a uniform experience–food, service, atmosphere–no matter where they are. The menus at Olive Garden and Macaroni Grill often merely gesture at Italian foods (Macaroni Grill has a menu item called buffalo chicken parmesan), and so the question becomes who they’re catering to and why and how.

Chain restaurants are often viewed in their own category, with their own unique set of standards. They’re viewed as catering to not-very-adventurous diners, with food that is “safe.” You know what you’re getting at an Olive Garden or a TGI Friday’s. Is it Michelin star quality? No, and it isn’t trying to be.

We talked about the aspirations of chain restaurants. Sarah and I agreed that Olive Garden is not for us, but Becca countered by saying she loves Sonic. Sarah also loves Sonic. So, what is it about one chain restaurant that’s endearing and another that’s off-putting? I don’t think we have a definitive answer, if there even is one, but I think it has to do with aspiration. Sonic knows what it is–spot for cheap fast food with an array slushies and ridiculous snacks–and it fills that role beautifully. Olive Garden appears to aspire to more. It wants to be a neighborhood Italian bistro, but by its very nature, it can never really reach that goal.

Of course, what do I know? There could be plenty of Olive Gardens out there that are the option for a nice dinner out in a town. But I think Olive Garden sees itself as more than a chain restaurant that offers online ordering, curbside pickup, and an endless soup-salad-breadsticks lunch. But perhaps I’m misreading the whole situation. Perhaps in offering those very services and deals, Olive Garden is indeed embracing its chain-iness. Every chain restaurant markets itself aspirationally–I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a diverse group of hipsters chilling at the bar of Ruby Tuesday or Friday’s, but maybe I’m not looking in the right places.

I don’t hate chain restaurants. I ate at a ton of them growing up and still jones for IHOP pancakes regularly. They fill a niche. Plus, we all agreed that the southwest egg rolls at Chili’s were damn delicious.

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