I’ll never forget the first time I went to Olive Garden. Even at six, I knew it was a bad sign that we had arrived at our restaurant by way of a Sports Authority escalator. I had a bag holding my brand new Allen Iverson Answer IV sneakers, and I tugged at dad’s sleeve to ask if I should drop the bag in the car before we sat down for pasta.
“No,” he smiled. “This place is used to having customers eat with their shopping bags at the table.”
The restaurant was accustomed to packing diners in among their shopping bags? Huh. Made me feel like a wine glass in a moving truck. A prickle went up my spine and spread into the various lobes of my young mind. I pictured families twirling forks of linguini, wedged into their chairs between walls of Williams Sonoma and Best Buy plastic. My excitement dwindled.
We were brought to our table (no reservation needed!) and my mood turned around when the waiter said they offered free refills on Shirley Temples. “Keep ’em coming,” I barked before plunging my straw straight to the bottom to mainline the uncut grenadine. Little did I know how badly I would need fluids for the feast that was about to unravel.
I believe it was during the caesar salads that the first rendition of Happy Birthday exploded across the restaurant. I haven’t been to an Olive Garden since I opened my first checking account, but back in this day, OG diners were treated to a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday from some random selection of restaurant staff. I recall five cooks and/or waiters assembling around a table, placing a dry, ignited wedge of carrot cake in front of a gaping child, and barreling through an operatic version of the world’s dumbest song. Neighboring tables joined in. Everyone put down their spoons and bore witness. You could see fathers’ heads churning: is it too late to lie and tell them it’s Jamie’s birthday? That little spoiled bitch will moan about not getting his own carrot cake song the entire ride home. Ugh, I need a new Vicodin guy.
Some big fella with sauce stains on his apron hit the high harmony to bring the song to a close. The entire restaurant clapped. A few losers almost stood up but were waved down by discerning elders, as if to say “act like you’ve been there.” For my part, I was impressed. At that point, my bar for happy birthdays was set at the tepid procedures of family birthdays. I’d never seen staff involved. What a spectacle!
Little did I know that we would see this unfold another seven times before the bill arrived. To the singers’ credit, they never dipped in their enthusiasm. They brought it, every time. The rest of the restaurant started to wear down and lose interest. Fewer heads turned, the clapping waned from celebratory to obligatory. You almost felt bad for the later tables who received the birthday treatment. But that’s the way things go at Olive Garden; it’s a birthday party factory.
Since that fateful day, I’ve seen happy birthday presentations unfold at countless restaurants. I’ve learned that there is no consistency in how they go down. Sometimes, at quieter steak joints in Manhattan, nobody sings—not even the people at the table with the birthday boy/girl. But if you hit the right San Antonio Tex-Mex watering hole on Cinco de Mayo, you might find yourself standing on the bar, extinguishing the candles with your pee as the entire restaurant scream-sings themselves into an orgy. I’ve seen it all.
Here’s the question: what is the right level of enthusiasm with which to sing happy birthday at a restaurant? Let’s say that it’s just a regular restaurant, on a Thursday night, and you’re sitting at the table with the birthday person. Someone tipped off the wait staff to rustle up something special, and here they come with a crème brûlée. It’s a terrible choice for the dessert, given that the insertion of a candle into the middle of the brûlée means that the caramelized surface has already been shattered, thus taking one of life’s greatest small pleasures out of the hands of the patron. Not to mention, it’s one of the worst desserts for sharing. Wet spoons dip in like it’s a communal bowl of porridge in some survivor’s colony. Shame on the restaurant, but here we are, wondering how loudly to sing happy birthday.
On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a silent sign-language conveyance of the song’s lyrics, 10 being the San Antonio scene we painted earlier, I believe a level 6 singalong is the right spot. It’s energetic enough to let the birthday person know you’re happy for them without being so uproarious as to ruin the night for other diners. Other tables need not join in, nor should they feel compelled to clap. Let’s keep the song short and focused. Blow out your candle and eat the dessert. If you need a bigger celebration, do it at home.
Happy birthday to you.