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Chain LeaderEditorial Archives2003 — April — Restauratour

Bright Lights, Big Garden
Olive Garden designs a sleek, but not small, prototype for dense urban locales.

Take a photographic tour of Olive Garden

Olive Garden designs a sleek, but not small, prototype for dense urban locales. At 8,700 square feet, the newest Olive Garden in New York City isn’t much smaller than its suburban siblings. In fact, the restaurant is so big that the typical Manhattan restaurant could fit, in its entirety, in Olive Garden’s foyer and waiting area.

It’s not size, but style that citifies the urban Olive Garden. Darker woods and details such as the granite-topped bar displaying the restaurant’s wine collection make the space feel more elegant, as do metal-wrapped blown-glass light fixtures. Smaller dining areas give the restaurant the same intimate feeling as its tiny neighbors. Communal seating in the bar area, unique to the urban Olive Garden, lets customers drink and mingle. Houseplants here and there add a touch of nature to the urban jungle.

Olive Garden hit upon the idea of an urban prototype about two years ago, says Mike Ellis, senior vice president of development at Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants. “We felt that we had an under-served market in urban centers across the country,” Ellis says. Its then-new prototype, the Tuscan Farmhouse, wouldn’t work in urban settings, so Ellis charged Darden’s design team with creating an urban look that didn’t stray too far from the Olive Garden signature.

New York, New York
Because the two-story Olive Garden in Times Square had proven so successful, the chain chose to locate its first urban prototype in New York City. The restaurant is on the corner of 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue in Chelsea, a landmark district.

Olive Garden’s first order of business was working with the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to make sure the exterior did not architecturally offend its surroundings. Most significantly, that meant that the restaurant’s exterior signs had to be incorporated into the facade and not hang from the building.

Even though the space is cavernous, the designers also had to work around plumbing, staircases and mechanical chases. The small dining spaces, for instance, are arranged around such staircases and chases, says Mark Spatz, vice president of design at CRHO Architects, the Tustin, Calif.-based firm that assisted Olive Garden with space planning and architectural interior design. “That’s why the space is cut up,” Spatz says.

That’s also why a hallway leading from the front to the back dining room is lined with booth seating. The space was too small for tables but too big to leave alone, he adds.

In addition, high windows facing the streets let in plenty of light but forced the designers to set ceiling heights higher than they wanted. Arches above a row of booths and beamed ceilings give the illusion of lower ceilings, Spatz says.

Local Motion
So far, the urban Olive Garden is drawing a mix of about 80 percent locals and 20 percent tourists, the chain says. There’s a lot of party business, and a lot of wine drinking, too. Olive Garden would not disclose the food/beverage split, but a spokesman says wine sales in the Chelsea restaurant are “significantly higher” than average.

To cater to New Yorkers’ heightened wine sensibility, the Chelsea unit has a manager’s wine list that offers varietals priced from $68 to $130 per bottle. The location is serving as a test market for the high-priced list.

While Olive Garden management is heartened by the Chelsea location’s success, suburban rather than urban locations remain the chain’s primary growth vehicle. Ellis says that the chain will save the urban prototype for somewhat smaller locations in heavily trafficked areas.

The concept “is more site- than numbers-driven,” Ellis explains. “We’ll take advantage of opportunities as they arise.”

Stuffed Mushrooms with Parmesan, Romano and mozzarella cheeses, clams and herb bread crumbs baked in mushroom caps, $7.50
Pasta e Fagioli: white and red beans, ground beef, tomatoes and pasta in savory broth, $5.25
Cucina Classica
Chicken Parmigiana: Parmesan-breaded chicken breasts, fried and topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese, $15.50
Pasta Ripiena
Cheese Ravioli topped with meat or marinara sauce and melted Italian cheese, $12.95
Tiramisu, $5.25

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