Is the Olive Garden a pick up bar? Is this restaurant chain with a seemingly innocuous name really a meat market for swingers and the sexually adventurous?
On the first day of the year I decided to take the whole family to lunch. Anything they wanted. Except my oldest son had a date, my daughter was embroiled in some boy drama and the twins felt like pulling a Hugh Hefner. (Pajamas all day.) So, even though I didn’t plan it, this meant I got an impromptu rendezvous with my wife; time which is treasured and rare.
We live in a small college town about an hour above New Orleans. While New Orleans has a well-deserved reputation as a food mecca, just about any place you go in Louisiana can serve up some pretty good chow, and hospitality.
So the wife dressed up in some of her new “Christmas” clothes for our lunch date and we set off to find some good food and steal a few moments of time alone.
Except everything was closed.
I’m not a total moron. I knew a lot of places would shut down for New Year’s Day. But, like I said, we live in a college town near New Orleans, which means we are fortunate enough to have plenty of really good locally owned restaurants. Surely one of them would be open, right?
Wrong. Everything was closed.
We were about to give up when finally found something open near the interstate. It was an Olive Garden.
When it comes to the Olive Garden I had some preconceived notions. Call me a snob, but I generally stay away from places that put the word “Endless” in front of their entrees, soups and bread bowls. This was going to be the Walmart of restaurants, with some guy in overalls eating from a bucket of spaghetti as he bragged loudly about how much “Eye-talian” food he could shove in his pie-hole.
I’m not knocking chain restaurants in general, or Olive Garden in particular, but, if you are going to be an Italian restaurant in a place crawling with Italians, can’t you convince ONE of them to work there? Call me a racist if you want, but if you go in a Mexican restaurant aren’t you going to be alarmed if it is operated by Swedes? If you go looking for soul food will you be encouraged if the guy behind the counter is snow white and his nametag says “Biff”? Same thing goes for Asian food. If you go in a restaurant serving it, then you expect there to be at least one person involved who is from that side of the world.
Still, it wasn’t like we had any options. With nary an Italian in sight, we were led to our table, prepared to make the most of it.
I quickly determined there were two kinds of people in the Olive Garden in Hammond, Louisiana, on New Year’s Day. There were hard core consumers on a shopping spree, clutching bags and donning running shoes lest they miss one last opportunity to worship at the altar of commerce. And there was the hung-over; poor souls who formed a line out the door and rumbled toward their tables like zombies. The zombies definitely outnumbered the shoppers. The Olive Garden was teeming with zombies: grunting their food orders, lurching toward the bathroom, twitching this way and that as they growled at nothing.
So, perhaps it was an interesting bunch of people in the Olive Garden that day, but we were still good, chatting about our family and work, with the occasional people watching comment thrown in. We had a glass of wine, and, I’ll confess, the food wasn’t terrible, although the bread bowl was freaking me out.
Then it happened.
I was just glancing around the restaurant when my eyes settled on a woman about two tables over. She was with another woman, who had her back to me. The woman facing me had brown hair, tamed by a blue bow, and big eyes. She was definitely a shopper, not a zombie, although, apparently she was shopping for something else.
She winked at me.
This was no discreet flip of the eyelid. It was emphasized with a wide smile and a tilt of the head. It was not a “Hey cutie” kind of wink. It was a “Hey big boy come and get it” kind of wink.
What the hell?
I was distracted enough that my wife noticed. While I will say nothing negative about this woman’s appearance, I will admit with some relief that she was very confident. In other words, she was no bombshell, thank God, because all I needed was to start 2015 with a brawl at the Olive Garden.
Besides, there had to be some kind of mistake. I was sitting with my wife. Was the winker someone I knew? Did she have something in her eye?
I looked again. She was grinning, staring right at me, and this time she hit me with a “The Olive Garden now has an all-you-can-eat buffet and I’m it” kind of wink.
I was at a loss. Was the sun in her eye? Had she poked herself with a fork while shoveling the Endless Salad in her mouth?
Then a third wink came my way, this one with a little playful and suggestive lift of the shoulders and something with her lips that may or may not have been a kiss.
The wife and I discussed the winker at length as I carefully avoided making any more eye contact.
For a second, my wife considered approaching the woman. I strongly discouraged it. Weird things were happening in the Olive Garden and the only prudent course of action was to take our three boxes of leftovers and get out. The winker stared at us all the way through the room, grinning like a woman not totally in control of her faculties. I kept my eyes straight ahead, but my wife returned the winker’s exaggerated smile with one of her own, all the way through the non-Italian employees crowding around the door.
So, if the first day was any indication, I guess 2015 promises to be interesting. And I guess if the winker wanted to pick someone up at the Olive Garden she had to make do with a zombie, and an endless supply of bread.