Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Olive Garden

I know it may not be exciting to you, my sophisticated and gourmand readership, but the other day I had the chance to eat at the Olive Garden, a restaurant that didn't even muster a glance from me before the opportunity arose. So I was in an adventurous mood. How bad could I-talian food be?
How bad could all-you-can eat soup and salad be?
Well, you may want to make yourselves comfortable first.
Let me put it this way: If I were Italy, I'd be declaring war on the United States, or at the very least, recalling my ambassador.
Let me begin by saying that I find the culture of terrible chain food in the US absolutely fascinating.
Having partaken of food at Applebee's, whose distinguishing trait is that they apparently use the entire contents of the Dead Sea in every dish they serve, I promptly realized that the Olive Garden was kind of like the I-talian version of Applebee's.
I'm not a rube, so I know full well that within the chain restaurant world there are peaks and valleys and abysmal holes of culinary despair. I happen to love Ihop for breakfast. So sue me. Popeye's fried Chicken, yum. Haven't been to a Denny's lately, but how bad could that be? In the fancy end of the spectrum, I've been to Houston's and it's pretty good. The kind of food that's a guilty pleasure to eat.
However, this fake Italian affront, belongs, together with Applebee's, in the abysmal hole of culinary despair category.
I really do not know where to begin to assess what has laid waste to the perfectly wonderful, healthy, inspired, and not too complicated genius that is Italian food, to the human art of cooking and to the human pleasure of eating. The affronts of Olive Garden are legend.
The decor is Tuscan generic, a cross between a fancy new hospital and a corporate office where a color consultant surely suggested that beige and earth tones may help soothe frayed nerves. The place is the size of a Best Buy. There is plenty of space, but about as much warmth as you find in a car dealership in Omaha. The scale is intended, I assume, to make you feel right at home in generic, scare-the-shit-out-of-me America.
There was a huge empty table when we arrived, but the hostess decided to let us salivate for more than 20 minutes before bestowing it on us, no doubt corporate policy to make us hungrier.
Somebody ordered breadsticks with Alfredo sauce for starters. What arrived were baskets with warm, artificial-garlic-infused full sized mini baguettes, roughly 20 times the size of an actual Italian breadstick. This was no breadstick. This was bread. The Alfredo sauce was the exact consistency of industrial grade Ranch dressing, congealing crust included. Goop with Guar Gum, seasoned with the entire contents of King Solomon's Salt Mines.
This didn't bode well. I perused the menu, with luscious photos of food and thanks to the fitness obsession of Mike Bloomberg, bless our mayor, calorie counts, which were really helpful to dismiss everything above 600 calories. I settled on the meat lasagna (598) and hoped for the best.
Suddenly, our waiter brought to the table four humongous salad bowls (the famed free salad). The veggies were pale and over refrigerated, but the I-talian dressing was the most briny, overpowering, pucker and heartburn inducing glop I've ever had (and I kinda like cheapo I-talian dressing). Impossible to eat.
My lasagna seemed Lilliputian compared to everything else so far, but I seemed Lilliputian compared to the size of the soda glasses and the salad bowls. In fact, it was basically a bigger portion of the kind of pasta you get on Delta Airlines.
I'm never insulted by the pasta on Delta Airlines (because the other shit is worse). But I am insulted by the Olive Garden. I'm insulted by the gall of whoever owns it thinking you can fool people into eating such terrible food. By even calling it food. And the worst thing about it, which is true of Appleby's as well, is that it stops short of inedible, and thus people eat it. People demonize McDonald's and such, but they should take a look at this crap. It's just as bad if not worse.
In the end, it ain't that cheap either. The all you can eat bullshit is a ploy to make you spend more.
It was a bunch of us and some people had wine (perish the thought), but I paid $22 for crappy food, no matter how much of it.
I think it is quite ungenerous and cynical to serve such terrible food in such huge portions. It is unconscionable and disrespectful of people; it treats food like cattle feed and people like cattle.
Pure evil is what it is.


  1. Yes, Olive Garden is pretty bad. I also agree with you on Applebee's. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's "pure evil".

    (I did like your hyperbolic metaphor about Applebee's food and the Dead Sea.)

    Evil would be when roving squads of Olive Garden thugs roam the streets and break into homes to forcibly drag you to the big free salad bowl and those boring breadsticks.

    For more, much more, on the endlessly fascinating diss-cussion of chain restaurants, visit and its Chains Forum.


  2. "Haven't been to a Denny's lately, but how bad could that be?"

    True scene from Denny's:

    Vegetarian friend, to waiter:

    "Does the cream of broccoli soup have a meat base?"

    Waiter: "I don't think so, it comes in a powder."

  3. Very funny and accurate post. I enjoyed reading this post which I found by the link given by David Lida.

  4. Barry: and that's all she wrote.
    You really cracked me up.