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Everything is relative. Olive Garden can be the best you've got. Does it matter?

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I just came across this piece on an 85 year-old woman who wrote a glowing review of the new Olive Garden that opened in Grand Forks, North Dakota. She kindof went viral and got bashed for liking it, then defended by lots of people as well.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddri...

I am very tolerant of other people's tastes. It doesn't matter to me at all unless I'm dragged into a place I really don't like or somehow made to drink a glass of wine I know I don't like. Are reviewers different? Is there some expectation that a reviewer offers opinions based on some higher level of expectation?

I really believe that all reviewers, no matter what their subject, need to be looked at relative to the reader's experience. As with wine critics, I always try to calibrate the reviewer to my own opinions before I decide whether or not to accept their reviews.

I know that my 93 year-old Aunt thinks Olive Garden is terrific too. Gotta love it!

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  1. There's a topic on this on the Food Media board.

    http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/837787

    and a CHOW story

    http://www.chow.com/food-news/107977/...

    I think the author knows her audience and writes accordingly. If you read the original review it's not really glowing.

    1 Reply
    1. re: pamf

      Actually, after reading the review itself, I'd say it's not really a review, let alone glowing.

    2. Everything is totally relative to your expectations, tastes and experiences. I have been to Italy on two professional chef tours and I did my apprenticeship in Nice near the Italian border so I find Olive Garden to be a bastardization of the food I know from Italy. However to people who think Lipton Alfredo noodles and Ravioli's are good then the olive Garden is the Pièce de résistance.

      This point was hammered home when I retired and moved from Los Angeles to a much smaller city in the pacific northwest. You would have never caught me in a PF Changs (which resembles goopy, greasy mall food) when I lived in LA but up here it is probably the second best oriental style restaurant in the whole city, the third is panda express. So I can totally relate to a person who grew up in Grand Forks thinking that the olive garden (which is probably the #3 Italian restaurant where I live) is a really good place to eat.

      7 Replies
      1. re: RetiredChef

        Chef.. wouldnt the impulse be to cook at home then? Go out for something that is good in pacific northwest like salmon.. and either cook ethnic food yourself, or do without?

        1. re: cwdonald

          My situation is similar to Chef's; moved from a large urban area to a relatively rural area. Our dining choices are pretty much chain restaurants or local buffets (quantity wins out over quality down here). There are a couple decent restaurants but nothing stimulating.

          Cooking your own meals is certainly an option but being fairly remote makes quality ingredients a challenge. While I'm not a chef or trained in any way, I am proficient in the kitchen and make many different types of ethnic food. I will drive two hours to find some ingredients but obviously can't do that every week.

          Like everyone else, sometimes you just want to go somewhere and eat without dealing with prep/cooking/cleaning up. Maybe to try a different type of wine or eat something you wouldn't normally cook at home. There is something to be said about a relaxing meal out, regardless of the type of restaurant (chain versus high end).

          We have a couple local Italian restaurants as well as an Olive Garden. OG wins hands down. It's pretty sad.....we simply don't go out for Italian. I'm fortunate to have Marcella Hazan's cookbooks so I totally make better than what we can get out.

          YMMV.

          1. re: cwdonald

            Cooking at home is an option for those who inclined to do so, however the majority of Americans (not CH's) do not. Also as Dee pointed out getting ingredients can be problematic.

            My post was really meant to convey that the average non-cooking American who is presented with Olive Garden food will probably like it, place that person in a smaller community with few if any decent Italian places and Olive Garden will seem like a higher end and very authentic Italian dining experience.

            1. re: RetiredChef

              You are very correct chef. Its all relative. I remember being in Moscow in the early 1990s and the best pizza in town was pizza hut. And even around here in the suburbs of Philadelphia which has great Italian restaurants as well as places to buy ingredients, Olive Gardens thrive. Part of it may be price, part of it may be convenience, and part of it may be ignorance on the part of the consumer, ie they don't know what they are really missing.

              1. re: cwdonald

                Faced with Pizza Hut , Olive Garden or Red Lobster for that matter, I'd gladly go without. Much rather try an unknown or open a can of something at home as a last resort.

                Heck, I might even stop at a Cracker Barrel if those were my only choices.

                1. re: Clams047

                  But your choice is based upon experience of other foods as well as the chains you mentioned. You've tried them, didn't like them in comparison to what you've had elsewhere, and won't go back. So, relatively speaking, you know it's not worth your time.

                  I will say this, after years of stubbornly refusing to acknowledge Olive Garden's existence, I recently went with a large group and found their alfredo to be a surprise - not the thick creamy stuff I'd have expected, but a sharp, distinct fresh parm taste with a bit of butter to round it out,and fresh cracked black pepper. If there was cream, it was minimal. Honestly, if I'd never had "real" alfredo, I might not have liked it.

                  As to Cracker Barrel - there's my "I'd go hungry" point. Not no but helllll no. Also based on experience.

              2. re: RetiredChef

                Not necessarily- in fact I'm sure that many Americans would resent these posts for insinuating that all midwesterners are ignorant of "good" ethnic food. Is it harder to find "authentic" Italian in Kentucky than in NYC? Of course- but I'm not going to assume that the majority of people in Kentucky are so ignorant that they do not realize OG is not authentic Italian.

          2. Before anyone passes serious judgement on the woman who reviewed Olive Garden, I would suggest that they first spend six months living in Grand Rapids to recalibrate their expectations.

            6 Replies
            1. re: Tripeler

              Grand Rapids' (Michigan) food scene has seriously improved over the past 10-15 years. There's a cool little Haitian place over in Eastown/East Hills, some nice bakery options, the longstanding Fulton Farmer's Market, assorted local & seasonal options... The only time my parents eat at a national chain when they're in town there anymore is for the occasional Dairy Queen soft serve craving.

              1. re: Tripeler

                Hey.............. I'm someone who spent time in a town where one of the best spots featured Prime Rib and Chow Mein on their menu. ;o]]]

                1. re: Tripeler

                  The woman who reviewed Olive Garden, Marilyn Hagerty, writes about restaurants in Grand Forks, not Grand Rapids. So many Grands!

                  1. re: small h

                    minnesota, michigan... it's only 1000 miles from one to the other.

                    1. re: KaimukiMan

                      Unless you are talking about Grand rapids, MN. You know, Judy garland and all... had some great wild rice chicken soup there once.

                  2. re: Tripeler

                    I meant Grand Forks, not Grand Rapids. Sorry!

                  3. I grew up in the heart of the midwest. Decent Italian food was rare and largely unknown; to me, an Italian dinner was over-boiled spaghetti with Ragu meat sauce, maybe some meatballs and, on rare occasions, garlic bread. So the first time I went to Olive Garden as a teen, it was a revelation: this was Italian food! Such delicious sauces! The garlic! This is fancy Italian food, and I like it!

                    I've had such better Italian since then, and now I've got access to Boston's North End. I haven't been to an Olive Garden in many a year. But I don't look down on it. If your experience with Italian food was like mine -- and for most Midwesterners, it probably was -- Olive Garden is a big step up in the right direction.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: Boston_Otter

                      Good Italian food in many Midwest cities is still pretty rare. In addition, when I've eaten at Olive Garden I've had this reaction: it's a well-run chain. Everything seems to be a well-oiled machine, the staff is unfailingly friendly and efficient, and the aesthetics, as chains go, are really not bad. I've actually been primed to like the food, which has disappointed me every time. But if you experience all these things, without benefit of having had the real food, you're going to come out of there having had a positive experience.

                      1. re: Jim M

                        How do you know that these people have not had the "real food"?

                        1. re: NicoleFriedman

                          I know how many people I know in Honolulu who wish we had an olive garden here so they could try that 'real italian food', after all they have seen the commercials of olive garden sending their chefs to school in Italy. I agree that not everyone from the boonies would believe and have no real basis for comparison, but a higher percentage will. We have a couple of quite decent Italian restaurants here in Honolulu, but one of the most popular was liked because you could get different kinds of pasta with any of three kinds of sauce. The red sauce, the white sauce, and the pink sauce... and yes they got the pink sauce by mixing the other two. Now I admit, over the years it has improved, but its still pretty horrible. But people think it is real Italian.

                          1. re: NicoleFriedman

                            That's easy - Because they return to an OG.

                            1. re: Clams047

                              What Clams said. As someone pointed out above, where good Italian food is plentiful, OG does not thrive. I've lived in the Midwest for most of my life. There are exceptions, but a run-of-the-mill Italian place in the Northeast (or Olive Garden) would generally be the top Italian place in a medium-sized Midwestern city, at least until recently.

                      2. Having checked this out a week ago, her review was not positively gushing. In fact quite bland. But she was on a local perspective, not national. She is providing a service for her readership. When you have the best of anything in the area, that is the best. And folks throughout North America have traveled much more than the coasties give them credit for.

                        I chortle at the posts that consider the height of culinary expression is in NYC, LAX, or San Fran, with a passing nod to Chicago and New Orleans. I enjoy perusing posts from areas I will likely not visit, simply because the reviews are so erudite, with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, unlike my self. They have shown to be quite as passionate in their likes and dislikes as any one who thinks the culinary scene ends on the shore of New Jersey.

                        So when people are in town and ask my recommendations for Italian food, I will recommend the high end fusion Italian, my Sicilian and my Adriatic mid levels, and Olive Garden as a fall back. Because some people just like to be comfortable.

                        1. There are "good" alternatives where ever you find yourself. I lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin for a bit and learned to appreciate their local smoked fish, elk burgers, cheeses, beer, pho, and my standby which were a couple small sushi bars. And from my foodie chow perspective I ate well while there. Of course I ran into chains some nights which were adequate but they didn't compare to the couple of local gems that I ran acrossed. Chows find the best chow anywhere.

                          1. It occurs to me that the best option, wherever you find yourself, is to locate local cuisine at its best. Is it a hamburger? Great. Is it a wonderful paella? Great, too. The worst thing you can do is expect to find great examples of a particular culinary tradition in a place that is nowhere near where it originated.

                            The Olive Garden is not great. Is it horrible? No. I remember that when it was first instituted as a chain the Disney company, as I recall, ran taste tests in different areas of the U.S. and installed different menus based on regional preference. It's specifically calibrated to serve the taste buds of the people who walk through its doors - and this is a very American, and in some ways very appropriate, idea.

                            I don't go there. I've been once, maybe fifteen years ago. If I want good Italian food in the United States, I wait until I'm in New York City or maybe in North Beach. But I don't blame people for doing so. It has some decent dishes on the menu. I see a bigger issue here: the expansion of chains. At one time, you had a great little diner in every town. Now, you have Denny's and, yes, the Olive Garden. Towns are losing their individuality.

                            Again, that doesn't take away from the Olive Garden's basic one- to two-star quality. It's fine for what it is - not really bad at all. But we've lost a lot of great little mom-and-pop restaurants in the move to chain ubiquity.

                            2 Replies
                            1. re: caravan70

                              "If I want good Italian food in the United States, I wait until I'm in New York City or maybe in North Beach."

                              There are NUMEROUS "Little Italys" across the United States serving well made traditional (and non-traditional) Italian-American and Italian food. Cleveland, OH, Providence, RI, Philadelphia, PA, Boston's North End (duh), Baltimore, MD, and the list goes on.
                              So yes I agree with you "locate local cuisine at its best".

                              1. re: Chinon00

                                Chinon00, I agree with you whole-heartedly. I'm fairly familiar with the North End (Regina's has some of the best pizza in the U.S., I think, for example), and with Providence. But there are many regions I simply don't travel to enough to be aware of their local specialties. I try to do a little Internet or book research before I go, but it's always a matter of asking the locals where they would go if they had a few dollars in their pocket and were hungry.

                                I think you're essentially echoing my point. You don't need to go to Olive Garden to get Italian food if you're in a reasonably sized American city. I don't have any brief against Olive Garden - if you're in Bismarck, that may well be your best option. But in most American cities, there are decent interpretations of (mostly southern) Italian food. You have to know where to go. And, thankfully, a site like this one can direct you to the best places in any city to which you might be heading.

                                And if you don't like those, you can always try Alitalia. ;)

                            2. This exactly reason why I can never leave NYC and stop traveling to other parts of the world.
                              I once walked into a random restaurant in middle of nowhere in Pennylvania..all the tables were full so I felt like i was in the right place until i ordered something called lemon chicken. It was basically boiled chicken breast with lemon flavored powder sprinkled on it...i could see the grain of that fake lemon powder right in the middle of chicken breast. I was really hungry but couldn't eat more than a few bites.

                              1. Growing up in a more rural area it was a HUGE deal when we got an Olive Garden. I was very grateful for it's existence, as sometimes you must eat in a resto (too large of a group/too far from home to come back for lunch) and even if it isn't great, it's a change of pace from the other 4 restos we were already sick of.