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Grand Forks Olive Garden

The mystery of Olive Garden is a recurring topic here at Ron’s View. I wrote about it most recently just before Christmas, discussing a WSJ article about the efforts by national casual-dining chains to upgrade their offerings while maintaining their appeal to a broad demographic. Olive Garden was the primary example, with their president explaining that they “don’t use the word authentic” to describe the Olive Garden experience, preferring “Italian inspired.” I expressed my concern at the end that I was “trapped between demographic groups, condemned never to find my proper home.”

Our last Olive Garden outing was in mid-July, when I solved the problem of how to choose from three OG classics — lasagna, fettucini alfredo, and chicken parmigiana, by having them all, thanks to a menu special called the Tour of Italy. I commented at the time that “putting quality aside for a moment, it’s way too much. And an absurd mix. No side vegetable for one. What was I thinking? How did Gail allow me to do it, and then follow suit?” But I did enjoy the separate items.

Which brings me to last Wednesday’s now-viral review of Olive Garden by Marilyn Hagerty in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald. When I saw a link to it on Facebook, via one of Gail’s cousin’s sons (who has inside knowledge as an OG waitstaff veteran), I instantly clicked on it. In these parts, one doesn’t expect to see a review of Olive Garden or its peers, so I was curious to see what a restaurant reviewer would make of it.

I thought Ms. Hagerty did a good job of explaining its appeal. Here’s a sample.

After a lengthy wait for Olive Garden to open in Grand Forks, the lines were long in February. The novelty is slowly wearing off, but the steady following attests the warm welcome.

My first visit to Olive Garden was during midafternoon, so I could be sure to get in. After a late breakfast, I figured a late lunch would be fashionable.

The place is impressive. It’s fashioned in Tuscan farmhouse style with a welcoming entryway. There is seating for those who are waiting.

[snip]

At length, I asked my server what she would recommend. She suggested chicken Alfredo, and I went with that. Instead of the raspberry lemonade she suggested, I drank water.

She first brought me the familiar Olive Garden salad bowl with crisp greens, peppers, onion rings and yes — several black olives. Along with it came a plate with two long, warm breadsticks.

The chicken Alfredo ($10.95) was warm and comforting on a cold day. The portion was generous. My server was ready with Parmesan cheese.

As I ate, I noticed the vases and planters with permanent flower displays on the ledges. There are several dining areas with arched doorways. And there is a fireplace that adds warmth to the decor.

[snip]

All in all, it is the largest and most beautiful restaurant now operating in Grand Forks. It attracts visitors from out of town as well as people who live here.

Well, you can imagine the wave of snark attacks that ensued, prompting a second wave of spirited defenses. Ms. Hagerty is now a celebrity, and an admirable one at that. It turns out that she retired in the 1970s, is 85 years old, but still writes five columns a week. Thursday, The Village Voice included an interview with her. Yesterday, she appeared on CBS This Morning: Saturday with co-hosts Rebecca Jarvis and James Brown.

Hagerty’s own Grand Forks Herald had a piece Friday on her new-found fame, with follow-up coverage yesterday by publisher, Mike Jacobs. Trying to make sense of why the review elicited such a response, Jacobs concluded that

Marilyn’s modesty stood in sharp contrast to pretension that characterizes lots of critical writing in the United States, not just restaurant reviews. Her “aw shucks” attitude helped, too. So did her age.

Probably, so did her home town, a small city in a state that much of America has ridiculed — until oil made us rich and good government made us famous.

So, it was a kind of perfect storm.

Marilyn went viral, and her fame reflects on the Herald and Grand Forks.

We’re hoping to extend this by sending Marilyn to New York. Haven’t all of us always wondered what it would be like to dine at one of Gotham’s toniest restaurants?

Marilyn’s going to tell us.

There was a time when Gail’s brother lived in the small (really small, on the order of 200 people) town of Grygla in northwest Minnesota, 90 miles east-northeast from Grand Forks. In the summer of 1986, we visited him and his family, flying into Grand Forks, where they picked us up. I have to say, if I lived in Grygla, or any of the hundreds of other small towns in a 90-mile radius, I would find it pretty darn cool to have an Olive Garden open up within reach. A day trip to the city for shopping, a movie, and an Olive Garden dinner — that would be real special. I would spend my days dreaming about that Tour of Italy.

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Categories: Journalism, Restaurants
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