Gen Z Loves Dressing Up to Go to the Olive Garden, So My Friends & I Tried This Kinda Silly, Totally Fun TikTok Trend (& Loved It)

“When you’re here, you’re family.” At least, that’s what they used to say in Olive Garden TV spots that depicted happy American families gathered around bottomless salad and breadsticks. The slogan may have changed in 2012 (perplexingly to “Go Olive Garden”), but the sentiment hasn’t. While many frantic New Yorkers are scrambling to get a table at Don Angie or I Sodi, my friends and I found ourselves comfortably seated and dressed to the nines late one May evening at the Olive Garden in Times Square. There wasn’t anything to celebrate—we simply wanted a fancy night out on the town. Our inspiration? A bunch of Gen Z-ers on TikTok who are redefining what a fancy night out can be.

Some might turn up their nose at the thought. Going to Olive Garden? While living in one of the most cuisine-rich cities in the world? Of course, I’m not going to make all my meals eggplant parmigiana and Italian rum punches, but it was exciting to challenge what it means to be luxurious in a city that costs so much. Also, as someone who grew up in the suburbs of the south, chain restaurants hold a special place in my heart.

Olive Garden pics.
Dasha Burobina/Getty Images

Chalk it up to the pandemic completely changing our perspective, but I’ve recently noticed Gen Z TikTok users glamorizing parts of their lives for no reason. And it’s so refreshing. After all, post-pandemic, many of us are no longer required to get dressed up for work, rendering formalwear more and more obsolete. By dressing up for what would once have been considered mundane events, we can rediscover the thrill of getting dolled up again. The point is, you can make any event special on your own terms. It’s a freeing attitude, and honestly, it’s just a whole lot of fun.

Take, for instance, TikTok user @notautumnscott, who shared a video of herself and her friend dressed in elegant maxi dresses in the restroom of an Olive Garden. Her caption read, “Getting dressed up fancy just to go to down Olive Garden breadsticks all night>>.”

The comments were filled with users who were inspired by the idea. One person tagged their friend and wrote, “Can we do this?” Another commented, “I wanna do this so so so so so bad.”

Of course, these refined evenings aren’t limited to Olive Garden. TikTokers have been hitting Applebee’s, Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse and the like—all in chic, elevated attire. Another TikTok user, @sherandyx_, filmed herself wearing a cherry red halter neck dress while enjoying some McDonald’s fries with her date. On top of the video, she wrote, “Date idea: dress fancy to eat fast food.” (Genius, no?) 

For our night on the town at Olive Garden, my friends showed up in silk dresses and leather coats, button-ups and blazers. I chose a striped jacket that I belted across the middle and a pair of bright red velvet heeled boots that I rarely wear out (partly because they’re terribly uncomfortable, but beauty is pain after all). After the dinner, we treated Times Square like our runway, snapping loads of photos and trying to get the perfect snap in front of the neon “Olive Garden” sign.

Olive Garden pics.
Dasha Burobina

While there was a bit of silliness in choosing Olive Garden as the setting for our personal Met Gala (our dinner happened just days after the real thing), there was also sincerity. We chose the venue in part due to a friend who was visiting from Virginia. In the past, he and I have discussed how chain restaurants have a special meaning to us. We didn’t grow up surrounded by the tiny, unique joints you might find in a major city. Instead, birthdays, graduations and family gatherings took place at these chains. Heck, even to this day, my grandmother still has her birthday dinner at Red Lobster (and I always look forward to those unbeatable Cheddar Bay Biscuits).

As authors Michael Mitchell and Nick Weiger point out in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune, “[In America], we eat just 1 percent of our meals at fine-dining joints. Chains account for 88 percent of U.S. restaurant options. These diners deserve to eat out without scorn.” For me, chain restaurants are nostalgic. Taco Bell reminds me of the many stops I made there with my grandparents when I was a kid. Waffle House takes me back to the late-night gossip sessions I had with my friends on the weekends. TGI Fridays was one of the first restaurants where my peers and I could pay for ourselves, and we felt like true adults. They’re a place of memory and comfort.

All I’m saying is—this is your sign to hit your local food chain in your Sunday best. (And snap some Instagram pics afterward.)

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Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Joel is the Associate Editor for News & Entertainment and has been reporting on all things pop culture for over 5 years. Before working at PureWow, he served as a Features...