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Olive Garden Return

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

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From time to time here at Ron’s View, I ask, “Why do people eat at Olive Garden?” With so many good Italian restaurants around, what is its appeal? I ask this question sincerely, and with affection, an affection shared by one-time Wall Street Journal food columnist Raymond Sokolov, who four years ago wrote a great piece comparing Olive Garden to famed Chicago Italian restaurant Spiaggia. I followed up at the time with my first Olive Garden post, marveling at their Culinary Institute of Tuscany, where chefs and managers learn the trade. And don’t forget Marilyn Hagerty’s classic review of Olive Garden last March in North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald. (See my discussion here.)

It has been a year and a half since we undertook our last Olive Garden research. On that outing, Gail and I both ordered the Tour of Italy, OG’s over-the-top entree option for those who want it all. As I wrote at the time,

The Tour of Italy is not a coherent meal. It’s really three meals in one. Are you thinking of that old standby, the chicken parm? Or maybe lasagna? Wait, I know. Fettucini alfredo. Well, think no more. You can have it all. Yup, on your tour you will have a piece of chicken parm, a block of lasagna, and some fettucini alfredo. I can never choose, and now I didn’t have to.

We were not happy. I blame myself as much as OG. There’s no way this greedy selection can work out. I committed myself to choosing a simpler meal the next time.

Last Saturday, the next time arrived. It was Jessica’s birthday. We needed to select a restaurant in the northern suburbs, accessible to all nine celebrants and pleasing to a wide variety of tastes. Olive Garden to the rescue.

One thing about OG: they don’t take reservations. We couldn’t go too early, because we had to wait for Bryan to get over to the downtown ferry terminal from Bremerton, then up to Lynnwood. We set 6:30 as dinner time.

Another thing about OG: if you go on a Saturday night at 6:30, you’ll be at the hottest spot in town. In case you’re wondering where everyone is, wonder no longer. Just head over to your closest OG. They’re there.

What a scene! Dozens of people sitting, standing, waiting, wandering around with their electronic buzzers waiting to be buzzed. Stand out of the way of the woman exiting from the ladies’ room and you’ll be knocked over by one of the team of OG hosts ushering a party to their table. If you’re a party of nine, bring some entertainment, especially if they think you’re a party of seven and call you prematurely, only to leave you waiting another half hour once their mistake is brought to their attention. At 7:20, we were led to our seats.

A signature of Olive Garden is their unlimited breadsticks and salad. To quote from the menu, “Garden-Fresh Salad: Our famous house salad, tossed with our signature Italian dressing. (Unlimited refills!)” You can order the salad a la carte, or get it for free if you order an entree. Five minutes after we sat, a party of 12 took the table parallel to ours. While we were still examining the menus, their breadsticks and salad arrived. We wouldn’t see ours for another 20 minutes. Drink orders first. Drinks. Long delay. Food order, after which our servers knew how many salad eaters there were amongst us. Then breadsticks and salad. What did we do wrong? Can one ask for sticks and salad on being seated?

We were served by a duo. The model of efficiency, I thought at first, but not when they are alternately taking care of other, small-group tables, so that whenever one is free, the other is busy. After the drinks came, I wondered if we would ever order. Finally, the guy said he’d start us. Then the woman, a charming, beautifully accented Brazilian, joined him to finish taking our order. A few minutes later, they emerged with a flourish to put down three breadstick baskets and three salad bowls from which we served ourselves.

It was pushing 8:00 by now. I happily ate the sticks and salad. Was this a reflection of their high quality or my hunger? Hard to know. I did take three helpings of salad. Iceberg lettuce, red onion, olives, some hot peppers, parmesan. What’s not to like? Do I get better salad at home? Of course. But it was tasty.

In selecting my entree, I decided to restrict myself to the menu section called “Cucina Classica (Classic Recipes).” Cute, that. And what’s more classic than Spaghetti & Meatballs or Chicken Parmigiana? The “Leggeri (Lighter Fare)” section might have served me well, with temptations like Venetian Apricot Chicken. Or the “Carne (Beef & Pork)” section, with Braised Beef & Tortelloni, or Parmesan Crusted Bistecca. I would have enjoyed sampling that bistecca: “Grilled 8 oz center cut sirloin topped with parmesan-herb breading, baked golden brown. Served with garlic parmesan mashed potatoes and asparagus drizzled with balsamic glaze.” But I stuck with the classics, choosing the chicken parm.

How was it? This is the Olive Garden mystery. I’ve had better. But it was an honest and decent effort, thoroughly enjoyable. Plus, even if I’ve had better, not at places with such a menu selection. I could eat there every night for a month and find something different to enjoy each night. With sticks, salad, and parm, I was full and content. So full that dessert was unimaginable.

This was a birthday party, though. Dessert had to be ordered. One option is the “Dolcini: Piccoli Dolci, ‘little dessert treats’, layered with cake, mousse, pastry creams and berries. Choose from: Chocolate Mousse, Limoncello Mousse, Strawberry & White Chocolate, Amaretto Tiramisu, Dark Chocolate Caramel Cream.” I wasn’t paying attention when several in our party ordered a selection of these. Gail ordered the “Zeppoli: Soft, traditional Italian doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar, served with chocolate sauce for dipping.”

Yet another thing about OG: it’s here where I developed my law about birthdays and restaurant quality. Many years ago, when Jessica was a teenager, we took her and a group of friends to this very same OG for her birthday party. Dessert came along with eight OG servers, who lined up and sang happy birthday. My law: the quality of a restaurant is inversely proportional to the number of servers who sing happy birthday to you.

If the law still holds, this is good news for Olive Garden. This time around, years later, our Brazilian server didn’t even bother coming over to help out. We had just our lone male server, who placed one of the dolcini in front of Jessica with a lit candle. He stood, but didn’t sing. Tamara took him to task for it, to which he responded that he didn’t want to get in the way, waiting to see what we wanted to do. We had gone from eight singers to a reluctant one. According to my law, Olive Garden has risen high up the quality scale.

Oh, dessert itself. Gail’s zeppoli were first rate. I didn’t try the dolcini.

It was well past 9:00 now. The crowds had moved on to wherever Lynnwood crowds move on to on a Saturday night. Olive Garden was peaceful. I’ve learned yet another Olive Garden truth. Want to eat there on a Saturday night? Arrive at 9:00.

What can I say? I love the place. We may wait another year and a half before our next research outing. We don’t exactly lack closer alternatives. Why drive 15 miles when just 4 miles away is Tom Douglas’s Cuoco, a superior restaurant about which I wrote last month.

But Olive Garden has an irresistible charm, the explanation of which continues to elude me. We’ll continue our research until I figure it out.

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