Prom is all about firsts: A first dress with a triple-digit price tag. A first evening out without curfew. And, for most teens, a first grappling with the question that nightly nags a vast majority of American adults: “Where should we eat?”
Prom is a culinary rite of passage, marking high schoolers’ formal induction into independent dining. For most promgoers, the meal enjoyed before the dance is the first restaurant meal ever eaten without parents at the table or chaperones politely hovering nearby. While most car-owning teens have made countless fast-food runs with friends, they’re rarely exposed to the intricacies of sit-down dining—bantering with the server, sizing up daily specials’ potential and silently calculating the total bill before ordering—until prom night.
“We always go to the mall,” says Jake Hill, a senior at A.C. Reynolds High, when asked about his typical eating-out habits. “But I think for prom we’re going to either Grove Park Inn or Flat Rock Grille.”
Heartbreaking as it may be for area restaurateurs, most teens’ culinary fantasies don’t revolve around locally grown food or quirkily brilliant menus. Discussions with dozens of prom-bound teens revealed they gravitate toward eateries that promise easily digestible glamour—or, in the case of perhaps the most popular prom-dining destination, an affordable approximation of it.
“We are going to Olive Garden,” announces A.C. Reynolds senior Kara Mugrage.
The predictability of upscale casual chains and their unique ability to winnow restaurant-going down to its most basic elements has made many of the franchises that hug Tunnel Road favorites with promgoers. But Olive Garden’s reputation with teens is off the charts. Even teens who aren’t planning to eat there mention it wistfully.
Asked what he planned to order on prom night, Hill offers, “Probably spaghetti if we went to Olive Garden. I really like it there; it’s always been good and it has a good atmosphere.”
The top brass at Olive Garden is well aware of the phenomenon, although a spokeswoman reports the restaurant doesn’t keep any official count of teens in tuxes.
“We don’t have any stats or numbers,” Mara Frazier says. “But we do know it’s a popular location for events like these. It’s great to see people coming to celebrate with us.”
Sticking to the corporate line, Frazier says she attributes Olive Garden’s overwhelming appeal to the restaurant’s reputation for customer care.
“I think people feel welcome. They feel special,” she theorizes. “They know they’re going to get great service.”
More likely, they know they’re going to get a table. Mugrage says it’s Olive Garden’s reservations policy that’s made it the top choice of nearly all her classmates. Teens have a tendency to travel in packs, and Olive Garden is one of the few restaurants willing to accommodate them. Mugrage and her friends have asked Olive Garden to set aside a table for 20—a number that could still grow if Mugrage finds a date.
Olive Garden also gets points from teens for a reason that would be familiar to 1950s readers of Seventeen: Its menu features foods that won’t stick in the teeth, stain shirts or force eaters into awkward and embarrassing culinary contortions. Diners at Olive Garden don’t have to wrestle with tricky foreign words or wonder what’s in something like sweetbreads.
“We want strictly grilled and compact,” says Mugrage, who’s planning on having the Venetian apricot chicken.
And while foodies may decry franchises like Olive Garden for wringing all the spontaneity out of dining, teens apparently take comfort in the regimentation of the OG experience. Endless breadsticks and free salad mean promgoers get a multi-course meal at a single plate price, served at a less-than-leisurely pace that’s well suited to youthful attention spans. Lest these sound like the cynical grumblings of an uncool adult, be assured this theory rightly belongs to Mugrage.
“Since we’re all school kids, we’re all used to 45-minute lunch periods,” she explains.
Among promgoers who prioritize elegance over efficiency, the Grove Park Inn remains perhaps the Western North Carolina destination.
“Promgoers have been joining us to eat for decades,” says Chad Crowley, general manager of the resort’s Blue Ridge Dining Room. “We’re able to be a real part of people’s lives in a way they’ll never forget.”
Crowley says many former high-school sweethearts who celebrated their prom at one of the Grove Park’s restaurants will return years later as a married couple to relive their date there.
All of which sounds lovely. But what about the poor servers forced to contend with a group of unruly teens who can’t plump up their checks with alcohol? Not a problem, Crowley claims.
“My experience is that the servers really enjoy it,” Crowley says. “The kids are very well behaved. Anybody with a little maturity under their belt can appreciate this setting.”
But Crowley says nobody enjoys the evening more than the resort’s guests, who get swept up in the teens’ one-night-only stabs at sophistication.
“There was an elderly couple dining with us last year, probably in their 70s,” Crowley recalls. “And they pulled the manager aside and told him how much they were just enjoying watching the kids.”