I ate at Olive Garden, Applebee's, and Chili's to see how going to casual dining restaurants has changed during the pandemic

Chilis pandemic review Chilis pandemic review
The interior of a Chili's.
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  • COVID-19 shutdown restaurant dining rooms starting in March.
  • Now that states are reopening, I wondered what it would be like to eat at familiar chain restaurants.
  • I went out to eat at Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Chili's.
  • While everything looked the same at the surface, there were precautions and reminders everywhere that we're still in the middle of a pandemic.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

There is a comfortable consistency that comes with dining out at popular chain restaurants. The neon lights, massive menus, and endless '80s playlist make them predictable, no matter where you're dining in the country.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appThen COVID-19 thrashed into our lives, upending our expectations of what our lives would be like and ruining our plans for margaritas and nachos with friends.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appNow in summer, states have steadily been opening back up and allowing dining rooms to reopen. In Iowa where I'm from, restaurants have been allowed to serve customers inside since May and there are no occupancy restrictions. That means it's up to local owners and companies to decide whether they want to pack people in or keep customers socially distanced.

Even though my state reopened weeks ago, I've hesitated to jump back into the restaurant scene, despite my infatuation with popcorn shrimp and smothered wings.

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appWill I be safe eating inside? Should I wear a face mask? What are the bathrooms like?

2020欧洲杯足彩外围appBut I've also yearned for the return of dining out, sitting at a table and chatting with my friends.

In this new era of unpredictability, I decided to don a face mask and venture out into the world of dining circa COVID-19 at three of America's most recognizable chain restaurants.

Here's how my experiences went.

The first restaurant I went to was Olive Garden.

Olive Garden Pandemic Review
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Before you're allowed inside, Olive Garden requires hungry customers to add themselves to their local restaurant's waitlist first. I called ahead and told them I was planning on coming in around 8 p.m., but diners can also join the list online.

Olive Garden Review
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The website states that joining the waitlist leads to less "host interaction" and it encouraged customers to wait in their cars until a text message indicated their table was ready.

When I arrived at the restaurant, most people stood outside instead of waiting in their cars. Every other bench was wrapped in bright yellow "caution" tape to encourage social distancing.

Olive Garden Review
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I went on a Saturday and expected a small crowd, but instead, the host outside was telling customers there was a 45-minute wait for a table. I told the host my name and, she told me it would be a short wait because I was on the waitlist.

Olive Garden Review
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After five minutes, my name was called out and I was allowed inside. Before entering, there was a notice to customers and employees stating not to come inside if you're exhibiting signs of COVID-19.

Olive Garden Review
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Normally, I'm used to loud kids and seeing families stacked shoulder-to-shoulder inside the lobby. But it was empty except for a few to-go orders.

Olive Garden Review
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Inside the dining room, tables were arranged so no one was seated next to each other. Family-style tables that typically seated large groups were converted into decorative wine bottle displays.

Olive Garden Review
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For people sitting alone, the bar area was also mostly closed off, allowing only one or two people to sit up at the counter.

Olive Garden Review
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Signs throughout the restaurant reminded diners to stay six-feet apart.

Olive Garden Review
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Sitting down, I felt adequately distanced from other tables. The closest people to me were at least 10 feet away.

Olive Garden Review
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The first thing I noticed was the restaurant replaced its expansive, laminated menu with a double-sided piece of paper instead. While the menu usually lists summer specials and pictures of decadent cream sauce, the offerings were reduced to basic pasta dishes.

Olive Garden Review
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Thankfully, the traditional endless breadsticks and salad were still available. The warm and chewy breadsticks have stayed true at Olive Garden over the years, and even during a pandemic, they still tasted like soft, buttery goodness.

Olive Garden Review
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I ordered the seafood fettuccine alfredo for $18.79. When the server brought my meal, she offered to grate cheese on top. She wore a face mask, along with all of the other employees in the restaurant, which helped me feel safer dining inside.

Olive Garden Review
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Overall the meal was what I expected — consistent. Nothing in Olive Garden's fettuccine alfredo made it particularly stand out, but I also was more than willing to eat it.

Olive Garden Review
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The noodles were slightly overcooked, giving it a softer texture versus the al dente bite I prefer. The shrimp were adequate size, but the scallops were about the size of my fingernail, leaving more to be desired for one of the more expensive dishes on the menu.

To reduce the blandness of the white sauce, I requested salt and pepper, just realizing they weren't on the table. Because of COVID-19, all of the typical condiments were removed, but I was provided shakers. They were not able to provide Tobasco sauce, however.

Olive Garden Review
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Later, when I went to the restroom, one of the stalls was locked with a sign noting, "closed for social distancing."

Olive Garden Review
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At the end of my meal, I was able to pay for my ticket on a tablet that was sanitized. One message on the screen stuck out to me: "It may not be perfect, but we'll get through this together."

Olive Garden Review
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2020欧洲杯足彩外围appWhile it felt odd seeing a chain I dined at since childhood change due to COVID-19, I also appreciated the extra effort to make diners feel more comfortable.

After eating at Olive Garden, my next stop on Sunday night was Applebee's.

Applebee's.
Applebee's.
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The Americana dining chain is known for its '90s den vibes, HD televisions, and being the butt-of-the-joke for every millennial. It was a familiar feeling walking into my nearby Applebee's and asking for a table.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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The large space made it easy to stay away from other diners. Since each state has a different occupancy limit ranging from 25% to no restrictions at all, chain restaurants with more square footage like Applebee's can allow more customers inside.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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Like other restaurants, I was provided a long, single-use paper menu.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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At the bottom of the menu was the restaurant's "commitment" to keeping customers safe while dining out during the pandemic. Some of the listed changes included reduced seating and frequent cleaning and disinfecting.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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Unlike other restaurants, Applebee's decided to remove its tablets blaring Sudoku games and trivia questions. They also removed all condiments, including ketchup, pepper, and salt. It was just me and my glass of water as I waited for my food.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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While waiting for my food, I stopped by the bathroom. Outside of the restroom, a stack of paper towels was provided, where a sign encouraged diners to use one for the door handle. I obliged and appreciated the thought.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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Inside the restroom, a hands-free door opener was also installed to allow people to return to the dining room without touching anything with their freshly washed hands.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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About 15 minutes later, my food arrived. I ordered the four-cheese macaroni and cheese with honey pepper chicken tenders for $13.99.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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There was no fancy Parisian cheese or hand-crafted pasta shells. But it was a delicious meal and one that I ordered in the past. I did ask for some salt and pepper and got a stack of packets.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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The creamy, garlic-flavored white sauce topped with the crispy, sweet chicken tenders is a delightful mix of flavors and textures. Imagine chicken and waffles, but in a 1,400-calorie dinner.

To top off the evening, on the overhead speakers, Miley Cyrus's classic song, "The Climb" played overhead and the table behind me sang along. It was moving in a strange way. I paid for my food the good old fashioned way with a receipt in a tray.

Applebees Pandemic Review
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A few days later, I stopped at Chili's to grab some dinner. Like most other restaurants, COVID-19 hurt its finances, despite an increase in delivery and to-go sales.

Chilis pandemic review
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Around the beginning of the pandemic, Chili's locations that closed their dining rooms only generated 30-35% in revenue in comparison to 2019 sales, .

While I didn't need a reservation to get inside the restaurant, the sidewalk outside was marked in case any groups were waiting for a table and needed to stand six feet apart.

Chilis pandemic review
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Immediately in the lobby, I was greeted by a hand-sanitizing station and a set of guidelines to follow during COVID-19, including a request to perform a "self-screening" prior to entering the restaurant.

Chilis pandemic review
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Benches inside the lobby were also blocked off since people couldn't social distance while sitting on them.

Chilis pandemic review
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Inside the dining room, staff blocked off tables, requiring people to sit at least every other table from each other. Because of the large size of the restaurant, social distancing wasn't a problem.

Chilis pandemic review
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The first noticeable thing was Chili's still provided a gargantuan menu, complete with pictures of sauce-drenched meats and colorful margaritas.

Chilis pandemic review
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Along with a meal, my dining partner and I decided to order an appetizer. We chose the triple dipper for $13.49, where we chose what appetizers to include in a basket. We ordered mango habanero crispers, crispy cheddar bites, and fried pickles.

Chilis pandemic review
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Each bite of fried food was steaming hot, which was the one thing I was missing from my to-go orders. The cheese inside the curds was stretchy, while the fried pickles were so hot, they burned my tongue.

Chilis pandemic review
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Though our silverware wasn't single-use, it came in a packet alongside a napkin.

Chilis pandemic review
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My meal also quickly came out and it was just as warm as the appetizers. I ordered the smokehouse combo with a half-rack of ribs, chicken crispers, roasted street corn, fries, chili-garlic toast, and dill pickle slices for $16.49.

Chilis pandemic review
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Everything went smoothly at the restaurant. My friend and I both wore face masks until our food arrived and we were more than six-feet apart from the next nearest table.

Chilis pandemic review
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I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and felt appreciative of the staff who made sure everything felt comfortable and sanitized. I saw more disinfectant spray bottles around the restaurant than I've ever seen in my entire life.

Chilis pandemic review
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Though dining rooms are starting to reopen, going out to eat still won't be an option for some people and that's okay as we all consider our health risks and the people around us.

Chilis pandemic review
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As businesses endure the economic impact of COVID-19, restaurants nationwide are estimated to lose $240 billion by the end of 2020,

After eating at three chain restaurants, I'll admit, it was eerie going to my childhood spots and seeing them transformed. After all, when was the last time Olive Garden changed its Tuscan-style decor? But I'm also appreciative of the precautions restaurant owners are taking and I'm starting to accept this will be my new normal if I want to go out and eat.

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