Thank you for joining me tonight. Although, I must confess, I’m not really sure how we ended up here. With all the fine restaurants in the city, all the chefs doing important culinary work, why are we dining at the Olive Garden? Yet, here we are, along with all the markings of our experience: the bottomless bowl of salad, the never-ending breadsticks, and an allegedly familial wait staff who nevertheless must be identified with nametags. It seems these are the signs of our times.

But should they be? Should journalists of my ilk— oh, hello, Gregory. Good to see you again. Yes, I’d like a Diet Coke, and if we could start off with the spinach-artichoke dip, that would be great. Should journalists of my ilk be eating in restaurants like this? Restaurants that may be famous, but famous for what, exactly?

Some argue that the Olive Garden brings excitement to landlocked Americans by offering them a taste of the old country. Others say the restaurant relies on diversionary tactics like free appetizers to conceal culinary monstrosities like the Four-Cheese Ravioli— ooh, Gregory? Could we get an order of the Four-Cheese Ravioli? Better make it two. And you can put the dip there. We’ll split it. Thanks. How we doing on those sticks? OK.

I know. I know. You’re sitting across from me at this somewhat sticky Formica table thinking, “Is this a dream? And if so will it end?” I’m sure the last thing you expected when you joined me tonight was to find yourself back here, confronted by watery lasagna masquerading as cuisine— Gregory. Two lasagnas, please —but here we are. The spinach-and-artichoke dip is already congealing in sickening tones of green and yellow, our meal is on its way out, and, for some reason, there’s still an inexplicable lack of breadsticks. Gregory. Seriously. Some breadsticks, please.

But please don’t bail on me yet, my long-suffering dinner companion. Coming up later in the hour, we’ll have some quality dining. I made dessert reservations for us at Babbo. Once we finish these pathetic yet oddly mandatory victuals, we can treat ourselves to a meal befitting people of our caliber. No more mass-produced pseudosustenance, prepackaged for mass consumption. Do you mind if I finish the dip? Thanks.

And here come our breadsticks, not a moment too soon. Look at them. Liberal amounts of oil and excessive amounts of salt on an otherwise unremarkable oblong piece of bleached flour. Somewhat tellingly, corporate America’s conception of Italia resembles a Twinkie more than something Mama used to make. See, what I like to do is order a second basket as soon as they bring out the meal. That way there’s no downtime between baskets.

Uh-oh. I can see that look in your eye. You’re thinking, “It’s bad enough we have to actually eat here, but do we have to keep talking about it?” I hear you, and that’s an interesting question. To answer it, I’ve asked three people to join us tonight. If you could just scooch over a bit. That’s it. Great. Starting to my left: Fransois Jordan, editor in chief of Fine Dining. Next we have famed psychologist Dr. Bertram Rheingold, author of Doth Protest Too Much. And, finally, as always, we’re joined by our waiter, Gregory. I see Gregory has brought the ravioli, lasagna, and extra breadsticks. Perfect.

Dr. Rheingold, let me start with you. Why on earth will I be putting any of this in my mouth? More specifically, what talented newsman would opt, repeatedly, to consume things of limited or no value? And, as a follow-up, if that newsman did so while protesting loudly enough do you think those watching would be unable to tell how much he was actually enjoying it?

Just a second, Doctor. I see my guest is leaving. Wait. Where are you going? It’s this restaurant, isn’t it? I’m sorry. You don’t think I actually want to be here, do you?

Fine. Go then. Larry King’s stopping by later, anyway. And he’s bringing Hilary Duff.