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Why is the Olive Garden so reviled?

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I'm asking this question out of honest curiosity, because I've noticed here and in other places, and during conversations with people who are into food, that it seems like the Olive Garden is universally hated. In a way that other chain restaurants don't seem to be. And I really don't understand why.

If anything, I think I'm a bit of a food snob, and certainly the food there isn't out-of-this-world, but I'd way rather at the Olive Garden than at, say, Chili's, or T.G.I. Friday's, or really any other cheapish casual dining chain I can think of. The food won't be spectacular, but I've never gotten anything really bad there either. I'm sure a lot of my food came in frozen, but it's not like it's awful. And I actively like their salad.

I can't even really chalk this up to food snobbery either, because it's not only people who are cooking their way through the French Laundry Cookbook in between meals at Alinea. It's often people who are willing to confess a liking for certain fast food items. And it's particularly the Olive Garden, not any other ubiquitous casual chain.

I honestly don't get it. And every time I've gone there, there's been a long wait for a table, which suggests a lot of people like it. Is there an "Olive Garden smell" like the Subway smell, which some people can't seem to detect?

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  1. I think that it may be reviled by some folks because the food is pretty bad. And it's not a particularly good value, either.
    If an Italian themed restaurant can screw up simple pasta as the OG is prone to do (like way, way overcooking it), I'd qualify it as pretty bad. I've been dragged there a few times and have had tastes of a number of their entrees. I like big flavors, but appreciate subtlety just as much (if not moreso) but the stuff I've tasted at OG has just been bland.
    It look at Olive Garden as" the white bread of Italian food". I guess some people just like it.

    I agree with you about one thing...I can always enjoy their salad.
    Most of their other offerings though, if not awful, are just on the cusp and basically aren't worth the money or the calories.

    Just my opinion...others' mileage may vary.

    13 Replies
    1. re: The Professor

      Honestly, they seem to advertise quantity, not quality. I find the appearance of the food on their TV commercials literally nauseating, gloppy piles of goo.

      1. re: mcf

        My son and I joke that their creations are "pasta stuffed with cheese, with chicken covered by alfredo sauce topped with grated cheese. " we make it a game who can come up with the cheesiest alfredoist dish ever.

          1. re: mcf

            So funny, because I always think "how does showing this awful looking stuff drive people to the restaurant?" Like when Denny's shows pictures of it's Grand Slam and everything looks so antiseptic - no hint of browning on the eggs, sausage, etc.... Or Arby's showing off a roast beef sandwich where you can see square blocks of "meat" in the slices.

            1. re: sbp

              My favourite are the picks of chicken breast (in a sandwich, salad or whatever) that show stringy meat... the way chicken breast can only look when it is *very* overcooked. And these are the pics they choose for the menu board...

          2. re: The Professor

            I like Mom and Pop places better than the chains but sometimes the convienience and atmosphere of an Olive Garden win out.

              1. re: LeHiFoodie

                With typical wait times of two hours, the convenience and atmosphere are never a draw.

                1. re: melpy

                  Very true.... then after all that, you get the food :(

                  1. re: libgirl2

                    This is our usual reaction.
                    If I am going to a chain for Italian food. I prefer Carraba's and Macaroni grill.

                    1. re: melpy

                      Yes. Carraba's, even with the massive variation among locations, and Macaroni Grill, even with the mountains of salt in every dish, are far superior to OG.

                      1. re: Bob W

                        Who remembers when Macaroni Grill first entered the market, say 15+- years ago? They use to come to the table with a bottle of their house labeled wine, place it on the table and tell you it was the "honor system". They left the bottle and left you with a crayon and every time you poured a glass of wine you were suppose to place a line on the paper table cloth.

                        I would finish the bottle, and only have 1 line in front of me every time. They stopped that practice after their first year or so in business, I don't think I've been back since. lol

            1. with the exception of the soup and salad, I have yet to have a meal there that was anything beyond meh, and usually closer to ugh.

              Even the soup and salad ranks only as a hmmm -- there are plenty of places to get a better salad for the same price.

              (but when you're in a group and get outvoted, you make the best of it.)

              1 Reply
              1. re: sunshine842

                This is my stance. I'll eat the salad or soup but when I have gotten an entree it is terrible and a disappointment. If I have to have chain Italian I prefer Carrabas and Macaroni Grille for a few dollars more.

              2. If it wasn't for the Olive Garden there would only be The Cheesecake Factory to complain about.

                13 Replies
                1. re: Samalicious

                  Nah, there's also Red Lobster, for one.

                  1. re: mcf

                    Or Ruby Tuesday, Red Robin, Cheeseburger in Paradise, Chili's etc.

                    1. re: Sydneyeats

                      Every year or so, I think "Red Robin. They make tasty burgers."

                      I go. And have the worst burger I will eat that year.

                      1. re: Sydneyeats

                        I've had good food at Ruby Tuesdays. Often I've had good service too. I prefer Ruby Tuesday when traveling over almost any other chain.

                        1. re: sueatmo

                          This is such eye of the beholder stuff. I've come around on Red Robin, whereas I think Ruby Tuesday has fallen way, way off. Chili's has great food photographers, but the actual food is great only if you like salt and fat.

                          1. re: Bob W

                            I don't eat often enough at these places to really have strong opinions. But in our travels we eat at Ruby Tuesdays with confidence. I will eat the chili at Chili's which I find pretty good, but the rest of the menu is too heavy with, as you said, salt and fat. In future I will be keeping an eagle eye out for Chipotle, which I have come round to. I'm not a big fan of Olive Garden. As someone else posted, I've have never had a really good meal there.

                              1. re: Bob W

                                I agree with Bob about the eye of the beholder, but personally I dislike Olive Garden (and Red Lobster) more than Chili's, Red Robin, Ruby Tuesday, etc. because I have never had a competently cooked bowl of pasta there, ever. Same goes with Red Lobster - EVERY piece of seafood I've ever had there has been overcooked and rubbery (although their biscuits are like crack). You would think that since pasta/fish are their respective specialties, they might be able to get those right, even if the rest of their menu is frozen or from a plastic bag.

                                At least when I order a burger med-rare at Chili's or Red Robin, I'm pretty much assured of a mid-rare burger. And when I go to those places, I'm usually LOOKING for salt and fat, so that part of the equation doesn't bother me. I haven't been to Ruby Tuesday in years but I remember they used to have an excellent salad bar and their entrees were generally inoffensive. All of that said, though - chains are usually our last resort when we're choosing to eat out.

                                1. re: Bob W

                                  It also changes by region. Red Lobster in a landlocked state is significantly better than a coastal one. I'm sure this is true for other chains.

                                2. re: sueatmo

                                  I have too, but in the distant past, so can't comment on current quality. Oh, another disgusting one is Applebees, from the broken down booths to the greasy grime on everything, then the junky food.

                                  1. re: mcf

                                    I think that one swings by location, too -- the last one I ate at (in FL) was clean, well-maintained, and had some at least halfway respectable choices on the menu.

                                    You wouldn't want to eat there every day (my steak was tender, cooked correctly, and tasty, despite being savagely oversalted -- and the salad was extremely fresh and was mostly actual mesclun, rather than browned iceberg with a few purple leaves on it)

                                3. re: Sydneyeats

                                  Of those the only one I've ever been to, years ago, was Ruby Tuesday's and it wasn't bad, and wasn't dirty and the food wasn't gross, unlike Red Lobster. I took a look and a sniff and walked out. Haven't been to any of them for years, though.

                              2. re: Samalicious

                                "If it wasn't for the Olive Garden there would only be The Cheesecake Factory to complain about."

                                BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

                              3. Most likely for many of the reasons Wal-Mart is reviled by some people.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Fowler

                                  I think this is closest to the truth - they are sort of the Wal-Mart of chain restaurants. Perhaps they are more ubiquitous. Not everyone has a Friday's or Ruby Tuesdays, but it seems there is an OG everywhere. They are like the flagship of bad, chain restaurants.

                                2. Obscenely sized portions, gloppy sauces on everything, I don't even like the doughy "bread sticks" or overly acidic salad. In no way does this resemble the food of Italy, or even decent Mom and Pop American/Italian food.

                                  6 Replies
                                  1. re: pikawicca

                                    Agreed about the bread sticks. I've never understood what so many people love about them (the fandom seems on similar levels to Red Lobster's biscuits sometimes). I don't even mind going to Olive Garden once in a blue moon even though I would never pick it, but the breadsticks aren't even worth eating imo.

                                    1. re: Fromageball

                                      Third this. I like those Red Lobster biscuits on occasion, but the OL sticks -- at least, the ones they had years ago -- are tasteless and have a weird texture.

                                      1. re: Rilke

                                        People love the al you can eat salad and breadsticks, but they're just not good. The last time I went to one I was on a business trip and was outvoted by others, despite my warnings. Everyone agreed it was terrible. Then a new one opened near our business, and they brought a bunch of salad and breadsticks, again terrible. The thing is, pretty much any restaurant will give you all the bread you want, good bread too. Where I live the original Carrabba's is still owned by Johnny Carrabba, all the bread you want, plus a salad for 8 bucks that is so large it feeds two, plus leftovers for two. The entrees are two or three dollars higher, but are fresh and prepared before your eyes.

                                    2. re: pikawicca

                                      My brother and his wife were stationed in Italy for three years back in the '80s. (This was during a time we weren't really communicating a lot so I didn't get to visit. Rats.) A few years after they returned to the US, they were in town and wanted to go to dinner with the extended family. She insisted on Olive Garden. My brother -- who is not precisely Chowhoundish -- muttered to me apologetically as we were entering, "Only she could live in Italy for three years and think Olive Garden is an Italian restaurant."