Monday, March 30, 2015

The Chain ...

In the olden days I might have at least pretended that we were going to the Chain Italian Restaurant for anthropological reasons. Log entry No. 1: A server named Chad slides into the open chair at our table and nods his way through our order rather than jotting any notes. Note: Potential friendship? It's not unheard of. One time I drove around town to every grocery store in the city under the guise of critiquing the store samples for a blog post. (Spoiler: So much banana bread.)

But today, in 2015, I'm a big enough person to admit that in a community where it is very cool for restaurants to grow their own ingredients in the parking lot, I've just had a hankering for this junk in all it's fresh-from-the truck mediocrity. I have three words for you: Breadsticks for Infinity. 

"If you want to eat at the (Chain Italian Restaurant) ironically, I'll do that. But I'll be doing it seriously," I told Chuck.  

We spent Friday afternoon pretending that we weren't actually going to eat there. Although, we both knew The Girl would love it. Her second favorite food is noodles, her first favorite is parmesan cheese. This shop has built an enterprise of rearranging these two ingredients in a menu's worth of ways. Once the family was loaded into the Space Shuttle, it's where the car just naturally went. I could tell you that it was just easier than making a decision about somewhere real to go, but this is really where I wanted to go. 

Here's the thing: A long time ago, The Chain Italian Restaurant was my favorite restaurant. At this time, it didn't exist in my hometown, so its accessibility in my young adulthood felt like a bit of urban privilege. I had narrowly escaped attending college further from civilization (Winona) and now I was going to reap the rewards of big city living (bottomless bowl of salad.) I lived in St. Paul for four school years and it never occurred to me to try a St. Paul-based restaurant born of a lifelong St. Paul resident. Not only did we not "buy local," we left the city to do it. My preferred stop was in Roseville, just a gnocchi toss from the Chain Restaurant with Peanuts on the Floor.

I always ordered the same thing: Classic Lasagna and Raspberry Lemonade; I've always followed the same game plan: Fill in every fold of my stomach with breadsticks and salad, then quickly ingest as much lasagna as I can until my stomach threatens to split like a $2 boiled hot dog from a vendor in a strip mall parking lot.

The second-to-last time we ate at the Chain Italian Restaurant, we had one of those aforementioned Chads as a server and his chipper familiarity caused a sort of Morse Code tick formation within Chuck's primary forehead vein. The last time we ate at the Chain Italian Restaurant, we had just found out that we were having a girl-baby and Chuck would have eaten anything anywhere surrounded by a thousand dancing Chads performing scenes from "The Lion King."

I have this theory right now about how chain restaurants are going to enjoy a surge of popularity among millennials, a sort of hipster trend I've predicted to begin soon-ish. Maybe May. It will start with ironic kamikazes during ironic happy hour, but will be nourished by a non-ironic enjoyment of, say, Asian Chili Sweet & Sour Bone-In Wings. Within weeks, everyone at the bar will be shirtless beneath denim vests, have inexplicable Sponge Bob stickers stuck Manson-like to foreheads, fingernails dirty with miso paste. (More on this later.)

On this occasion, the Chain Italian Restaurant felt like a step into an alternate reality. I felt damn-near regal. That they treat you like family is not hyperbole. I went in ahead of my people and snagged a booth in the bar with a view of an important hockey game. I sent a message that there was no waiting and when I dove out of my seat to snag my family when they walked through the door, the host held up his hand and said:

"Is that your kid in the zebra hat? I'll go get them."

I didn't recognize a single face in the joint, which made it sort of feel like maybe we really were in Tuscany. The Girl graffiti'ed the children's menu with breadstick stickers and every three minutes turned toward the TV and used her most surprised voice to say:

"Oh! Hockey!"

I oinked out on breadsticks and salad and got three free refills of Raspberry Lemonade and ate a responsible amount of just-better-than-okay lasagna so that I'd have a meal-sized leftover. In the olden days there used to be this pretense behind the whole thing, this "Oops, I accidentally ordered another round of breadsticks, but I don't think I'll be able to eat them. (Wink. Wink.) Would you mind sticking those in my to-go box?"

Now, it feels like this place will see your breadstick over-order, raise you two extras and give you a special to-go bag with instructions on reheating them in the oven. They're enablers.

"And did it seem like our server was uncommonly handsome? Like, a handsome not usually seen in Duluth?" I asked Chuck on the way home.
"Hm. Not really," he responded.
"He wasn't? He seemed handsome," I said.
"Must've been your bread goggles," he said. 

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