A tourist in New York City stops a man on the street and asks, “Can you direct me to the nearest Olive Garden?”
The man replies, “No, but I can direct you to a real Italian restaurant.”
You can never really eat the same meal twice—every time you prepare a certain dish, there will be some slight difference in its quality, whether in how long you take to prepare it or the measurements you use or even the ingredients themselves. Unless you’re meticulous with your cooking methods, chances are that the meal you eat today will be just a little different the next time you prepare it.
It’s easy, then, to imagine how the same is true when it comes to preparing food from different countries around the world. With such a wide range of dishes, and an even wider range of ingredients needed to prepare them, it’s virtually impossible for the average person to accurately recreate many dishes from the comfort of home, particularly when it comes to more “exotic” meals—a person in the U.S. would be hard pressed to find the main ingredient for khash, a traditional Middle Eastern dish made from a cow’s feet and head, or find someone who sells balut, a common Filipino street food prepared by boiling a duck embryo alive and eating it in the eggshell.
Ingredient inaccessibility is a problem many restaurant owners might face when they begin compiling their menus. So are the tastes of their customers, which may differ greatly from the tastes of people in their home country. These two factors are a significant reason that an ethnic dish in the U.S. might be totally unrecognizable when compared to the same dish in its country of origin.
It’s no mystery that you’re more far likely to get an authentic dish at an immigrant-owned restaurant than at a chain restaurant dedicated to selling supposed “ethnic” food. Still, restaurants like Olive Garden and P.F. Chang’s remain ever popular among Americans. What do these establishments do that make them favorites, even in situations where authentic cuisine is an option?
While it’s impossible to compare the menus of chain restaurants to every supposedly authentic restaurant in New York City, it is possible to get an idea of what some broad differences might be between a national chain restaurant and a small, local restaurant.
One chain that’s been popular for serving up Italian-inspired dishes since 1982 is Olive Garden. The Olive Garden menu offers the diner numerous options, including appetizers, sandwiches, classic pasta dishes, desserts, and drinks. A quick glance might have you thinking that it’s the real deal, but don’t be fooled! All it takes is a look at an “authentic” restaurant’s menu to realize that Olive Garden really is an American chain—even if the “authentic” restaurant still isn’t quite the real deal, it’s probably going to be closer in quality than a chain that has to conform to national tastes. That’s certainly the case when you compare Olive Garden to Da Andrea, a small Italian restaurant in Greenwich village that, according to its website, makes pasta on its premises daily and serves traditional dishes from the Emilia Romagna region of Italy.
Your first hint that what you’re getting is a parody of Italian food is the fact that Olive Garden’s menu is almost entirely in English, with a few easily-recognized Italian words sprinkled in with all the skill of a dispassionate high school student with a Level One knowledge of the language. The same might be said of Da Andrea, but at least the names of the dishes are fully Italian and it’s just their descriptions that are written in English. As for the food itself, what’s noticeable is that Olive Garden’s menu contains a number of dishes that one wouldn’t consider “authentic Italian,” such as the Italiano Burger, which is nothing but a hamburger topped with classic Italian staples such as prosciutto and mozzarella, accompanied by parmesan garlic fries. By contrast, you won’t find a many things on Da Andrea’s menu that seem like an “Italian” interpretation of a typical American dish.
Finally, pictures on Da Andrea’s website of the restaurant itself show a plain, brick-wall restaurant with simple decorations, tables, and chairs. By contrast, Olive Garden attempts to combine a diner-style setting with décor reminiscent of a Roman villa, designed, surely, to set the mood.
The two areas where Olive Garden might be considered superior are price and menu variety. Meals at Olive Garden are slightly cheaper than at Da Andrea, and the chain offers several more dishes. However, it’s nothing you wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.
If Olive Garden is far removed from authentic Italian food, then the food that’s offered at P.F. Chang’s China Bistro might as well not even be called Chinese. The differences begin with the very name of the restaurant: P.F. Chang’s China Bistro. Most people, when they think of the word “bistro,” a word that’s French in origin, probably wouldn’t think of a place that serves Chinese food. This alone is a clue that the place is probably heavily Americanized. A visit to their website reveals a home page that, aside from the restaurant’s name and a small bit of Chinese writing on the bottom of the page, would not immediately strike you as belonging to a Chinese restaurant. At the time of this writing, the food and beverages displayed on the home page—heirloom tomato salad, ginger panna cotta, spicy paloma—don’t sound at all like typical Chinese foods. A look at the actual menu reveals a similar situation to Olive Garden: the names of all the dishes are in English, with a few standard and classic names sprinkled in. P.F. Chang’s also has a “seasonal” menu that includes Vietnamese, Korean, and “Chino-Latino” dishes—which are a little strange, seeing as the restaurant is supposed to be Chinese. On the other hand, Szechuan Gourmet, a restaurant on 2nd Avenue, has nothing on its menu that you wouldn’t expect from a Chinese restaurant—in fact, there are even a few dishes that seem even more “exotic” than your average takeout, such as its Bamboo Fungus in Chicken Soup and Duck Tongues. It’s not clear whether those dishes are adaptations to American tastes or if they’re truly authentic, but the latter seems more likely since you’re probably not going to find Bamboo Fungus on many other menus. It’s not certain whether P.F. Chang’s or Szechuan Gourmet has a more affordable menu, as P.F. Chang doesn’t list prices on their site.