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Olive Garden: Undeserved Reputation?

This is one of those threads I know starting a lot of folks are going to hurl nasty things my way (lol), but bring it on! :)

I've avoided the Olive Garden like the plague forever. Why? Chefs on television and foodie forums. I've always heard the same thing. "An Italian restaurant chain that says Americans can't handle garlic. Insane!"

I remember an episode of Simply Ming where he had a guest chef on and they talked about when they were young and just got out of culinary school, and this chain was starting, Olive Garden and they almost went there until they heard about a no-garlic and very very little garlic rule. Ming even said while nudging his buddy with an elbow "We dodged that bullet, didn't we?" And they both chuckled and went "whew!"

And I've heard similiar things here and elsewhere. Then, lately, I've heard from some relatives and a friend that it's pretty good. Well, I figured bad palettes they must have. And then I realized I was making THAT ultimate mistake. Not trying it out and making my own decision.

So I had lunch there yesterday with my brother and .... I enjoyed it! That's right. It was quite good. More over, the so called "vanilla-ing" and "down playing" of garlic and such. Uh-uh. Absolutely the opposite!

Had an appetizer that was basically a crostini made of grilled flatbread with cheese, diced tomatoes, basil and garlic. Plenty of garlic. Yum.

Then did the soup and salad and breadsticks deal. The breadsticks were loaded with garlic. The first soup had garlic in it. The salad had whole (deseeded and devaned) Anaheim green chiles in it. The second bowl of soup was incredibly hot. My brother thought it was in the sausage, I said nope it's the actual broth. Turned out to be *lots* of ground red pepper flakes.

And all of it was very good. Too good; we both left there having feeling a tad bloated and over-eating. So ....

All of this Olive Garden sucks because no garlic, no spice, taking it all down? Either they've radically changed their menu and cooking or ... well, I'm glad I used my head (and stomach) and tried it out for myself instead of continuing my avoidance of it because of all I've heard from chefs and foodies. Again, first time there and they hit you in the face with it all. So, did they change things and bring it up to real tastes? Or for some reason have I been listening to a bunch of bull all this time? Or, do some of you still think -- from hearing things or from your experience -- that OG sucks?

All I know is I'll go back to it again for sure.

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  1. I ate there a number of times and found it to be very bland and generic, as did those that I have dined there with. However, it has been at least ten years since I have last been and they may very well have changed.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Sean

      Totally agree. OG's food is 'safe'; no bold flavors. Just north of totally bland to appeal to the masses without offending them.

    2. I think OG deserves its bad reputation, it just isnt very good. To go to OG, and to expect good Italina food, is like going to Pizza Hut expecting a good pizza, or McDonalds expecting a great hamburger, it just isnt going to happen.

      With the above said, OG, like all chains have their place, a food option off an interstate exit, or a quick meal when stuck at the mall.

      1 Reply
      1. re: swsidejim

        Agreed. Here in Philly if I want a "real Italian meal" there's South Philly and a lots of good places in Center City too. All "authentic". Since this was my brother and I running erands at various shopping centers in the Northeast (about 16-20 miles from Center City and South Philly) we just wanted a bite and said "let's try this out".

        I *was* almost expecting bland, tasteless food. Shocked it was fresh and often spicy. Nope it's not a place I would take a date or throw a party. Hell no. But was it tasty? Yep. I'd go back again.

      2. Are anaheim chiles the same as pepperocinis, because that's what they have always had in their salads.

        I don't mind Olive Garden and I'll go there with friends or coworkers, but I can't say I ever throw out the idea of going there. It's fine because it's easy, but I usually find there are much better options out there.

        1 Reply
        1. re: pollymerase

          Anaheim's are quite large(6"+ long) while pepperocinis are short squat and slightly hotter peppers.

          I haven't eaten at a Olive Garden for years, but it used to be quite popular place for lunch when I worked in area where there was a OG. My default order at OG was either a salad for lunch, or chick' marsala or piccata for dinner.

          The food isn't bad, but it isn't as good as a non-chain establishment, but it would seem that most Americans can't make that distinction. To each their own.

        2. The original comment has been removed
          1. OG gets catches a lot of flak in major cities like NYC/Boston (and elsewhere I'm sure - I'm just speaking from personal experience) where there is a large contingent of independent italian restaurants that are much better, and not overly expensive. For instance there are a half dozen little hole in the wall italian joints within a mile of our apartment that are the same price as OG, but infinitely better quality.

            For me it's not a 'chains are inferior' attitude, it's just that I've got access to better options. That said, I don't doubt that there are places where good, inexpensive italian food is scarce - and I think OG gets the job done in those circumstances, I just can't speak from personal experience.

            11 Replies
            1. re: Spends Rent on Food

              An OG opened in my hometown in central PA where there are many mom & pop Italian American restos. I live in the South, where there are less of the mom & pop places and many, many chains. I was shocked that the OG was actually doing well back home. I attribute it to there being very few chain establishmentsthere and the locals not appreciating what they have in their own back yard.

              Here in the south, I just don't eat Italian here. I wait 'til I go back north and then I binge! I wouldn't go to OG for many reasons already mentioned including that I don't want to give my $$$ to faceless corporations when mom & pop generally have better food and need my $$$ more.

              1. re: lynnlato

                I can never understand why national pizza chains make it in New York City or upstate New York. The best pizza I ever had was in a mom and pop place in Oswego, New York.

                1. re: James Cristinian

                  Exactly. I guess it's just a matter of not appreciating what's right in front of your face. Sometimes it takes moving away to realize how good ya had it. :-)

                  1. re: lynnlato

                    There's a KFC next door to Roscoe's House of Chicken & Waffles in Pasadena, and they both do land-office business. Across the street and down a bit, nestled on the edge of a major barrio and alongside some No Hablo Ingles taquerias is a Taco Bell, and it's not going broke either. Not sure I understand any of it...

                  2. re: James Cristinian

                    I'm from Oswego. Which "mom & pop" place are you talking about?

                    1. re: jabber811

                      I wish I could tell you, but I can't. It was 1983ish, so I don't know the name, but it was downtown, it seems to me it was on a courthouse square, if you have them up there. A buddy of mine and I took my Texas non-salted road used car to sell to my sister-in-law in Rochester. I remember ordering my go to favorite pizza, just cheese, and my friend, who did not like pizza, said it was wonderful, to me, the best. We also had a great steak dinner at a small place, dare I say mom and pop, in Niagara Falls, NY, very reasonably priced, I'm guessing 6 or 7 bucks, before crossing over to the Canadian side, and resuming our journey west, Rochester, really West Webster, Oswego, Syracuse, a flight to NYC for a few days stay, and then back to Houston. On my many visits to Rochester, I also had great pizza, it seemed as though it was Captain Cooks or something along those lines, ring a bell? My in laws also treated me to the worst Mexican food I have ever had, Chi Chi's, a place getting some love on the chains board recently. Mexican food from Wisconsin? No. A place I loved in Rochester was Don and Bob's, great burgers and sausage. Have you heard of them?

                      1. re: James Cristinian

                        You're bringing back memories! I graduated from UR more than 50 (gulp!) years ago, and I remember the outstanding hamburgers and sausage sandwiches at Don & Bob's. That was our go-to place for a great snack when studying late for an exam. Is Don & Bob's still there...and is it still wonderful?

                        1. re: josephnl

                          I heard from a native Rochesterian that Don & Bob's closed a few years ago. He raved about their 'white hots'

                          1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                            Yep...their sausage and pepper sandwiches were memorable (at least in my mind's eye). Indeed, my mouth is watering just thinking about them. D&B's was open pretty late at night, and was very popular for an after-studying snack...oh, and to be young again and not know what heartburn was!

                        2. re: James Cristinian

                          I think it may have Godfather's Pizza. Been closed for a long, long time.

                          1. re: jabber811

                            Not Godfather's at all. We had them down here, and when we would order one at work we called them sedatives, because an hour after eating everyone was ready for a nap.