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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. 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.

              2. granted there are better italian options out there, but OG does have some very nice dishes. While I do not go to OG on a regular basis (there's only 1 in our area and it's always jammed), I do not avoid it if going out with friends or family who are more "into" chains that I am. The minestrone soup I had last time I went was very tasty. My dh enjoys the endless salad very much. He could eat salad all day long, lol.

                7 Replies
                1. re: jujuthomas

                  I would have never used "bland" to describe OG's non-red-sauce offerings. Rather, I think they tend to throw in the kitchen sink on their chicken and fish/seafood entrees regarding the amount of stuff they manage to throw together on one plate. I'd guess that's to make sure diners won't realize there's no taste in the prepackaged industrial chicken or fish. The recipes tend to overpower the ingredients, which is just the opposite in Italy where the quality of the ingredients themselves usually make the meal. I do find the OG red sauce to be bland, however.

                  For me it comes down to the fact that with any of the red sauce dishes (and this is true for most indies as well), I can do it much better and cheaper at home, even when I'm using a far superior dry pasta. For non-red-sauce dishes, I want the food fresh and tasty, organic where possible or at least free range On the occasions where I do eat flesh, I need it to taste great. OG doesn't offer that.

                  When I go there, I will pig out on the salad bar and then have the cheapest thing on the menu. And I'll skip the breadsticks (uninteresting to me) to cram in even more salad.

                  I'll give OG this - if you like salad, the place is a bonanza.

                  1. re: Panini Guy

                    Olive Garden has a salad bar? I thought that they just had the standard pre-mixed salad in the bowl that's dumped on the table.

                    1. re: ElsieDee

                      I think PaniniGuy has been chugging the house chianti -- Ive never been to an Olive Garden that had a salad bar. If one did, I'd be back a lot more often!

                      1. re: Cheflambo

                        He didn't say they have a salad bar, he just said (or implied) that he likes their salad, and I agree with him. It's a bastard blend of Mediterranean and Middle-American, but that's okay by me. I like the herbs in their dressing, I like that there's a melange of greens in there, and I even like the damn breadsticks. Would I go there just to get the salad? No, but I was working for a while in a place stuck in Mid-Chainsville, and that's where our bunch went to lunch almost every day...and I almost always got the salad, because it was cheap and edible.

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          "When I go there, I will pig out on the salad bar".

                          He didn't? Color me confused! ;)

                          1. re: invinotheresverde

                            You want to parse "pig out" while you're at it?

                            Unlimited f'n salad, ok? Not a bar. Feel better now?


                2. Why is it so cool to knock Olive Garden as if it's the paragon of drek? It's not fabulous but it isn't horrible either. One hundred percent, full-blooded, second generation Italian here. I grew up on a daily diet of good, home-cooked-from-scratch, Southern Italian cuisine. I've traveled extensively in Italy. And I like Olive Garden. Oh the horror. The lasagna is pretty decent. The minestrone goes down easy. Maybe I've been lucky but the pasta has always been al dente - a major pet peeve of mine so I pay particular attention. The chicken parm, on the two occasions I ordered it, was surprisingly juicy, not over sauced. Okay, the salad has that "bagged" taste - quelle surprise. The shrimp with risotto were rubbery and the stuffed mushrooms were soggy but overall the meals I've had there have been fair value for the price especially if you stick to the basics. I've had much worse Italian food at "authentic" joints at triple the price. I say - lighten up - it's a chain. The worst thing about Olive Garden for me is the sound level. All that damn Happy Birthday singing with accompanying hand clapping echoing off the ceramic tile. If they knocked that off I'd likely eat there more often. But I have that gripe about a lot of family restaurants.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: boppiecat

                    Great response, and I fully agree. If one is on a budget it is especially perfect for them because a family run Italian restaurant charges much more. Its especially great for families. Yes, I've had better as well, but I have always enjoyed myself when we go there. Now if they were charging an extra $10. per plate it would be another story.

                    1. re: DishDelish

                      "... a family run Italian restaurant charges much more.."

                      Not necessarily. Family-run restaurants can not be lumped into any single classification like that. Some are very expensive, luxury places, and others sever truly homemade dishes for even less than OG (although they're probably more common in the North East)

                      1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                        OK but not in Alaska. When I think of the lower 48 though, I am sure you are correct.

                  2. Well at least they supposedly have attractive waitresses and hostesses.

                    1. My first experience at OG was in Lubbock, TX. I'd never been to one prior and couldn't convince my newlywed wife that another ethnic choice would be better since we were in TX. It was a fun, inexpensive, meal. The server really was attentive and I didn't mind those never ending breadstix. A few years later, an OG opened up the peninsula from me. Several of my cow orkers kept raving about it so we hit it for lunch. Boy! What an opposite experience! The food was gummy and cloying; the service -- what there was -- was totally inept. I swore I'd never give them another dime. We visited family a few years later in SAN TX; what a dump! My uncle talked about how "great this "I-talyin" place was... <sigh>

                      I guess I've been spoiled, as other have said, by the smaller, Mom-n-Pop places that offer better quality food at relative prices. The service is often better, too. I'm prejudice in my POV; I would rather support a local business than a borg cube, especially when that local business provides superior quality.

                      1. I hadn't eaten there in about 15-years, but went to OG Saturday at about 2pm. I had to wait for a table! Strangely enough, I didn't really smell anything when I walked in...I was expecting to smell garlic but did not. I ordered a glass of wine and their salad and breadsticks. I thoroughly enjoyed the meal, and my bill was about 11 bucks. Would I eat there on a regular basis? No, because in Baltimore there is a Little Italy neighborhood right downtown...but it was fine for salad, bread and wine!

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: crosby_p

                          I've eaten there a couple of times in the past few years, usually as a meeting place suggested by a friend. While I don't recall the food as being particularly memorable, I don't recall anything horrible either. Seemed like plenty of food for a good price, the restaurant was always clean and always had good service even tho we were there at lunch both times and it was pretty busy. (waiting line busy)

                          1. re: Firegoat

                            That fairly reflects my OG experience, too. And for what it's worth, I was chatting with a local health inspector today and he said all the Darden restaurants he visits are extremely diligent about food safety and cleanliness.

                        2. I find OG entrees to be way too salty most of the time. They do a better job with traditional Italian dishes like lasagna - entrees that I have tried that are more trendy or new have generally been disappointing.

                          As Italian chain restaurants go, I prefer Carrabba's hands down over Olive Garden.

                          1. I think it really depends on your local options. Toronto, where I live, has a large Italian population and there are many little spots where you can get a red sauce that's made from tomatoes and spices, not from an industrial size can. It's like hamburgers; sure, you can always go to McD's or BK, but most cities offer a place where you can get a 6 oz. burger made from fresh ground beef, cooked to order, and served on a decent bun (i.e. one with a texture other than cotton). It's not that OG, BK, or McD's are bad; it's just that there are almost always better options.

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: KevinB

                              I had to go to a function there for my daughter's pre school and the food was okay--edible but not really authentic Italian, but the service was terrible. Even for a pre-ordered banquet type meal with a cash bar.

                              They sure did keep that salad coming, though.

                            2. I was stuck out in chain restaurant, shopping mall hell on Firday night, and was invited to dinner @ Olive Garden. Against my better judgement I decided to be a team player, and just go along with the group. Here is my impressions after a long hiatus(probably 10 years) from stooping to eat @ OG.

                              I stopped at the bar for a beer, and a shot, the beer was cold, and the shot was large, that was the highlight of the visit.

                              The bread sticks, I am not sure why people rave about these, flavorless, and pretty bad, about on par with something out of the freezer section at the supermarket(that seemed to be the theme of the evening in regards to the food).

                              A "cream" of chicken soup with gnocchi, and spinach. Weak broth, the consistancy of skim milk, undercooked, flour tasting gnocchi.

                              "Minestrone" watered down, and one of the worst versions I have ever had, I only ate 2 spoonfulls of the flavorless vegetarian version of this soup. Probably the worst bowl of soup I have ever had.

                              Tour of Italy - OG's marianara(or red sauce) is sickly sweet, and overwhelmes every dish, the chicken actually wasnt dry for the chicken parmesan, however the lasagana was terrible, and the fettucini alfedo was dryed out as well.

                              All items were like I mentioned above about what I woudl expect from a box of stouffers from the freezer. Not a dissapointment, I wasnt going there expecting much more than what I received.

                              At least it is was a cheap tab.

                              1. As Connan O'Brian put it "Olive Garden's slogan should be not bad for the money."

                                I've eaten there, it has been good and all, but no where I'd go for something special. However, in my job I travel around to the backroads of NY State sometimes and OG isn't such a bad place to stop.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: adventuresinbaking

                                  really? For entrees averaging $12-$15, there are tons of places I'd rather eat that are "not bad for the money."

                                  1. re: sadiefox

                                    I agree, everytime I go there I feel I have overpaid for not great food. I always leave feeling ripped off. I'd rather pay a few dollars less and get a good burger somewhere.... or better yet make my own Italian food! It is much better and I can't cook. And why is every dish with a creamy sauce?

                                    DH and I never go on our own, only when we get roped into it by family who love the place. Or I might go for an occasional lunch with good friends who also love the place.

                                2. I've never been a fan of OG. I agree that it can be a completely safe place to eat, but nothing special, outstanding or something to write home about. What gets me the most I believe, is the friends and associates who make it out to be a destination place, especially if visiting from a smaller community/city that doesn't have an OG. "OMG Can you take us to Olive Garden" I've bit my tongue so many times thinking WTF.

                                  1. I'm so sorry but I just cannot agree. For the love of all that is tasty and delicious.. the "Crap" Garden, as I refer to it, is actually the furthest away from safe for me. Okay, perhaps the ones in NYC are just the terrible ones or perhaps it is because my mom, grandmother and 6 great aunts were are amazing italian cooks, but I just find the food so far from decent italian food.
                                    I think the try to season their pastas with cayenne pepper to give it some kind of flavor and I have never even heard of this no garlic issue. I guess I am also a skeptic because my other grandmother NEVER cooked a meal in her life and loves this place. I continue to meet she and my grandfather there because i love them and am not picky, but sweet fancy Moses I AM offended by their food being labeled Italian cuisine.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: jacquelines

                                      This thread made me laugh. When we visited my MIL and SIL, we were always thrilled when they picked OG for dinner or lunch--so much better than the places they normally eat (Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel, etc.) . Food is not wonderful, but also not bad. I have had some reasonable ravioli with a mushroom sauce.

                                    2. Their reputation as serving mediocre, bland and disappointing food is very much deserved. Thing is, you can say the same thing about the food at overrated chains such as Cheesecake Factory (oversalted), Applebee's (drab and cafeteria-style), Chili's (stale, gas-inducing), the list goes on... My question is this: do people who have access to authentic, fresh, delicious cusiine actually eat at these places? I can speak for those of us in an urban section of San Diego with wonderful, local options: no, we don't.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: ginael

                                        Yes, as is evidenced by the numbers these places pull. (ie. 2-hour waits, lines out the door nightly...)

                                        1. re: The Ranger

                                          You're right, they do. Sadly, most folks don't share our passion for fresh ingredients skillfully prepared (even in the mom & pop places). The folks that frequent the chains ginael mentioned want a cheap and familiar-looking food & lots of it served up fast. That's their checklist.

                                          1. re: The Ranger

                                            I can never figure it out, I don't mind waiting for a good place, but for OG?

                                            1. re: libgirl2

                                              "Location, location, location."

                                              Many OGs are along major traffic routes, near large hotels/motels, etc. where choices to quality mom-and-pop places are severely limited. When I worked for a large corporate steak chain, our development department was very good and running numbers (min/max, parking, etc.) and making decisions on where new restaurants would be opened. I would bet OG's parent company has a similar program.

                                              Then you market to the masses. These are sheeple that don't care about things like 2-hr waits, food that isn't authentic, using specific (special) ingredients beyond salt and fats to enhance taste, and think volume equates to quality, which ties into what they think value (bang for the buck) for the experience represents.

                                        2. Cafe Lucci is in suburban Chicago and my favorite Italian place...owned by Italians also. Olive Garden isn't as good as that.

                                          But for the VALUE, the food us USUALLY tasty, served hot and good.

                                          I love unique restaurants.

                                          But it's anti-chain snobbery that has gotten OG this reputation.

                                          8 Replies
                                          1. re: JEDIKNIGHT

                                            Anti-chain snob? I'll claim that title. Truth is I try to avoid chains - I'd just rather give my $$$ to sole proprietors. I guess I'm pro-small business. :-)

                                            1. re: lynnlato

                                              I agree, I proudly wear the "anti-chain snob" label.

                                              The only time I eat @ a chain is when I am outvoted by companions, @ the mall, or @ a highway exit on a trip.

                                              1. re: swsidejim

                                                at the mall? Oh yeah? we'll I'm anti-mall!

                                                (agree 100% with your post)

                                                1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                  I sometimes get dragged to the mallby my wife and daughter, I am totally outvoted in my house. Typically I get to choose the food, but sometimes I have to go with the flow, and eat chain "food" like OG.

                                              2. re: lynnlato

                                                Generally speaking, I also avoid chains. There are times, however, when one is in a strange city in a hotel surrounded only by chains, that one would seem the best choice. One example would be Albuquerque, New Mexico. The hotel where I stay on business trips is next to Pappadeaux, which along with Ruth's Chris, is my favorite chain.
                                                I do think, as we're talking about Olive Garden, Carraba's, another chain, is far above and beyond quality-wise.

                                              3. re: JEDIKNIGHT

                                                People keep talking about how cheap OG is, but last time DH and I went there our check was upwards of $60 for the two of us. Although we think the food is decent, that'll buy a much better meal in any of a number of non-chain restaurants in the Midwest where I live.

                                                1. re: Emm

                                                  I second that, Emm. There are a number of other options in my community that offer better food at a lower price point.

                                                  Besides, every time I ate at OG the salads made me ill.

                                                  1. re: Emm

                                                    $60.? was there alcohol involved? ;) That sounds like a bill for a family of 4 or 5 at the OG.

                                                2. It's my sisters favorite restaurant. When I'm visiting up North I don't mind the inevitable soup, salad, and breadsticks lunch with lemonade. I've only ordered something other than that one time, portobella ravioli. I don't recall exactly, but if it had been terrible I'd remember. I also split a piece of choclate cake with someone once that was good. Not my favorite, but never bad for a quickie cheap lunch.

                                                  1. Good for you Harry! I recently had a similar experience when I was thinking of joining costco. All my real life friends told me it sucked and that everyone they knew said it sucked. Then I did the proper thing and asked my chowhound friends and they said go for it! Guess what? I love Costco! I go to Olive Garden once in awhile. It is inexpensive, has alcohol, the people working there have always been nice, and I like their chicken alfredo. There are so many AWFUL Italian restaurants out there that if people want to go out for Italian I try to steer them to the Garden. That being said, if someone wants to trade a bite of their lasagne for a bite of my alfredo, I give them some alfredo but I pass on the lasagna. My own is just too darned good by comparison.

                                                    5 Replies
                                                    1. re: givemecarbs

                                                      Wait, you try to steer people TO Olive Garden? Really?!

                                                      It may be fairly inexpensive, but it's a terrible value. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is freshly made or has much flavor. It's not the literal worst food you can eat, but it'll be hard for me to validate the other posts of someone on a board (dedicated to enjoying high quality food!!!) who praises OG.

                                                      I'm curious about all these "AWFUL" Italian places in Pennsylvania. Are you talking about the other garbage "Italian" chains, a la Maggiano's?

                                                      I always laugh when people refer to Olive Garden as Italian. Nothing could be further from the truth.

                                                      1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                        I'm really glad -someone- brought this up. I've heard a rumor that the Olive Garden pre-makes the entrees at a outside facility, then ships them frozen to each resturaunt. I've also heard that Applebee's does this, as well. Can anyone confirm this rumor?

                                                        Personally, I really find the OG boring, overly-salty and WAYYY too noisy with screaming kids for my enjoyment. My MIL -loves- them, tho. She likes simple and salty (I tease her about this, as well) and the OG fits into her idea of good Italian food. She also comes from NYC and should know better. *LOL*

                                                        1. re: invinotheresverde

                                                          I find OG to be absolutely repulsive. For anyone to classify it as authentic Italian is ludicrous, akin to describing Tio Leo's in So CA or Taco Bell to authentic Mexican.

                                                          If this chain is the best option for Italian in your neighborhood, surely you are better off boiling pasta and topping it off with canned red sauce.

                                                          1. re: woodandfine

                                                            The noted Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, in one of his stories called Taco Bell "the abomination of abominations."

                                                        2. I think I don't get the appeal of OG because I am SIcilian and make my own Italian food "the right way" ;o)

                                                          People love the value (the lunch soup and salad is a good deal) and the abundance of food for the price.

                                                          I've had to eat there twice in the last month or so for group and work outtings and both times my body was not liking the food (this was at two different locations, too). After the first time (I had salad and the pizza) I just had soup and bread and I was still sick. I never have a problem eating out, I eat out several times a week. But for some reason, my body is not liking this restaurant.

                                                          I will have to steer them elsewhere for outtings going forward.

                                                          1. I grew up in a very small town and it was one of those towns where there were very, very few "mom and pop" places to eat that had even serviceable food, let alone good food, and none of them Italian. When I got to be a teenager, we heard that an OG had opened up in the "big city" about 1.5 hours away and we used to drive there every year for my birthday, I thought it was great. It truly was the best Italian food I'd had.

                                                            Once I left town and went to college and then on to other cities, obviously I learned to know better, but there are a lot of people who, for them, OG *is* the best Italian around.

                                                            Mom and Pop does not automatically equal good. And in very small, very poor towns like my own, it often means very cheap ingredients, lazy and/or rude service and awful food.

                                                            1. Garlic, yuck. I was going to go to Oive Garden for lunch, but not now. I would have to bring a toothbrush with me. Garlic is nasty.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: dm44

                                                                Nah, garlic isn't nasty. The mouth/teeth/gums (that trap the garlic) is nasty. As is that toothbrush...

                                                              2. My experience has been that it's pretty location specific. I.e., some locations serve very good food, others very bland. The nearest location to my house is consistently bland but I've been to others where I've had a great meal.

                                                                19 Replies
                                                                1. re: heckonwheels

                                                                  I wonder why that is? Don't they all open the same plastic bags containing the same pre-packaged stuff?

                                                                  1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                    I spoke with someone who worked there ... and they were not lying to me. The only pre-frozen things are some meats, everything else was prepared fresh. The prep cooks are there for hours before opening preparing the sauces and soups etc... I am sure there have been a few better ex employees who try to destroy the good name of the OG. My hubby who manages a private popular restaurant where we live has had experience with crazy jaded employees who have been sent home for things like smoking weed and those people always go on the war path, but from what I understand the OG does make things fresh. Now I am not saying it is all a culinary perfection, but for someone on a budget that wants to experience eating in an Italian restaurant and can not afford the best, I am sure they will not be disappointed.

                                                                    1. re: DishDelish

                                                                      Here's 'the 64-dollar question:

                                                                      About that person you spoke with who worked there: WHEN did they work at OG? Was it last year, or 15 years ago?

                                                                      A common theory being thrown around is that when OG was a much smaller chain, they did as you said, made most everything on location. But then when they got to be a bigger chain, striving for consistency between locations (and let's face it, profits), they centralized their prep facilities and pre-made almost everything.

                                                                      1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                        People bring up this pre-made thing all the time with no real knowledge. I don't see why it has to be pre-made to be consistently mediocre. It's a chain restaurant, they have a formula, they stick to it.

                                                                        1. re: CrazyOne

                                                                          Sure it does. Consistently mediocre in the same way. If everything were made "fresh", their sauce might have 10x more salt in it than necessary in one location, but only 6x more salt than necessary in another location on the other side of the state. But if it were pre-made at a central location, it would have same familiar 8x-more-salt-than-necessary at all locations! Plus a hint of plastic bag essence.

                                                                          Does it really matter in the long run? No--people are convinced that the place is decent so they'll continue to go to OG and I will continue to stay away. I'm only asking because I'm a bit fascinated by all aspects of the restaurant business; chain or not.

                                                                          1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                            All menu items come with very detailed recipe cards that tell the cooks how to prep and prepare that item. You must follow that card at all times. This is a very easy one. Example of OG marinara.... 6oz. olive oil , #2 diced onion , 6 cans marinara base , 1 bag marinara spice . Saute onion in oil till translucent , add spice bag , add marinara base and simmer 30 min. Bag and chill.

                                                                            1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                              No, it doesn't matter, but you're just dying for the central location thing to be correct. ;-) But in fact there really isn't anything that points to it being more likely than sticking to the formula. There would be problems either way, just different problems. The precise instruction thing is more likely. Which doesn't mean it makes OG any better, granted.

                                                                              1. re: CrazyOne

                                                                                haha....not dying for it to be correct but it really would make the most sense. Although if I could prove it's not correct it'd make an acquaintance of mine who claims to know a lot about the industry a DAMN LIAR heh heh.

                                                                                So either way I'll be fine but as one of the bad guys said to Clint Eastwood..."I gots to know"

                                                                                1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                                  "...their sauce might have 10x more salt in it than necessary in one location, but only 6x more salt than necessary in another location on the other side of the state. But if it were pre-made at a central location, it would have same familiar 8x-more-salt-than-necessary at all locations!"

                                                                                  For my money salt sensitivity is so variable from person to person (and even from day to day for many) that I don't think this example would prove much either way in figuring out whether or not the food at OG is done in a central location and distributed to the individual restaurants, or produced locally at each one...

                                                                                  1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                                    Once again, Ask a specific question and i will answer to the best of my knowledge. Ralphie, i am talking to you buddy !

                                                                                    1. re: cameronaus

                                                                                      Once again, the question is: Does Olive Garden do as most corporate chain restaurants and prepare their food ahead of time in a centralized prep facility?

                                                                                      It's a simple question, along the subject of consistency in product. Funny thing is, the answers I"m seeing are far from consistent.

                                                                                      I've browsed many sites about this subject and see many posts from people who worked/used to work/have friends that work/have friends that used to work at OG and are adamant that everything is fresh as a daisy there.

                                                                                      I've also seen many posts from people who worked/used to work/have friends that work/have friends that used to work at OG who are adamant that everything is from the Stone Age: pre-made, pre-portioned, pre-frozen, re-heated, etc.

                                                                                      It's quite entertaining that both sides cite first- or second-hand knowledge of how OG works and both sides are very passionate about their stance.

                                                                                      I will add that I view CH as a much more credible site in general than any other website out there about restaurants, cooking, etc. So the fact that I see more "OG is fresh" testimonials here does carry some weight in my book.

                                                                                      Please keep the posts coming everyone, I am enjoying this.

                                                                                      1. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                                        I guess the answer is yes and no. I would say about 60% of the items come pre-made, the other 40% is fresh or made in-house. I will say when i started working at the OG in the mid 90's the it took less than an hour to unload the delivery truck and now days it takes about two hours. Every year more and more items are pre-made.

                                                                                        1. re: cameronaus

                                                                                          Thanks Cam. You seem like an ex employee who doesn't have an ax to grind.

                                                                          2. re: DishDelish

                                                                            A few years ago ... and I do have to say ... the best meal I ever ate at Olive Garden was in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and if I recall correctly Seattle also did pretty well but that was 16 years ago. My least fave. was in Anaheim, CA. My main dish was OK, but the salad awful ... and I have always thought they did a pretty good job on the salad in the other locations ... including when I ate there in Minneapolis, MN.

                                                                          3. re: Ralphie_in_Boston

                                                                            That's what I was going to say. The whole point of a corporate chain is that you can go to any one of their 1,000+ locations and get the same meal, regardless of what city/state/country it is located in.

                                                                            Many moons ago I worked at a Bob's Big Boy and every week the Big Boy truck would roll into the lot and unload the slim jim bread, cans of specials sauces, etc.

                                                                            But really, arguing whether the sauce comes in a frozen bag or is "made" by opening a can and adding some onion and seasoning packet is semantics. They are the same mediocre beast.

                                                                            1. re: lynnlato

                                                                              No arguing on my end . I dont even work there anymore. I never really like eating at work unless it was something i made myself .I am just trying to answer everyones questions.

                                                                              1. re: lynnlato

                                                                                "But really, arguing whether the sauce comes in a frozen bag or is 'made' by opening a can and adding some onion and seasoning packet is semantics."

                                                                                True enough! That probably about covers it for every bad to mediocre chain.

                                                                                Also (general reply now, not specific to above post) we may have some variance in how we see "pre-made", it occurs to me. For example, sauce being pre-made at OG, that is hardly surprising. Or soup. Or even lasagna, really. But I want to think at most places it stops short of every plate being a frozen dinner in a pouch. I mean, you going to tell me they pre-grill the fish at Red Lobster or steaks at Outback? :-)

                                                                                So given that, how far do we allow something to go before it is considered pre-made?

                                                                                An interesting thought that comes to mind: some indie restaurant where they serve pasta and make the sauce in house, you think they make marinara or whatever every day? If it was made yesterday, does that become pre-made, or does it have to be last week to be pre-made?

                                                                                Just more random thoughts on that....

                                                                                1. re: CrazyOne

                                                                                  I'm pretty sure they pre-cook chicken at the Macaroni Grill.

                                                                            2. re: heckonwheels

                                                                              This has been my experience also. Okay, maybe not "very good food" but decent. When I lived in smallish cities in mid-Michigan, Olive Gardens were consistently decent. Everything tasted good in that lab-tested kind of way. And I do like the salad. But then I went to an OG in Houston, and it was terrible. It was the same food, sure, just the bread sticks were stale, the salad was wilting, everything tasted kind of old, etc. It's just like a fast food place - some are particularly bad because they're run poorly.

                                                                              Anyway, the idea that some people think that OG gets nothing but shipments of fresh vegetables, meats, fish, and dairy and maybe some canned tomatoes is hilarious. Come on, what do they think are? Some amateur operation? I'm sure many sauces come frozen, like soups do at cafes, and you just add liquids or dairy and heat them up in soup pots or something like that. I'm sure the chicken comes pounded out into paillards; maybe it's even marinating in plastic bags when it arrives. When the chicken there is good, it definitely does taste brined and/or marinated.

                                                                              The people who determine these things are not chefs - they food scientists. And so they are concerned with getting the best tasting product to every location in the country and hitting a uniform and acceptable level of quality for a decent price. Pre-prepping a lot of things is how you do that.

                                                                              And so, in comparing it to your mom and pop place at a similar price point - it's going to be better and worse. OG should always be reliably about the same. You're never going to get a rubbery piece of undercooked chicken. But you're eating foods loaded with preservatives, chemicals, etc. OTOH, that mom and pop place is most likely getting GFS shipments for all their produce also, so it's not like you're eating organic elsewhere. But it's probably been doctored with less than OG's.

                                                                            3. To add to the "is it fresh or trucked in/industrial Sysco-food" debate, I have been to the company who makes lasagna for the Olive Garden. Unless my client was lying to me, it is certainly not made by OG "chefs." The company is located in Meriden, CT. The same company makes frozen lasagna for Target's "Archer Farms" brand, as well as bagged tomato sauce for a plethora of chain restaurants.

                                                                              1 Reply
                                                                              1. re: mels

                                                                                Thanks mels. Dish Delish's post above basically states the opposite, though LOL

                                                                                The detail in your post is compelling and makes sense from a business/chain standpoint.

                                                                              2. Neighbor gave us a gift card to OG for taking care of their dog last weekend. Today, after gardening all day neither of us felt like cooking. So we used the gift card for takeout.

                                                                                Reputation deserved. I'll give them that the braised beef that came with the tortelloni was pretty good. Tender and sauced well. But the pasta was like overcooked pierogi, the stuffing tasteless and paste-like.

                                                                                2 Replies
                                                                                1. re: Panini Guy

                                                                                  The Braised Beef Tortellini you had was all pre-made and frozen. The only part of the dish that was made in the restaurant was the sauce. That being said the beef is decent for pre-made.

                                                                                  1. re: Panini Guy

                                                                                    I posted a review of my first meal at Olive Garden recently on this forum, so I won't recap the whole meal. The bottom line is this restaurant chain does not hold up to any of my standards, chain or not. A free-standing restaurant serving this same exact food would be rightly chastised for serving poor sauces, bad pasta and low end ingredients in general. My meal at Olive Garden confirmed the mediocre quality of almost everything they served. Not an awful meal, but not good at all. Find places that serve food with decent ingredients cooked with some soul.

                                                                                  2. We live in a city with lots of good family-owned Italian restaurants, and the only reason I think OG is so popular is that they always have lots of parking! God forbid folks should have to walk three-quarters of a block to get to the restaurant.

                                                                                    1 Reply
                                                                                    1. re: lemons

                                                                                      Plus OG has reserved multiple spaces reserved for to-go pick-up.

                                                                                    2. Olive Garden was not the best meal I've ever eaten anywhere, but I enjoyed what I ate there the one time I did. The flipside to that is that I've had a couple of horrible meals in "authentic" Italian places, in addition to some very fine ones. The independent isn't always better is all I'm saying.

                                                                                      But I will say that while it is not the ultimate experience, it doesn't necessarily deserve the over the top reaction I see from some on here. Then again, I don't break out a case of the vapors when someone opens a bottle of ranch dressing within a 30 mile radius either.

                                                                                      1 Reply
                                                                                      1. re: im_nomad

                                                                                        Well said im_nomad. There is a time and place for everything. If you can't have a twinkie with your grandchild because it would be "less chowish" of you -it's time for a priority check.

                                                                                        OG serves a purpose at times. It is not the place to go for the best meal of the year or for superb Italian food. It is has always been a "go to" place for me a few times per year, when my grown kids are in town and there are 8 or 9 of us with various tastes, various ages and the need to talk loud, laugh and catch up- without worrying that we are disturbing others. It's great! My 20 something kids really like the food (their boyfriends with "hollow legs" actually get full), the ones over 21- love the mixed drinks, I get a decent glass of wine and everyone is happy.

                                                                                        It doesn't make one less of a foodie to appreciate it for what it is.

                                                                                      2. I've lived in fear of having to go to business luncheons at the OG just across the street. Here's one simple test, try the white sauce, then try the white sauce at a real Italian restaurant. Notice the filler, I mean, flower, corn starch or something? It's just not something I want to eat, bland and gummy vice something that might be more butter and cream. OG is like eating that glue paste in kindergarten.