There is a phenomenon that occurs every so often, and much like Haley’s Comet, when it rolls around you can’t ignore it. I’m talking, of course, about the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl at the Olive Garden.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t love the Olive Garden, I’m not on a first-name basis with the waitstaff, and I don’t want to have ten thousand of its little “authentic Italiano” babies. The Olive Garden is one of those restaurants that you classify as “not bad” but has become enough of a public punching bag that you’re vaguely embarrassed whenever you eat there and are unwilling to tell your friends that you spent Friday night stuffing your face with the Tour of Italy. Unless, of course, your friends are in on the joke, which is precisely what was supposed to happen that fateful evening.
Back in 2004, three friends of mine and I decided to have a Night o’ Regret by hitting up the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl over at the OG before seeing an evening showing of Paparazzi, the smash hit (meaning it earned less than $16 million) thriller starring one of the dudes from Pitch Black and Tom Sizemore, the poor man’s Michael Madsen. (Or maybe Michael Madsen is the poor man’s Tom Sizemore, though I think it’s likelier that they’re the poor version of each other. It ain’t like either of their careers are in top notch form, nowadays.) Yes, we knew that an Olive Garden dinner was sad and yes, we knew that seeing the movie would be even sadder. But hey, sometimes you gotta embrace your inner yokel and get your pasta and Paparazzi on. Don’t judge me.
I showed up at the Olive Garden and awkwardly waited with one of my friends who had already arrived. I say “awkwardly” because lately we had been enjoying each other’s company a little more than usual, and we were teetering precariously along that fine line between “friends” and “more than friends.” But hey, no big deal, right? Our chaperones (er, I mean friends) would show up soon and we’d all be shoulder-deep in perpetual penne.
Then I got a phone call. And he got a phone call. One of our friends had called me and the other called him at around the same time to bail on us. We hung up our phones and stared at each other in silence. Then: “Well, we’re already here and I’m hungry, so…” And so we told the hostess that we would like a table. For two. Just like that our ironic, tongue-in-cheek table for four turned into a shameful, awkward table for two. It was a “non-date” date, and it was at the Olive Garden.
No longer could I shovel forkfuls of greasy noodles down my gullet and mop up the sauce with breadsticks galore. I poked at my food as daintily as I could, taking sensible bites and occasionally dabbing at my mouth with my napkin. My “date” encouraged me to take full advantage of the Never-Ending Pasta celebration and order more food, so I humored him and had Round 2 as he concentrated on slicing sausage links into little bite-sized pieces.
We kept joking about how our friends were losers for missing out on such a wonderful occasion and predicted the level of awesomeness that Paparazzi would reach. Dinner was stressful but pleasant, and when we had our fill of food we drove to the theater and sat next to each other in the dark for ninety minutes, laughing and marveling at how this film even got greenlit in the first place. When the movie was over we walked to the parking lot and talked for a long time about pasta, movies, and Tom Sizemore’s frequent jail stints. Eventually we parted ways The “non-date” date concluded with an awkward wave goodbye and an “I’ll call you later.”
Maybe the sausage and meat sauce acted like a pheromone that evening, or maybe Cole Hauser has some sort of subconscious matchmaking ability. Either way, after that evening the relationship between me and my friend felt different, and soon after the pasta and Paparazzi spectacular we started dating. We’re still together now, and we often look back on the Night o’ Regret with fond memories. (Perhaps we should rename it to something more romantic, like Night o’ Vaguely Embarrassing But Ultimately Sweet Interaction with What Would Soon to Be My Significant Other. I’ll try to think of something less lengthy.)
One day, a year or two after we had begun dating, my boyfriend and I saw a commercial for the Never-Ending Pasta Bowl. We hopped in the car and drove over to the Olive Garden for old time’s sake, figuring the night would be a great homage to that fateful evening where we had our first non-date date. To our surprise, when we arrived at the OG we saw that it had closed down and that they were renovating the space to put in a Super Buffet. (The restaurant is seriously called “Super Buffet. And no, I haven’t eaten there…yet.) In a way, it’s kind of sweet. It’s as if the Olive Garden’s purpose was to stay open just long enough for us to dine there and begin our relationship together.
Or, you know, maybe it closed down because it sucks.
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