This week, the New York Post ran its annual edition of the "lol, look at the overpriced garbage tourists are buying on New Year's Eve" story, a time-tested genre that every December causes urban sophisticates to guffaw at the willingness of non-New Yorkers to fork over $400 a person to eat at the Olive Garden in Times Square on New Year's Eve, or $799 a person to eat at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, or $1,699 for the "Couple's VIP table" down the street at Ruby Tuesday's.
Many New Yorkers are aghast at these overpriced, packaged New Year's Eve chain-restaurant experiences, and enjoy laughing at the backwoods rubes to whom they are presumably targeted.
But you don't have to be an Olive Garden fan to understand why someone might gladly pay $400 a head for the experience of eating there on New Year's Eve, even if unlimited breadsticks weren't included. (Although, according to DNAInfo, they will be.) You just have to stifle your reflexive snobbery and consider what's being offered.
Try putting yourself in the shoes of a potential Olive Garden New Year's Eve guest. Let's say you're a chiropractor from Des Moines who made a little extra money this year, and you want to spend New Year's Eve doing something really special. You've been watching Dick Clark on TV since you were a kid, and going to New York City to see the ball drop in Times Square has always seemed, to you, like the apex of luxury. You love the bright lights of Times Square, the glitz and bustle of Manhattan, and the collectively ecstatic experience of counting down as a bejeweled ball drops from the sky onto a bunch of awe-struck revelers.
But you've also heard the horror stories. The stories about how adults wear diapers to pee in because there are no public bathrooms in Times Square, about the miserable experience of lining up for 9 hours with a million other people, about how the NYPD will confiscate your booze and you'll be left sober out in the cold.
Your perfect New Year's Eve experience involves taking your wife to New York City and watching the ball drop in Times Square. But you imagine doing it from a warm, hospitable place with good music, lots of food and booze, and clean restrooms that are not an adult diaper. This is exactly what the Olive Garden is offering: a buffet dinner, a DJ, and an open bar with a "limited view" of the ball dropping. (The open bar is the under-appreciated element of all of these parties: at typical Midtown Manhattan drink prices on New Year's Eve, you could probably drink most of your $400 back.)
Sure, $400 per person is a lot of money. But it's not ridiculous for an experience you're going to remember for the rest of your life. People spend considerably more than $400 on "Hamilton" tickets, rooms in fancy hotels on vacation, or front-row NBA seats. And while spending New Years Eve in Times Square might not be the experiential equal of those things for you, Urbane Tastemaker, it is for many people.
Plus, this is New Year's Eve — lots of actual New York City restaurants are charging obscene amounts for their parties, which don't have a prime Times Square location. (Down in Greenwich Village, for example, Carbone—the sophisticate's Olive Garden— is charging $595 a person for its 9 p.m. seating.)
If you're traveling to New York from out of town and you don't have a lot of friends in the city, you don't really have that many choices on New Year's Eve. You can't go to an apartment party. You're probably staying in Midtown, and you don't want to stray too far. If your options are "stand outside for 9 hours in puddles of pee" or "pony up and go somewhere in walking distance," there's an obvious winner.
And the best thing about this whole proposition is: it's the Olive Garden. Sure, you could spend your money at some Midtown restaurant where they would serve you line-caught sushi, or Basque tapas, or some other precious fare. But you don't eat that stuff at home, and you can try more adventurous food on another day, when there's a normal, non-New Year's Eve menu and the prices aren't jacked up. On New Year's Eve, you want to eat something you know you like. It's a night of celebration; you don't want to end it on an empty stomach because it turns out you hate Romanian fusion.
My friend Derek Thompson has written at The Atlantic about the concept of "fluency" — the term psychologists use to describe people's propensity to gravitate toward familiar sensations when they're in heightened emotional states. Fluency explains why you see American tourists lined up at a Starbucks in Rome, or why we fall back on comfort foods when we're sick. It also explains why you might go to New York City, a city with a million amazing restaurants, and choose to eat at a faux-Italian fast-casual chain that's available in the mall back home.
In fact, spending New Year's Eve at the Times Square Olive Garden sounds kind of amazing. Here's how one attendee at last year's Olive Garden party (which cost $350) described the experience to the Huffington Post:
"From the Olive Garden you couldn't see the main stage or the ball drop, but around 11:40 p.m. we were taken through the back door to the Olive Garden and onto the streets in our own gated section where you could see the ball drop and be part of all the action. It was perfect."
So cheer up, Olive Garden ticket-holders. New Yorkers may be laughing at you from their cramped apartment parties on New Year's Eve, but you'll have something they won't have: the chance to get drunk, eat some Zuppa Toscana, and party your ass off in the center of the world.